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) 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.
As in previous years, former Ambassador Yoram Ettinger has provided a very useful Guide to the Perplexed about Sukkot. Here are some intriguing snippets:
2. The first recorded 7 day Sukkot celebration was – following the 5th century BCE Cyrus Edict – in Nehemiah 8:17: “And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun (13th-14th century BCE) unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.”
5. Columbus Day is celebrated around Sukkot. According to “Columbus Then and Now” (Miles Davidson, 1997, p. 268), Columbus arrived in America on Friday afternoon, October 12, 1492, the 21st day of the Jewish month of Tishrei, the Jewish year 5235, the 7th day of Sukkot, Hosha’na’ Rabbah, which is a day of universal deliverance and miracles.
Indeed there have always been rumours that Columbus himself was Jewish, a refugee from the Spanish Inquisition.
As in previous years, even the American TSA is cooperating with religious Jews and is permitting the import of the Arba Minim, overriding regulations that ban the import of plants to the US:
The Transportation Security Administration and the US Customs and Border Protection once again will allow the carrying of the four plants used during Sukkot.
However, travelers may be asked to open containers so that their religious items can be checked for invasive pests, according to the notice posted this week on the Orthodox Union website. Unlike in previous years, there was no similar posting on the TSA website.
The TSA regulates the transportation of plants to keep invasive pests and diseases out of the United States.
The four species permitted in airports, security checkpoints and on airplanes are a palm branches, myrtle twigs, willow twigs and a citron. Willow twigs from Europe are not allowed entry.
“We are gratified by the ongoing sensitivity of these agencies to the religious concerns of our community,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel of America’s vice president for federal affairs and its Washington director. “They are taking meaningful and appropriate steps to accommodate our religious needs.”
We’ve all seen and heard the Chabad Mitzva Tanks which bring religious necessities like Shabbat candles, tefillin etc. to any Jews they can find . Now Arutz Sheva has a cute article about Chabad Mitzva Cycles, bringing mobile Sukkot to Jews worldwide:
Look for Levi Duchman on a bike. Not just any bike, though; the 21-year-old Chabad yeshiva student of Brooklyn is riding around on a modified pedi-cab – an adult-sized tricycle that instead of having a set of seats in the back attaches to various holiday accoutrements.
For example, there’s a sukkah for Sukkot, a giant dreidel for Hanukkah, and a year-round customized display with a Chabad greeting.
Meet the “mitzvah cycle.” And it’s hitting the streets again this holiday season.
There are 50 of these around the world, including in Canada, Denmark, England, Australia, Holland and France, as well as in 14 states in America. The bikes can be spotted in Michigan, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, just to name a few locales.
Rabbi Ruvi New, co-director of Chabad of East Boca Raton in Florida, saw the bike advertised online and got one last year for Sukkot. “We are in a coastal area; it’s also a downtown area, so there’s pedestrian traffic,” he says, adding that the vehicle was a welcome alternative to a more full-sized truck.
In southeast Florida’s balmy weather, it can go to outdoor shopping centers and other places people congregate, and always seems to draw attention, he says.
“People, if they’re sitting outside a Starbucks, for example, will see it, and if they’re Jewish, it makes doing the mitzvah cool, sort of funky.” That makes it all that more appealing, according to the rabbi, who bikes around neighborhoods, pulling up in front of people’s homes to give them a chance to do shake the lulav and etrog, and do a mitzvah.
Kol hakavod to Chabad who always come up with unusual ideas to spread the beauty of Judaism while being practical at the same time.
Although the news from our region is unrelenting, posting will probably be very light in the coming week as I prefer to enjoy the chag rather than focus on the bad stuff.
I wish all those celebrating a chag Sukkot sameach!
!חג סוכות שמח