Sukkot - September 19, 2013
Sukkot and also known as the Feast of Booths, the Feast of Tabernacles, Tabernacles, or the Feast of Ingathering, is a Hebrew Biblical pilgrimage festival that occurs in autumn on the 15th day of the month of Tishri (early- to late-October). In Judaism it is one of the three major Jewish holidays known collectively as the ''three pilgrim festivals", when historically the Jewish populace travelled to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The word Sukkot is the plural of the Hebrew word ''sukkah'', meaning booth or hut. During this holiday, Jews are instructed to construct a temporary structure in which to eat their meals, entertain guests, relax, and even sleep. The ''sukkah'' is remininscent of the type of huts in which the ancient Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt, and is intended to reflect God's benevolence in providing for all the Jews' needs in the desert.
In Israel (and among Reform Jews), Sukkot is a 7-day holiday, with the first day celebrated as a full festival with special prayer services and holiday meals. Outside the land of Israel, the first two days are celebrated as full festivals. The remaining days are known as ''Chol HaMoed'' (festival weekdays). The seventh day of Sukkot is called ''Hoshanah Rabbah'' and has a special observance of its own.
The day immediately following Sukkot is a separate holiday known as ''Shemini Atzeret'', "the Eighth (Day) of Assembly." In Israel, the celebration of ''Shemini Atzeret'' includes ''Simchat Torah''. Outside the land of Israel, ''Shemini Atzeret'' is celebrated on the day after Sukkot and ''Simchat Torah'' is celebrated on the day after that, bringing the total days of festivities to eight in Israel and nine outside Israel.
Sukkot laws and customs
The sukkah is a temporary building used for meals throughout the holiday. It must be built of organic material, and is usually decorated.
The four species
On each of the seven days of Sukkot, the Torah requires the Jew to take Four Species of plants and to wave them in a specific pattern. These species are: the ''lulav'' (date palm frond), ''hadass'' (bough of a myrtle tree), ''Aravah (Sukkot)|aravah'' (willow branch)— these three are actually bounded together and collectively referred to as the ''lulav''—and the ''etrog'' (a citron, a lemon-like citrus fruit). These plants are usually sold in religious communities during the days preceding the festival. However, in some Reform communities where these plants are not available locally, other plants such as reeds are substituted for one or more of the four species.
The Four Species are waved as follows: The first three species are held in the right hand, while the ''etrog'' is held in the left hand. The user holds his or her hands apart while saying the special blessing, ''"Blessed are You, God our Lord, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to take the lulav"''. Then the user brings his or her hands together so that the ''etrog'' touches the ''lulav'' bundle, and points and gently shakes the Four Species three times in each of the four directions, as well as up and down. Symbolically, this ceremony is a prayer for adequate rainfall for all the vegetation of the earth in the coming year.
In Orthodox Judaism circles, the mitzvah of waving the ''lulav'' and ''etrog'' is mandatory each day of Sukkot (except Shabbat) for men and boys over the age of bar mitzvah. Women are not obligated to wave the ''lulav'' and ''etrog'', but they may do so if they choose. In Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism circles, all Jews over the age of b'nai mitzvah perform the waving ceremony.
The waving ceremony is usually done in the synagogue during the daily prayer services, although it can also be done in the privacy of one's home or ''sukkah''. During the first six days of Sukkot, all the worshippers in the synagogue leave their seats and make a complete circuit around the sanctuary in a procession with their ''lulavs''. The ''lulav'' and ''etrog'' are shaken during the recital of Hallel. On the seventh day of the holiday, known as Hoshanah Rabbah, the worshippers make seven circuits around the sanctuary.
im being sold in a market in Tel Aviv The mitzvah derives from the commandment in the Book of Leviticus: "And you shall take for yourself on the first day the fruit of goodly (meaning of Hebrew uncertain, but modern Hebrew "citrus") trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook" (Lev. 23:40). The use to which these species are to be put is not indicated; this gave rise to divergent interpretations at a later time. Two breakaway sects, the Sadducees and the Karaites, maintained that they were meant for building the ''sukkah'', as would appear from Neh. 8:14-18, while their opponents contended that they were to be carried in the synagogue procession.
The second through seventh days of Sukkot (third through seventh days outside the land of Israel) are called ''Chol HaMo'ed''. These days are considered by Halakha to be more than regular weekdays but less than festival days. In practice, this means that all activities that are needed for the holiday—such as buying and preparing food, cleaning the house in honor of the holiday, or traveling to visit other people's ''sukkahs'' or on family outings—are permitted by Jewish law. Activities that will interfere with relaxation and enjoyment of the holiday—such as laundering, mending clothes, engaging in labor-intensive activities—are not permitted. Observant Jews typically treat ''Chol HaMo'ed'' as a vacation period, eating nicer than usual meals in their ''sukkah'', entertaining guests, visiting other families in their ''sukkahs'', and taking family outings.
On the Shabbat which falls during the week of Sukkot (in the event when the first day of Sukkot is on Shabbat, Ecclesiastes is read in Israel while diaspora communities read it the following Shabbat which is Shemini Azeret)( or during ''Chol HaMo'ed''), the Book of Ecclesiastes is read during morning synagogue services. This Book's emphasis on the ephermeralness of life ("Vanity of vanities, all is vanity...") echoes the theme of the ''sukkah'', while its emphasis on death reflects the time of year in which Sukkot occurs (the "autumn" of life). The second to last verse reinforces the message that adherence to God and His Torah is the only worthwhile pursuit.
In the synagogue, each day of Sukkot, the worshippers parade around the synagogue carrying their ''lulavim'' and ''etrogim'' and reciting Psalm 118:25 (''Ana HaShem, hoshia nah..", "We beseech you, O Lord, save us..." followed by special prayers.)
This ceremony commemorates the ''Aravah (Sukkot)'' ceremony in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, in which willow branches were piled beside the altar, with their tops branching over it, while worshipers paraded around the altar reciting the same verse.
''Simchat Beit HaShoeivah''
In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, a unique service was performed every morning throughout the Sukkot holiday: the ''Nisuch HaMayim'' or Water Libation Ceremony. According to the Talmud, Sukkot is the time of year in which God judges the world for rainfall; therefore this ceremony, like the taking of the Four Species, invokes God's blessing for rain in its proper time. The water for the libation ceremony was drawn from the pool of Shiloah in the City of David, and the joy that accompanied this procedure was palpable. (This is the source for the verse in Isaiah: "And you shall draw waters with joy from the wells of salvation" (Isa. 12:3).
Afterwards, every night in the outer Temple courtyard, tens of thousands of spectators would gather to watch the ''Simchat Beit HaShoeivah'' (Rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing), as the most pious members of the community danced and sang songs of praise to God. The dancers would carry lighted torches, and were accompanied by the harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets of the Levites. According to the Mishnah tractate Sukkah, "He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life." Throughout Sukkot, the city of Jerusalem teemed with Jewish families who came on the holiday pilgrimage and joined together for feasting and Torah study. A mechitza (partition separating men and women) was erected for this occasion.
Nowadays, this event is recalled via a ''Simchat Beit HaShoeivah'' gathering of music, dance, and refreshments. This event takes place in a central location such as a synagogue, yeshiva, or place of study. Refreshments are served in the adjoining ''sukkah''. Live bands often accompany the dancers. The festivities usually begin late in the evening, and can last long into the night.
The seventh day of Sukkot is known as Hoshanah Rabbah. This day is marked by a special synagogue service, the ''Hoshanah Rabbah'' (Great Hoshanah), in which seven circuits are made by the worshippers with their ''lulav'' and ''etrog'', while the congregation recites Psalm 118:25 and additional prayers. It is customary in some communities for all the scrolls of the Torah to be removed from the ark and lead this procession. In addition, a bundle of five ''Aravah (Sukkot)'' branches is taken and beaten against the ground, accompanied by a series of liturgical verses ending with, "''Kol mevasser, mevasser ve-omer''" (A voice brings news, brings news and says)—expressing hope for the speedy coming of the Messiah. The reasons for the latter custom are rooted in Kabbalah.
Abudarham speaks of the custom of reading the Torah on the night of Hoshanah Rabbah, out of which has grown the modern custom of meeting socially on that night and reading from Deuteronomy, Psalms, and passages from the Zohar; reciting Kabbalah prayers; and eating refreshments. In Orthodox Jewish circles, men will stay up all night learning Torah.
Among Sephardic Jews, prayers known as "''Selihot''" (forgiveness) are recited before the regular morning service (these are the same prayers recited before Rosh Hashanah). In Amsterdam and in a few places in England, America, and elsewhere, the shofar is also sounded in connection with the processions. The latter practice reflects the idea that Hoshanah Rabbah is the end of the high holiday season, when the world is judged for the coming year.
Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
The holiday of Shemini Atzeret is a separate festival that follows immediately after Sukkot, on the eighth day (eighth and ninth days outside the land of Israel). The family returns indoors to eat and sleep in their house, special synagogue services are held, and holiday meals are served. However, outside of Israel many have the custom to still eat in the Sukkah on Shemini Atzeret, but not on Simchat Torah.
In Israel, Shemini Atzeret lasts for one day and the festivities of Simchat Torah coincide with it. Outside of Israel, Shemini Atzeret lasts for two days and the festivities of Simchat Torah fall on the second day. Simchat Torah (lit. "the joy of the Torah") is an especially happy day on which the very last portion of the Torah is read in the synagogue during morning services and, in order to convey the idea that Torah study never ends, the very first portion of the Torah (the beginning of Genesis) is read immediately after. All the men and boys, and in more liberal congregations all the women and girls, over the age of bar mitzvah are called up to the Torah for an ''Torah reading Aliyot'', and all the children under the age of bar mitzvah are also given an ''aliyah'' called ''Kol HaNa'arim'' (all the children)—the youngsters crowd around the reader's table while men hold up a large tallit to include them all in the ''aliyah''.
Both during the night service and the morning service in Orthodox synagogues, all the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and all the worshippers engage in rounds of spirited dancing. Seven official circuits around the reader's table (called "''hakafot''") are made, although the dancing can go on for hours.
In the Former Soviet Union, Simchat Torah was the day on which Jews gathered in the street outside the synagogue to dance and proclaim their Jewishness openly. Refuseniks were often inspired by that Simchat Torah celebration to pursue other Jewish religious practices in secret, despite Communist oppression.
The holiday in the Bible
In the Bible, Sukkot is called:
In later Hebrew literature it is called ''chag'', or "[the] festival."
Sukkot was agricultural in origin. This is evident from the name "The Feast of Ingathering," from the ceremonies accompanying it, and from the season and occasion of its celebration: "At the end of the year when you gather in your labors out of the field" (Ex. 23:16); "after you have gathered in from your threshing-floor and from your winepress" (Deut. 16:13). It was a thanksgiving for the fruit harvest (compare Judges 9:27). And in what may explain the festival's name, Isaiah reports that grape harvesters kept booths in their vineyards (Book of Isaiah 1:8). Coming as it did at the completion of the harvest, Sukkot was regarded as a general thanksgiving for the bounty of nature in the year that had passed.
Sukkot became one of the most important feasts in Judaism, as indicated by its designation as the Feast of the Lord (Lev. 23:39; Judges 21:19) or simply the Feast (1 Kings 8:2, 65; 12:32; 2 Chron. 5:3; 7:8). Perhaps because of its wide attendance, Sukkot became the appropriate time for important state ceremonies. Moses instructed the children of Israel to gather for a reading of the Law during Sukkot every seventh year (Deut. 31:10-11). King Solomon dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem on Sukkot (1 Kings 8; 2 Chron. 7). And Sukkot was the first sacred occasion observed after the resumption of sacrifices in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity (Ezra 3:2-4).
In the time of Nehemiah, after the Babylonian captivity, the Israelites celebrated Sukkot by making and dwelling in booths, a practice of which Nehemiah reports: the Israelites had not done so from the days of Joshua (Neh. 8:13-17). In a practice related to that of the Four Species, Nehemiah also reports that the Israelites found in the Law the commandment that they go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, Myrtle, Arecaceae and [other] leafy trees to make booths (Neh. 8:14-15). In Leviticus, God told Moses to command the people: On the first day you shall take the product of ''hadar'' trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook (Lev. 23:40), and You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt (Lev. 23:42-43). Book of Numbers, however, indicates that while in the wilderness, the Israelites dwelt in tents (Num. 11:10; 16:27). Some scholars consider Leviticus 23:39-43 (the commandments regarding booths and the four species) to be an insertion by a late Torah redactor. (E.g., Richard Elliott Friedman. ''The Bible with Sources Revealed'', 228-29. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003.)
Jeroboam son of Nebat, King of the northern Kingdom of Israel, whom Books of Kings describes as practicing his evil way (1 Kings 13:33), celebrated a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, one month after Sukkot, in imitation of the festival in Kingdom of Judah (1 Kings 12:32-33). While Jeroboam was standing on the altar to present the offering, the man of God, at the command of the Lord, cried out against the altar in disapproval (1 Kings 13:1).
According to Zechariah (Zech. 14:16-19), Sukkot in the messianic era will become a universal festival, and all the surrounding nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast there. (A modern interpretation of this resulted in a recent holiday celebrated in Jerusalem by non-Jews, "The Feast of Tabernacles".) Sukkot is here associated with the granting of rain, an idea further developed in later Jewish literature.
Observance of Sukkot is detailed in Mishnah and Talmud tractate Sukkah, part of the order Moed (Festivals).
Sukkot as a place name
The name ''Sukkot'' appears in a number of places in the Hebrew Bible as a location:
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