What is Sukkot?
The Hebrew word Sukkot is actually the plural of the Hebrew word of Sukkah (meaning hut or booth). Thus Sukkot is the Jewish festival of booths (or huts).
Sukkot is one of the High Holy Days in the Jewish Calendar. It is one of three annual festivals during which the ancient Jews were expected to make a pilgrimage to the Temple based in Jerusalem during which the Levite Priests made sacrifices.
Sukkot is a joyous harvest festival that lasts for eights days outside Israel and seven days in Israel. It occurs on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishri. Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar system, based on the moon, the 15th of the month has a full moon, the apex of the lunar cycle. It is a period of a full moon and a full harvest, a week for fulfillment.
The first day of the Hebrew month of Tishri is the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The word Rosh means "Head", while the word Shanah means "Year." Therefore, Rosh Ha-Shanah is the "head" of the Jewish year.
Because the Hebrew word "Shanah" means "Change" in addition to meaning "Year", the holiday period is a time devoted to assessing one's actions over the past year, reviewing any needed changes, and investigating one's relationship with God and/or nature.
The Jewish New Year begins the time of spiritual renewal which culminates ten days later with the solemn fast day of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Five days later, the celebratory festival of Sukkot begins, a time of fulfillment which snaps us out of our solemnity.
When does it occur?
The Jewish calendar follows a lunar cycle.
The holiday falls on the 15th thru the 21st days of the Hebrew month of Tishri.
The fifteenth day of the month of Tishri falls on
October 16, 1997;
October 5, 1998;
September 25, 1999;
October 14, 2000; and
October 2, 2001.
How is the festival observed?
It depends on one's level of observance....
Many Jews will build a Sukkah during the half-a-week between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
In their Sukkah, or hut, they will eat their meals, study, entertain, and sometimes sleep. In the synagogue, depending on one's traditions, Jews will recite special festival prayers, recite the Hallel (Thanksgiving) prayers, read the Book of Eccleistes, invite guests to one's Sukkah, and shake a Lulav and an Etrog, as set out in the Torah. (more on this below).
What is the basis for this festival?
Exodus (Chapter 23:14-16) commands observant Jews to hold harvest festivals three times each year.
Leviticus (23:33-44) states that the holiday of Sukkot (Festival of Huts) shall commence on the 15th day of the month of Tishri, when all the income from the land shall be gathered, everyone will rejoice, and all citizens will live in huts, so that each generation will know that the Hebrews who left Egypt were made to live in Huts during their 40 years in the desert.
Deuteronomy (16:13-17) states that the joyful holiday of Sukkot shall last for 7 days, that all people, even the widow and the stranger shall rejoice, and all shall bring a gift based on their earnings (or harvest) for sacrifice.
Additionally, the Torah, states: "You shall take for yourselves on the first day of the holiday
the fruit of a goodly tree (an etrog),
branches of palm trees (lulav),
boughs of thick trees (hadassim),
and willows of the brook (aravot)..."
These four species are then held together and shaken at appropriate points during the prayer service during Sukkot.
The Torah also instructs Jews to "... dwell in Sukkot [shaded hut or shelters] for seven days... "
To observe the festival, Jews collect the four "species" of plants. They are the Etrog (a citron that looks like a long yellow lemon), the Lulav (a palm frond), the Hadas (a myrtle branch), and the Aravah (a willow branch). They also build temporary shelters (Sukkot) with temporary roofs in which they eat their meals.
How is the Sukkah (hut) built in common practice?
A household will find a place to erect their temporary, fragile hut. They will build it alone, with friends, with neighbors, or as a community together. Many build it in their yards, on their patios, on a park, lawn, or roof. They either build the walls with lumber, fabric, or ready made kits that use tent poles of fabric.
The roof consists of a lattice work that holds up the roofing material, which is called s'chach.
Many people use boughs of trees, corn stalks, harvested vegetation. The roofing material must provide shade from the sun, but you need to be able to see some stars through it. The Sukkah is usually decorated with gourds, indian corn, or fruits that hang from the latticed roof or drawings of the harvest that are taped to the walls.
A Sukkah must have at least three walls (many use the side of there home as a fourth wall). A sukkah may not be more than thirty feet high, but not less than "10 handbreadths" high.
It must be a temporary structure (thus the theme of impermanence, which is reiterated in the Book of Ecclesiasteses, and in a song by The Byrds, "for every time there is a season, a time to...")
A table and chairs are usually then added to a Sukkah so that meals may be eaten in it, and the blessings over bread and the kiddush over wine may be recited in it.
What is the meaning of the Sukkah (hut)?
The Sukkah reminds Jews of the agricultural character of their ancestors' lives, who used these temporary huts in their fields while harvesting the final Autumn crops before the Winter rains of the Middle East began.
The Sukkah reminds Jews that they live in nature, and are subject to the laws of the natural world. Humans have precarious roofs above their heads, yet are sheltered from the elements (and hopefully, sheltered from any negative judgements arising from the Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur).
According to the Jewish texts known as the Gemara, the Sukkah, for some, is a metaphor representing the study of the Torah. Because study , like a shelter, protects and shields a person from the destructive elements of the world.
Can a Sukkah be made in any shape?
The Sukkah is fragile and open to the sky, the rain, and the wind.
Various rabbi's have made a variety of rulings on the design of Sukkot. The primary rules are that a Sukkah should...
The s'chach (literally "covering," the fronds, branches, or organic stuff that act as a roof covering) must be organic material. One rabbi wrote that the Gemara (Chapter Sukkah (2a)) discusses that the s'chach alone must provide the shade of the sukkah. For this reason the Gemara considers invalidating a sukkah whose walls are extraordinarily high and disproportionate to its width. In such an instance the shade will be provided by the towering walls and not exclusively by the s'chach. This necessity - that the s'chach be the sole provider of shade - is derived from a sentence (in Yeshaya-10) which states "the Sukkah will be a shelter from heat by day and will shield from the pelting torrent of rain." If s'chach do not provide shade and shelter, the Gemara reasons, it cannot be defined as a proper sukkah.
The Chazal, a leading rabbinical commentator, felt that the Sukkah would act as a point of redezvous between humans and the divine.
In Tehillim (Psalms), another writer saw the Sukkah as an asylum and protection from raging wars and armies.
The Talmud, Book Betzah Chapter 30b, suggests that "carpets, tapestries, pomegranates, grapes, vines, peaches, almonds, ...wreaths or ears of corn" be used to decorate the Sukkah.
What is the meaning of the Lulav and Etrog?
The Jewish Midrash relates the following lesson: the four plant species represent the four types of individuals in our communities.
The Etrog, has both a taste and a fragrant smell. It represents the perfect individual who is both knowledgeable in Torah and proficient in the observance of mitzvot.
The Lulav is the branch of the date palm, whose fruit has a taste but no smell. It represents those accomplished in Torah though less so in regard to the mitzvot.
The Hadas (myrtle) is tasteless but has an aromatic scent. It represents the type who, though lacking in Torah knowledge, has many mitzvot to his or her credit.
The Aravah (willow) is tasteless and without scent. It represents the individual who lacks both Torah knowledge and mitzvot.
YET ALL THESE species, or individuals, are required to come together, and be bonded together into a community, in order to fulfill the requirements of the holiday. As it is written, "Let them all be tied together in one bind and they will atone one for another."
Also the number relates to the four seasons and the four main directions.
What is a deeper meaning of the Lulav and Etrog?
On a deeper level, the four species represent four "characters" within every individual, each with its own domain in one's psyche and its appropriate place in life:
The Etrog (fragrant and beautiful) is the force that strives for perfection, for the ultimate harmony between mind and heart;
The date palm Lulav is the "intellectual" in a person who does not allow feeling to cloud the purity of knowledge and comprehension;
The fragrant Hadas is the emotional self, who sets experience as the highest ideal, even at the expense of the intellect;
The Aravah is the capacity for acceptance and commitment, for setting aside intellect and feeling to commit oneself absolutely to a higher ideal. The joy of the holoday is manifest only when one attempts to bring all these elements of oneself together.
Mystical Questions and Answers on the Holiday of Sukkot
What is the lunar and solar calendar meaning of the Holiday of Sukkot?
There are many, especially members of the Jewish Renewal movement, who believe that their are Jewish holidays that follow the solar seasonal calendar, and those that follow a lunar calendar. They intersect, or dare I say, they are unified, at the holiday of Sukkot.
For example, there are four solar-based seasons. The Jewish holiday of Passover (or Pesach) begins at the dawning of the Spring, when we rejoice at the signs of spring and birth. Seven weeks after Passover is the early harvest holiday of Shavuot, which falls close to the beginning of Summer. The holiday of Sukkot is the Fall harvest holiday, that rejoices in the last fruits of the harvest before the winter rains begin. The Sukkah's are reminiscent of the huts used by farmers who worked in the fields to finish accumulating the fruits of the final produce of the Fall. The holiday of Shemini Atzeret is symbolic of Winter, during which the land sleeps until it can begin anew in the Spring
There is also three lunar-based phases. Just as the Sabbath is the seventh day and the sabbatical year (during which the land lies fallow and debts are forgiven) occurs in the seventh year, the Jewish New Year occurs on the first day of the seventh month (Tishri). The first day of a lunar month is a New Moon, during which the sky is dark and the moon is hidden. Yom Kippur falls on the tenth day of the seventh month, during which the moon is growing in size; and Sukkot falls on the fifteenth of the seventh month, at the time of a full moon.
The holiday of Sukkot is therefore a time of a full moon, hopefully a full harvest, and full festivities.
Did King Solomon dedicate the Temple in Jerusalem on Sukkot?
Yes, according to Kings, Book 1, Chapter 8.
Were sacrifices done on Sukkot?
Prior to the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, sacrifices were conducted on festivals. Over the course of the seven day festival of Sukkot, seventy (70) bulls were sacrificed. This was based on a formula in which 13 bulls were sacrificed on the first day, and one less bull was sacrificed each day until seven bulls were sacrificed on the seventh day of the holiday.
What did the mystical kabbalists say about Sukkot?
For more information on this, please contact me and I can recommend a book. For example, Rabbi Luria, a famed 16th Century Kabbalist, envisioned that a different mystical emanations or guests visited the Sukkoth on each of the seven nights.
Is there a water libation service during Sukkot?
Yes, there was during the period up to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. For more information on this, please contact me and I can recommend a book that discusses water-related customs and its relationship to praying for winter rains and its relationship to pagan customs of praying for rain.
Is Sukkah built during the Sabbatical year?
Yes. But a special prayer is said at the end of the Sabbatical year by many congregations, giving thanks for allowing us to get through the past sabbatical year even though the land lied fallow and all debts were foregiven. This occurs in 2001, 2008, 2015, etc.
Stories about the Holiday of Sukkot
1. One is exempt from eating in a Sukkah if it is raining hard enough to make it uncomfortable to sit in the Sukkah, or as the rabbi's said, "if it is raining so hard that the soup would be spoiled."
2. Because a Sukkah is to be a symbol of joy and not a burden, a person should leave a Sukkah if it is raining. Enjoyment is a paramount theme.
3. While a Sukkah (hut) is symbolic of rootless transience and impermanance, the lulav and etrog (the four species) are symbolic of the opposite - the permanance of orchards and fertility (a phallic lulav and a feminine etrog).
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