Widely considered to be one of the happiest times in the Jewish calendar, and observed during the High Holy Day season, the festival of Sukkot starts exactly 14 nights after the Jewish new year, Rosh HaShana, begins, and four nights after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, ends. This special holiday celebrates the gathering of the fall harvest and commemorates the miraculous protection God provided for the children of Israel when they left Egypt to undertake a 40-year sojourn through the desert to the Promised Land. The holiday is one of the Shalosh Regalim, one of the three annual festival pilgrimages when families would come to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to worship, as commanded in the Torah.
Today, in many places throughout Israel, you can hear families with children of all ages preparing for the holiday shortly after the adults break the mandated Yom Kippur fast. There are only a few days in which to prepare for the holiday of Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, a time when the heads of the household build their sukkah (pronounced soo-kah). The sukkah is typified by the foliage or vegetation covering this hut-like structure, a temporary dwelling place where many families pray, sleep, and eat throughout the holiday. During this festival, sukkot (plural of sukkah) can be seen everywhere, from balconies and rooftops, to gardens and parking spaces.
A sukkah, by tradition, must have at least three walls, and can be made from anything, but there are certain rules which pertain to the roof of the sukkah:
- It must be constructed with material which grows from the earth (e.g., palm branches, not nylon or plastic, etc.).
- This material may no longer be connected to the earth (e.g., if branches are used, they may no longer be connected to the tree).
- The roof must have small gaps through which the open sky is clearly visible.
Also during Sukkot, in addition to the regular daily morning prayer service, celebrants chant required Torah portions, recite the Hallel (Psalms 113-118, praising and expressing appreciation and gratitude to God), and worship the Mussaf service. On all days but the Sabbath, Shabbat, the Four Species—four kinds of plants that represent the unity and bounty of Israel – are brought together. The lulav, held in the right hand, and the beautiful, aromatic fruit, the etrog (citron), held in the left hand, are brought next to one another so that they touch. The lulav, a fragrant and lovely bouquet symbolizing joy and the presence of God throughout the world, consists of a date palm frond, aravot (two willow branches), and hadassim (at least three myrtle branches), as the Torah commands:
“And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven day period” (Leviticus 23:40).
Special blessings are recited as the etrog and lulav are waved or shaken in short movements, pointing to the four corners of the earth – first to the east, then to the south, next to the west, and then to the north – followed by shaking and pointing upward to the heavens, and then finishing, pointing and shaking the etrog and lulav downward toward the earth itself.
The first day of Sukkot is celebrated as a full festival with prayer services and special meals. Work is not permitted on the first day, and some people extend that to the second day of Sukkot. The remaining days are known as Chol Hamo’ed, intermediate days, while the seventh day of Sukkot is called Hoshanah Rabbah (final day of divine judgement in which the fate of the new year is determined) and has its own special observance of prayer and study.
While Sukkot festivities can take different forms, ranging from traditional observances to more extravagant affairs, the common thread which binds them all is joyful celebration and fellowship with loved ones, and, most assuredly, exuberant worship of God.