From Friday, October 2 through Thursday, October 8 this year, corresponding to the 15th through 21st of Tishrei in the Hebrew calendar, we celebrate one of my all-time favorite Jewish holidays: Sukkot. Also called “the Season of Our Joy,” “the Festival of Booths,” and “the Festival of the Ingathering,” this biblically ordained festival is one of three pilgrimage festivals observed long ago by bringing offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem to give thanks to God for a bountiful harvest. Sukkot, celebrated today in homes and synagogues (and by Zoom!), also commemorates Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness accompanied by God’s presence in the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The seven-day festival is rich with spiritual and historical meaning and is celebrated with the most engaging, evocative rituals of any holiday in the Jewish calendar.
The signature mitzvot (commandments) of Sukkot involve the sukkah and the “four species,” or plants. In this week’s Torah portion, we read: “You will dwell in booths (sukkot) for seven days: all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths” (Leviticus 23:42). In order to fulfill the mitzvah, one must either build one’s own sukkah or visit someone else’s. A temporary structure, a sukkah can be a variety of dimensions but must be free-standing and have at least two and a half sides and a roof made only of natural materials. The roof is typically covered with just enough tree branches to allow more shade than sun and for a person sitting in the sukkah to be able to see the stars at night. Once constructed, the booth symbolizes God’s guidance and protection throughout the desert sojourn, reminds us of the temporary dwellings our ancestors live in during those years, and resembles the kinds of structures farmers would have constructed in their fields during the harvest season.
The degree to which people actually “dwell” in the sukkah varies. Since the Hebrew word for “dwell” can be translated as “sit,” most people spend short periods of time sitting in the sukkah eating meals, socializing, reading and playing games. Some people, though, do actually live in the sukkah for the entire festival. In any case, though, we are to feel joyous in the sukkah and, therefore, should refrain from spending too much time there in unpleasant weather.
During Sukkot, one also fulfills the commandment of Leviticus 23:40 to take hold of “four species”: myrtle and willow branches, palm fronds and the fruit of “goodly trees.” This fourth item is a lemon-like citron called an etrog and is held next to the other three, which are bundled together with knotted palm fronds. With these in hand, one is to “rejoice before Adonai your God seven days.” The ritual itself entails standing in the sukkah or in the synagogue during worship and waving the lulav, the name given to the set of the four species, in the four directions of the compass, up and down. In this way, we show our gratitude to God, whose presence fills the universe.
Sukkot is not just a holiday: it’s a happening! Sukkot is a festival best celebrated with friends, family and community. I’m always amazed by how many people can actually fit into even the smallest of sukkot! What’s more, to truly fulfill the mitzvah of rejoicing during Sukkot, one must utilize the whole body and all the senses. There is literally something for everyone in the celebration of Sukkot: praying, building, moving, eating, enjoying the outdoors, and on and on. What’s not to love?Sukkot is not to be missed even if only by participating in Zoom services, learning online or checking out YouTube videos. Hopefully we’ll all be able to squeeze into our sukkot next year and shake, shake, shake the lulav!