Two weeks ago, Sara told you about the rituals and traditions associated with the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). Today, I want to share with you the history and customs of the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, as it is called in Hebrew.
Sukkot is the third holiday in the lunar-based Jewish month of Tishrei, which coincides with September and early October. The Jewish New Year is on the 1st and 2nd of Tishrei, the Day of Atonement is on the 10th, and the week-long festival of Sukkot begins on the 15th of Tishrei. This year, Sukkot will start at sunset on Wednesday evening, September 22nd and will conclude at dusk on Friday, October 1st.
The Meaning of Sukkot
Like many Jewish holidays, the customs and traditions of Sukkot are based on a rich blend of historical, agricultural and spiritual underpinnings.
Historically, Sukkot reminds us of the 40 years that the Jews wandered in the dessert after fleeing from bondage in Egypt. The Israelites erected makeshift huts to provide shelter from the elements, but ultimately, we know that only G-d could provide them with true protection. So, too, on Sukkot, we build and dwell in an impermanent structure, called a sukkah, with temporary walls and a thatched roof, to remind us that G-d is our ultimate protector.
Agriculturally, Sukkot marks the autumn harvest. In fact, Sukkot is often referred to in Hebrew as Chag Ha’Asif – the Harvest Festival. Much of the symbolism and imagery surrounding the holiday evokes our gratitude to G-d for enabling us to complete the harvest. We decorate our sukkah with fragrant branches, autumn gourds and seasonal fruits, all reminiscent of the sights and smells of this bountiful time of year!
Building & Dwelling in a Sukkah
In anticipation of Sukkot, Jewish families build a sukkah in which they will eat their meals throughout the festival. Weather permitting, my husband and sons will even sleep in the sukkah a night or two! The basic laws of sukkah-building allow for the walls to be made out of nearly any material – from plastic tarps to cloth sheets to wooden planks. In fact, you can even incorporate one of the standing walls of your home or a hedge in your garden.
Instead of a sealed roof, the sukkah is covered on top by unfinished boards and/or branches, known in Hebrew as S’chach. Importantly, the S’chach must be dense enough to provide shade during the day, but open enough to see through to the stars at night.
Illuminated outdoor Sukkah (in Israel) (copyright Ron Almog)
In our family, my husband begins constructing the sukkah as soon as the Day of Atonement ends. Our sons enjoy hammering right along with him or collecting branches from our yard to use for the roof. The next day, I take over with interior decorating, as we want to beautify our new home – even if it is only a temporary one. I laminate artwork my children made at school and hang them on our cloth walls with safety pins; we make paper and popcorn chains to hang from the branches and string twinkling garden lights to illuminate our meals in the evenings.
Sukkah decorated from the inside
Despite our efforts to beautify our sukkah, however, we acknowledge that ultimately this structure is intended to be a humble abode. Its simplicity is a reminder that by eschewing materialism and embracing spirituality, we grow closer to G-d and what He wants for us in this world.
Lulav & Etrog
Another tradition during Sukkot is the waving of the Four Species, known in Hebrew as Arabt Ha’Minim, or the Lulav and Etrog. The Lulav is comprised of three different species – a palm branch, two willow branches and three myrtle branches.
4 Species/Arbat Ha’Minim
(photo credit Yoni Debest )
Bundled together, these three types of plants are held in the right hand, while the etrog – or citron, in English – is held in the left hand. Then, we wave the four species together in all six directions – east, south, west, north, up and down – in acknowledgement of G-d’s omnipresence.
Etrogs (photo credit Yankelowitz)
From Creation to Repentance to Abundance
Next week, Sara will be back to wrap up this series on the Jewish holidays, by telling you about the concluding days of the Sukkot festival. As you can see, the month of Tishrei is an extremely full one within the Jewish calendar. We go from the spiritual high of Rosh Hashana – when we celebrate the beginning of a New Year – to the emotional depth of Yom Kippur – when we quite literally are on our knees, begging our Creator for forgiveness of our sins – to the emotional jubilation of Sukkot – when we rejoice in G-d’s bounty and give thanks for His abundance.
Wishing you a Chag Sukkot Sameach, a Happy Sukkot Holiday!
Mara Strom is a freelance writer, who loves talking about frugality and Jewish life at her blog, Kosher on a Budget. She and her husband of eight years have three children, two sons who were born in Israel, and a daughter who was born in Kansas. One day her family will return to the Promised Land, but in the meantime, she’s enjoying building her sukkah in America’s heartland.