Sukkot, Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot are festivals in the Jewish calendar that are mentioned in the Torah and are referred to as” pilgrimage” holidays. During the Biblical period while the Temple still stood, people from throughout the Land of Israel traveled to Jerusalem and to the Temple to bring offerings and observe these festivals as a community in Jerusalem.
Each of these three major festivals has both agricultural roots and meanings related to the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel, and historical connections as well. Sukkot marks the fall harvest after which the rainy season arrives in Israel. Historically Sukkot recalls the wandering of the Israelites in the desert for forty years prior to their entry into the Land of Israel. The memory of this time period traditionally brings to mind the sense of God’s protection of and presence among the people. Both the agricultural and the historical understandings of Sukkot are reflected in the many and rich symbols and traditions of this holiday.
We read in Vayikra (Leviticus): “You shall take the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, leafy branches and willows of the brook, and rejoice with the Lord your God for seven days…You will dwell in booths (sukkot) seven days…that your generations will know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”
(excerpts from Leviticus 23: 40-43) From these verses are derived some of the major observances of Sukkot: to dwell in a sukkah and to gather “the four species.”
Sukkah (plural sukkot) means “booth” or “hut.” The sukkah is a temporary dwelling constructed only for Sukkot that reminds us of the temporary structures in which the farmers lived in Biblical times during the busy harvest season. It also has come to symbolize the dwellings of the Israelites as they wandered through the desert.
It is customary to build a sukkah and to “dwell” in it for the duration of the holiday. This usually translates into eating as many meals as possible in the sukkah although some people sleep in their sukkot as well. There are specific regulations for the building of the sukkah. The rabbis and sages who defined the rituals of the Jewish tradition long ago were master pedagogues who understood the importance of experiential learning. These traditions have lasted over time and maintained their vitality by virtue of the fact we are required to actively participate in these rituals. If we do not build our own sukkah it is expected that we will “dwell” in the sukkot of friends and/or communal sukkot. Being in the sukkah, particularly on a slightly cool but clear evening, and seeing the stars and heavens through the slats of the roof of the sukkah and celebrating the holiday with family and friends is truly a wonderful and unforgettable experience. The roof of the sukkah is intentionally constructed so that we can see through the top of the sukkah to the heavens, recalling God’s sheltering presence for the Israelites in the desert, and God’s presence in our lives today as well.
The temporary nature of the sukkah is very important in understanding the meanings and symbols of the sukkah. Temporary dwellings are much more vulnerable to the natural elements than our permanent homes. In considering the comparisons, we reflect at this time on the big ideas of shelter, food, and other basics of human existence. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to return comfortably to our permanent dwellings after Sukkot, we are conscious of a great sense of appreciation and gratitude. At the same time, our tradition requires us to think of those in our society who have neither shelter nor food on a regular basis and to respond accordingly. As the weather changes these issues become an even greater challenge. Some people find Sukkot to be a meaningful time to make contributions to local food pantries. Among several pantries in the community, Jewish Family Services operates the Weinberg Food Pantry and accepts donations regularly.
The Four Species
Another major practice of Sukkot is gathering the “four species” as indicated in the passage above from the Torah. These verses are the basis for the rituals related to the lulav and etrog. The lulav contains a palm branch that is tied together with myrtle twigs and willow branches. The fourth component is the etrog, a citron (fruit of goodly trees), which looks very similar in appearance to a lemon.
There is a blessing that is said over the lulav and etrog and it is customary to shake the lulav in all directions to symbolize God’s presence all around us. There are many interpretations regarding the symbolism of the four species. Among them are: Just as the four species are distinctive and unique yet bound together, so too is the community comprised of many different types of people who represent one entity—the community; the four species have been identified with various body parts (spine, eye, mouth and heart) to represent that we serve God with our complete body and full intent.
Sukkot is a time of joy and gratitude for the world around us and the harvest. As we no longer live in an agricultural society the observances of Sukkot remind us of our dependence on the natural world and our responsibility as caretakers of our world and environment. We are reminded that we cannot take anything for granted. As we sit in the sukkah and shake the lulav we remember God’s protection of the Israelites in the desert and God’s presence in the world around us.
This is a very brief introduction to the holiday of Sukkot and there is much more to learn. Of the many websites to visit, these sites are a good start:
This year Sukkot begins on Wednesday evening, October 8th.