The Festival of Sukkot begins on Tishri 15, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. It is quite a drastic transition, from one of the most solemn holidays in our year to one of the most joyous.
This festival is also referred to as Zeman Simchateinu, the Season of our Rejoicing. Sukkot lasts for seven days. The two days following the festival are separate holidays, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, but are commonly thought of as part of Sukkot.
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, is not 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 referred to in the Bible (Exodus 23,16 and 34,22) as Chag Ha-Asif, the Feast of Ingathering.
The festival of Sukkot is instituted in Leviticus 23,33 and following. No "work" is permitted on the first day (and second day outside Israel). 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 in case of poor weather or poor health; if the weather, climate, and one's health permit, however, one should live in the sukkah as if it were one's house all week long as much as possible, especially 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. 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, the sekhakh must be something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks, bamboo reeds, sticks, or narrow raw boards. The sekhakh must be left loose, not tied together in bundles, but may be tied down, so that it will not fly off in the wind. The sekhakh should be placed sparsely enough that the stars can be seen, but not so sparsely that more than about three average hand-breadths is open at any point or that there is more light than shade.
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 US 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 Judaism in the US 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.
Many people in the USA, 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. The 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 (facts somehow not taught in US public schools!).
Another observance related to Sukkot involves what are known as The Four Species (arba minim in Hebrew) or the lulav and etrog. We are commanded to take these four plants and use them to "rejoice before the LORD". The four species in question are an etrog (a citrus fruit native to Israel and other countries in the area), one palm-branch (really a single palm leaf before it opens; in Hebrew, lulav), three myrtle branches (hadas), and two willow branches (arava). The six branches are bound together and referred to collectively as the lulav, and are held in the right hand; the etrog is held next to the lulav in the left hand. With these four species in hand, one recites a blessing and waives the species three times in four directions (forward, backward, upward, and downward, perhaps symbolizing that God is everywhere).
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).
Sukkot begins on the following days on the civil calendar:
Got a question or comment?