Just five days after Yom Kippur, we come to celebrate the weeklong holiday of Sukkot. One of three major festivals mentioned in the Torah, Sukkot has deep agricultural and historical connections which are reflected in the symbols and traditions practiced in honor of this holiday.

As it falls shortly after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot is sometimes overlooked. As Sukkot’s themes are closely tied to shelter, weather, and gratitude, we felt that this year, as many are facing extreme weather and natural disasters, it was important to highlight some of the traditions and practices that make this holiday one to take part in.

Traditions and Rituals

One of the hallmark traditions during this time is building the Sukkah. The sukkah, which means “booth” or “hut”, is a temporary dwelling created only to be used for the time of Sukkot. This structure reminds us of the temporary structures that farmers lived in during Biblical times and symbolizes the dwellings of the Israelites as they wandered through the desert. There are many intricacies when it comes to building the sukkah in line with traditions. The sukkah is not meant to replace one’s permanent home, so it should not provide the functions of a home, it should be made only to provide shade. The roof of the sukkah should provide shade but must also be constructed so that we can see through the top and into the heavens. This again recalls the sheltering presence for the Israelites in the desert.

Once built, we are to “dwell” in the sukkah for the duration of the holiday. Today, we typically translate this as eating our meals inside the sukkah, though some people also sleep in their sukkah during this time.

Another important practice of Sukkot is gathering the “four species” or “four kinds”. The four kinds include a palm branch (lulav), two willow branches (aravot), three myrtle twigs (hadassim), and one citron (etrog). The branches and twigs are bundled together and held along with the etrog, which are then shaken in six directions to symbolize God’s presence being all around us.

The sukkah and natural disasters

As the sukkah is a temporary structure, it is more vulnerable to natural elements than our permanent homes. Because of this, it is important to reflect on the ideas of shelter, food, and other basic needs. Returning to our homes after Sukkot brings on a great sense of appreciation and gratitude for what we have, and it also makes us think about those who do not have those same luxuries.

“The symbols and rituals of Sukkot are vibrant and rich in meaning. The Sukkah itself is a powerful symbol that evokes a range of reactions and reflections. The experience of being in the Sukkah with family and friends makes us feel protected and comfortable. In contrast, the Sukkah itself is a temporary structure that is vulnerable and susceptible to the forces of nature. This notion is particularly resonant this year as we witness the tragic consequences of several natural disasters. This year especially the Sukkah reminds us to be grateful for our blessings and also to support and help those who are in need of our assistance.” – Debbie Goodman, Director of Jewish Life and Learning

This year we are especially mindful of the recent disasters in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida that have caused so much suffering and created urgent need. One easy way to contribute to the relief efforts is by texting REDCROSS to 90999 to send $10.00 to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief fund—just one of many options available.

How we celebrate at the J

Each year, we build a communal sukkah so that our community members can participate and celebrate this harvest holiday together. We will begin building our sukkah this week in the terrace. This year, we have two events scheduled in the sukkah; an Early Learning School family Shabbat dinner on October 6, and a staff lunch on October 11. 

For more information on how you can join in on the festivities, contact Debbie Goodman, Director of Jewish Life and Learning.