Jewish Holidays
Sukkot  (Feast of Tabernacles)


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 of the
Jewish year to one of the most joyous.

This festival is sometimes referred to as Zeman Simkhateinu, the Season of
our Rejoicing. Sukkot lasts for seven days. The two days following the festival
are separate holidays, Shemini Atzeret and Simkhat 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, 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

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 in Leviticus 23:33. 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, Jews are commanded to dwell
in temporary shelters, as their 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.

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. According to some rabbis, this is not entirely coincidental.
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, according to rabbinical teaching, based
their celebration in part on Sukkot.

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), a palm branch
(in Hebrew, lulav), two willow branches (arava) and three myrtle branches
(hadas). The six branches are bound together and referred to collectively as
the lulav. The etrog is held separately. With these four species in hand, one
recites a blessing and waves the species in all six directions (east, south, west,
north, up and down, symbolizing the fact 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,
Jews 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).
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