The festival of Sukkot, the most joyous festival in the Jewish calendar, begins tonight, lasting for 7 days (8 outside of Israel), running straight into the Simchat Torah festival on the 8th day (9th day outside Israel).
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.
On this festival Jewish households build a sukkah (pl. sukkot), a booth-like structure, where all meals are eaten, and people (usually the menfolk but not solely) even sleep there. The flimsy roof consists of leaves or branches, widely enough spaced so that one can see the stars at night, but close enough to provide shade during the day. It is considered “hidur mitzvah” – glorifying the mitzvah – if the sukkah is beautifully decorated, so of course this provides much entertainment, not to mention arts-and-crafts time, for the children to beautify their sukkah.
The sukkah is a commemoration of the flimsy huts that the Children of Israel dwelt in during their 40 years of wandering in the desert, with only the ענן הכבוד, the Cloud of Glory, to protect them by day and the עמוד האש, the Pillar of Fire, by night.
By leaving our safe and warm (or cool) houses just when autumn and the rainy season starts and going to live in a fragile hut for a whole week, it is also meant to remind us how fragile is our existence on this earth, and it is only by the grace and protection of G-d that we survive.
On Sukkot we also bundle together the Arba Minim – “The Four Species” consisting of a Lulav (branch of palm), branches of Hadass (myrtle), Aravot (weeping willow) and an Etrog (a citron, related to the citrus family) and during Shacharit (morning prayers) – see the picture above – and wave them together in all 6 directions to show G-d’s presence everywhere. Between Yom Kippur and Sukkot the streets of Israel are packed with markets and stalls selling the Arba Minim and sukka decorations. Many people take extra care when buying their lulav and etrog, examining them minutely as if they were buying a precious diamond.
The weekdays of Sukkot, as on Pesach, are called Chol Hamo’ed (lit. the weekdays of the festival) which are a semi-holiday in Israel. Schools are closed, and many places of work are either closed or work half day, giving families the chance to go on trips, hiking or visiting. On the intermediate Shabbat (Shabbat chol hamo’ed) of Sukkot, Megillat Kohelet (the book of Ecclesiastes) is read in shul. We will have the pleasure of hearing our son reading the megillah in his shul this year, as in previous years.
If you want to learn some more about the festival, Yoram Ettinger writes a very useful guide to Sukkot – and as the introduction to the article states, it is only in Israel that:
a retired ambassador can write an erudite article on understanding Jewish holidays, their symbolism and observance.
Arutz Sheva also has an inspiring article explaining what makes the Sukkah so special:
What is it about the sukkah that is so captivating? What explains the sense of complete serenity one experiences when sitting within it? Why is it so hard to leave the sukkah at the end of the holiday?
We have experienced the glorious crowning of Hashem on Rosh Hashanah. As a result it is only after that declaration of G-d’s sovereignty that we feel empowered to begin that delicately intense trek into Hashem’s very throne room on Yom Kippur. When that time ,spent in the midst of the “awe and majesty” is over, we take leave with a great cry. We call out the “Shma Yisrael” declaration and ” then we “yell out” three times the phrase “ Blessed is His Name forever and ever. Finally we cry out with all the strength we have left “Hashem is G-d, Hashem is G-d”, seven times.
The silence that follows that seventh cry is the silence of infinity. It could and should last forever because in that silence there is nothing but G-d. It is only the long shofar blow that brings us back down to earth.
We return home and eat something to replenish our bodies. Yet our souls yearn for more.
It is then that it begins. All throughout the neighborhoods you begin to hear the sound of hammers and of boards being raised. Everyone is out on their balconies and yards building their sukkah. Some are out buying the four species gathered together for this holiday.
Sukkot is the culmination and fulfillment of the spiritually redemptive process which began in the month of Elul . The Vilna Gaon writes that the heavenly Clouds of Glory that protected the people were restored on the 15th of Tishrei after having been removed following the sin of the golden calf in the month of Nisan. Such forgiveness by our Beloved can only engender in us a feeling of gratefulness and love. We then become engaged and preoccupied with our greatest source of joy, giving our Beloved what He truly desires.
This then becomes the great joy of being in a sukkah. This is why one experiences that great sense of calm and spiritual peace when just sitting in the sukkah.
Judy Lash Balint in the Times of Israel tells us the 10 best places to see sukkot in Jerusalem with some great pictures:
A non-Jewish friend coming to Israel on business next week wrote to ask if I could explain what an American Jewish colleague had warned him about in advance of his visit. “Don’t freak out, but the whole country will be on vacation, and people will be sitting around in these little flimsy booths…”
1. Start out with one of the grandest sukkot–that would be at the President’s Residence on Hanassi Street in Rehavia. President Shimon Peres holds court at an open house in his sukka on one of the intermediate days of the festival. You’ll get a cold drink, a hand shake and a photo op with the president–providing you have the patience to stand on line for a while…
5. For the most luxurious sukkot in town, stop by for a peek at the mega-sukkot of the deluxe hotels on King David Street–the David Citadel and the King David Hotel. They’ll be setting up to serve the hundreds of guests who descend for the holiday.
7. For the strictly ecologically-minded, walk through the green space across from the Jerusalem Theater on Chopin Street (it’s known locally as the chursha) and spot the simple sukka amongst the trees.
9. End your Sukka tour with a stroll through the mostly orthodox neighborhoods of Geula and the Bukharan Quarter. Keep your eyes wide open and look up as you meander through the back alleys. Even the tiniest apartment will have a sukka perilously perched on the balcony.
Another attraction this year is a cute competition run by the IDF for soldiers to send in pictures of themselves in Sukkot.
The IDF Spokesman’s blog also has an article by the IDF Chief Rabbi reminding us where our strength really comes from (hint: not from the army) – including a lovely photo:
I wish all those celebrating a chag Sukkot sameach!
!חג סוכות שמח