Starting in the 1860s, the German-Jewish painter Moritz Oppenheim began producing a set of 20 “pictures of traditional Jewish family life” that brought him considerable fame in his lifetime. The book version of the series may have been the most popular Jewish book ever published in Germany. One of the scenes features a sukkah.

A well-to-do Jewish family is seated at the holiday table in the sukkah, erected in the leaf-strewn yard. We peer in through the curtained doors to see the family patriarch making the traditional holiday blessing over what is probably homemade raisin wine, while the challah is covered with delicate linen damask. His wife, holding the baby, sits at the table with the other family members. As the maid brings the steaming chicken soup, the family cat watches her, hoping that some will spill from the porcelain tureen. Two German schoolboys peek in at the curious scene and probably wonder: Why on earth are these Jews eating outdoors in a weird booth on a chilly autumn day?

The scene is ostensibly a celebration of nature. Or is it? What is natural about this sukkah and what is unnatural?

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(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This piece came out of Congregation Adas Kodesch Shel Emeth‘s continued exploration of the natural and the manmade).