Significance: Remembers the wandering in the dessert; also a harvest festival
Observances: Building and "dwelling" in a booth; waving branches and a fruit during services
Length: 7 days
...On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the
Festival of Sukkot, seven days for the L-RD. -Leviticus 23:34
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. Sukkot is so unreservedly joyful that it is commonly referred
to in Jewish prayer and literature as Z'man Simchateinu
the Season of our Rejoicing.
Sukkot is the last of the Shalosh R'galim (three
pilgrimage festivals). Like Passover and
Shavu'ot, Sukkot has a dual significance:
historical and agricultural. Historically, Sukkot commemorates the forty-year
period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living
in temporary shelters. Agriculturally, Sukkot is a harvest festival and is
sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif
the Festival of Ingathering.
The word "Sukkot" means "booths," and refers to the temporary dwellings that we
are commanded to live in during this holiday in memory of the period of
wandering. The Hebrew pronunciation of Sukkot is "Sue COAT," but is often
pronounced as in Yiddish, to rhyme with "BOOK
us." The name of the holiday is frequently translated "Feast of Tabernacles,"
which, like many translations of Jewish terms, isn't very useful. This
translation is particularly misleading, because the word "tabernacle" in the
Bible refers to the portable Sanctuary in the desert, a precursor to the
Temple, called in Hebrew "mishkan." The Hebrew
word "sukkah" (plural: "sukkot") refers to the temporary booths that people
lived in, not to the Tabernacle.
Sukkot lasts for seven days. The two days following the festival,
Shemini Atzeret and
Simchat Torah, are separate holidays but are
related to Sukkot and are commonly thought of as part of Sukkot.
The festival of Sukkot is instituted in Leviticus 23:33 et seq. No
work is permitted on the first and second days of
the holiday. (See Extra Day of Holidays for an
explanation of why the Bible says one day but we observe two). 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
Building a Sukkah
You will dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of
Israel shall dwell in booths. -Leviticus 23:42
In honor of the holiday's historical significance, we are commanded to dwell in
temporary shelters, as our ancestors did in the wilderness. The temporary
shelter is referred to as a sukkah (which is the singular form of the plural
word "sukkot"). Like the word sukkot, it can be pronounced like Sue-KAH, or to
rhyme with Book-a.
The sukkah is great fun for the children. Building the sukkah each year
satisfies the common childhood fantasy of building a fort, and dwelling in the
sukkah satisfies a child's desire to camp out in the backyard. 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
spend as much time in the sukkah as possible, including sleeping in it.
sukkah must have at least two and a half walls covered with a material that
will not blow away in the wind. Why two and a half walls? Look at the letters
in the word "sukkah" (see the graphic in the heading): one letter has four
sides, one has three sides and one has two and a half sides. The "walls" of the
sukkah do not have to be solid; 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. Note: You may put a
water-proof cover over the top of the sukkah when it is raining to protect the
contents of the sukkah, but you cannot use it as a sukkah while it is covered
and you must remove the cover to fulfill the mitzvah
of dwelling in a sukkah.
You can buy do-it-yourself sukkah from various sources online, or you can build
your own. I built my own with four 4x4 poles and four 2x4 boards, bolted
together and secured by smaller pieces of 2x4 board. My walls are made from
canvas painter's drop cloth, attached to the frame by D-rings and curtain
hooks. It can be assembled or disassembled in less than two hours by two people.
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. Many families
hang artwork drawn by the children on the walls. 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
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.
This may not be entirely coincidental: I was taught that our American pilgrims,
who originated the Thanksgiving holiday, borrowed the idea from Sukkot. The
pilgrims were deeply religious people, living their lives in accordance with
the Bible. 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 found the fall harvest festival of Sukkot. This is not
the standard story taught in public schools today (that a Thanksgiving holiday
is an ancient English pagan custom that the Pilgrims brought over), but that
story doesn't fit with the Pilgrims' strict biblical views.
Arba Minim: The Four Species
On the first day, you will take for yourselves a fruit of a
beautiful tree, palm branches, twigs of a braided tree and brook willows, and
you will rejoice before the L-RD your G-d for seven days. -Leviticus
observance during 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 L-rd." The four species in question
are an etrog (a citrus fruit similar to a lemon native to
Israel; in English it is called a citron), a palm
branch (in Hebrew, lulav), two willow branches (aravot) and three myrtle
branches (hadassim). The six branches are bound together and referred to
collectively as the lulav, because the palm branch is by far the largest part.
The etrog is held separately. With these four species in hand, one recites a
and waves the species in all six directions (east, south, west, north, up and
down), symbolizing the fact that G-d is everywhere.
Detailed instructions for this ritual can be found under
four species are also held and waved during the Hallel
prayer in religious services, and are held during processions around the bimah
(the pedestal where the Torah is read) called hakafot each day during the
holiday. These processions commemorate similar processions around the altar of
the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. This part of the
service is known as Hoshanot, 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).
After the circuits on Hoshanah Rabbah, we beat the willow branches against the
floor five times, shaking loose some or all of the remaining leaves. A number
of explanations are offered for this unusual beating practice, but the primary
reason seems to be agricultural: the rainy season in Israel begins in the fall,
and the leaves falling from the willow branch symbolize our desire for
beneficial rainfall. The following day (Shemini
Atzeret), we begin adding a line about rain to the thrice-daily
Shemoneh Esrei prayer.
Why are these four plants used instead of other plants? There are two primary
explanations of the symbolic significance of these plants: that they represent
different parts of the body, or that they represent different kinds of Jews.
According to the first interpretation, the long straight palm branch represents
the spine. The myrtle leaf, which is a small oval, represents the eye. The
willow leaf, a long oval, represents the mouth, and the etrog fruit represents
the heart. All of these parts have the potential to be used for sin, but should
join together in the performance of mitzvot
According to the second interpretation, the etrog, which has both a pleasing
taste and a pleasing scent, represents Jews who have achieved both knowledge of
Torah and performance of mitzvot. The palm branch,
which produces tasty fruit, but has no scent, represents Jews who have
knowledge of Torah but are lacking in mitzvot. The myrtle leaf, which has a
strong scent but no taste, represents Jews who perform mitzvot but have little
knowledge of Torah. The willow, which has neither taste nor scent, represents
Jews who have no knowledge of Torah and do not perform the mitzvot. We bring
all four of these species together on Sukkot to remind us that every one of
these four kinds of Jews is important, and that we must all be united.
List of Dates
Sukkot will occur on the following days of the secular calendar:
- Jewish Year 5777: sunset October 16, 2016 - nightfall October 23, 2016
- Jewish Year 5778: sunset October 4, 2017 - nightfall October 11, 2017
- Jewish Year 5779: sunset September 23, 2018 - nightfall September 30, 2018
- Jewish Year 5780: sunset October 13, 2019 - nightfall October 20, 2019
- Jewish Year 5781: sunset October 2, 2020 - nightfall October 9, 2020
For additional holiday dates, see Links to Jewish
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