The Festival of Sukkot begins on the 15th day of Tishri and is the
fifth day after Yom Kippur.
It is a drastic transition from one of the most solemn
holidays in the Jewish calendar to one of the most joyous.
- The Sukkah (Dwelling)
- The Four Species
Sukkot is a seven
day holiday and the two days following the festival - Shemini
Atzeret and Simkhat Torah - are commonly thought of as part of
Sukkot but are actually separate holidays. Sukkot is sometimes referred to as Zeman
Simkhateinu, the Season of our Rejoicing.
The word "Sukkot" means "booths,"
and refers to the temporary dwellings that we are commanded to live
in during this holiday. The name of the holiday is frequently translated
"The Feast of Tabernacles," which, like many translations
of technical Jewish terms, isn't terribly useful unless you already
know what the term is referring to. The Hebrew pronunciation of Sukkot
is "Sue COAT," but is often pronounced as in Yiddish,
to rhyme with "BOOK us."
Like Passover and Shavu'ot,
Sukkot has a dual significance: historical
and agricultural. The holiday commemorates
the forty-year period during which the children
of Israel were wandering in the desert, living
in temporary shelters. Sukkot is also a harvest
festival, and is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering.
The festival of Sukkot is instituted
23:33 et seq. No work is permitted on the first and second days
of the holiday. Work is permitted on the remaining
days. These intermediate days on which work
is permitted are referred to as Chol Ha-Mo'ed,
as are the intermediate days of Passover.
In honor of the holiday's historical significance,
we are commanded to dwell in temporary shelters, as our ancestors did
in the wilderness. The commandment to "dwell" in a sukkah
can be fulfilled by simply eating all of one's meals there; however,
if the weather, climate, and one's health permit, one should live in
the sukkah as much as possible, including sleeping in it.
A sukkah must have at least three walls covered
with a material that will not blow away in the wind. Canvas covering
tied or nailed down is acceptable and quite common in the United
States. A sukkah may be any size, so long as it is large enough for
you to fulfill the commandment of dwelling in it. The roof of the
sukkah must be made of material referred to as sekhakh (literally, covering). To fulfill the commandment, sekhakh must be something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as
tree branches, corn stalks, bamboo reeds, sticks, or two-by-fours. Sekhakh must be left loose, not tied together or tied down. Sekhakh must be placed sparsely enough that rain can get in, and preferably
sparsely enough that the stars can be seen, but not so sparsely that
more than ten inches is open at any point or that there is more light
than shade. The sekhakh must be put on last.
It is common practice, and highly commendable, to decorate
the sukkah. In the northeastern United States, Jews commonly hang dried
squash and corn in the sukkah to decorate it, because these vegetables
are readily available at that time for the American holidays of Halloween
and Thanksgiving. Building and decorating a sukkah is a fun, family
project, much like decorating the Christmas tree is for Christians.
It is a sad commentary on modern American Judaism that most of the highly assimilated Jews who complain about being deprived
of the fun of having and decorating a Christmas tree have never even
heard of Sukkot.
The following blessing is
recited when eating a meal in the sukkah:
Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha'olam
kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu leisheiv basukkah.
Many Americans, upon seeing a decorated sukkah for
the first time, remark on how much the sukkah (and the holiday
generally) reminds them of Thanksgiving. This is not entirely
coincidental. Our American pilgrims, who originated the Thanksgiving
holiday, were deeply religious people. When they were trying to find
a way to express their thanks for their survival and for the harvest,
they looked to the Bible for an appropriate way of celebrating and
based their holiday in part on Sukkot.
The Four Species
Another observance important
to Sukkot involves the four
species (Hebrew, arba minim).
Jews are commanded to
take four plants - etrog (a citrus fruit native
to Israel); lulav (a palm branch);
hadas (a branch from a myrtle tree); and, arava (a willow
branch). Joined together, they are used to "rejoice
before the L-rd."
Every morning of Sukkot,
except on Shabbat,
it is the custom to hold the lulav in the
right hand and the etrog in the left. Bringing
them together (with the pitam, the
stem of the etrog pointing downward), the
following blessing is recited:
Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha'olam
kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al n'tilat
The four species are also
held during the Hallel prayer in religious services, and are held
during processions around the bimah (the pedestal where the Torah is read) each day during the holiday. These
processions commemorate similar processions
around the alter of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
The processions are known as Hoshanahs, because
while the procession is made, we recite a
prayer with the refrain, "Hosha na!"
(please save us!). On the seventh day of Sukkot,
seven circuits are made. For this reason,
the seventh day of Sukkot is known as Hoshanah
Rabbah (the great Hoshanah).
Sources: Judaism 101 and Cardin, Rabbi Nina Beth. The
Tapestry of Jewish Time. NJ: Behrman House, 2000.