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.
One of the very exciting events that will be taking place in Jerusalem (h/t Reality) is the Hakhel ceremony on 2nd day Chol Hamo’ed, an event that takes place only once every 7 years:
Jerusalem—The annual celebration of Sukkot is always a magical experience in Israel’s capital. Between haggling for the arba minim (four species) in the shuk, joining Chasidic simchat bet hasho’eva celebrations in Me’ah She’arim, attending the annual birkat hakohanim (priestly blessing) along with thousands of Jews at the Western Wall, and dancing at huge communal hakafot on Simchat Torah, the fall holiday code-named Zeman Simchateinu (The Time of our Happiness) simply comes alive, and the happiness and joy are felt from every corner of the city. However, this year, Sukkot in Jerusalem will be even more unique as it will feature an international event which takes place once every seven years: the Hakhel ceremony.
Hakhel, which comes from the Hebrew root of “gathering in,” is a biblical command dating back to Mt. Sinai. On the first day of Chol Ham’oed Sukkot following the end of the shemitah (ritual sabbatical) year, the King of Israel is commanded to get up in front of the Jews who made the triannual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, ceremonially receive the Torah scroll from several high profile Jewish leaders including the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and read several passages from the Torah. These readings, which included the two paragraphs of Shema, the command to bring ma’asrot (tithes) on produce, and regulations on Jewish rulers, were followed by seven special blessings which were only said at Hakhel. Even in the time of the Temples, when korbanot (offerings) were consumed by divine fires on a daily basis, the ceremony of Hakhel was considered unique and exciting, and the crowds who attended were so large that the Torah simply writes that it is as if “the entire nation” was there.
After the destruction of the Second Temple over 2,000 years ago, Hakhel itself was discontinued, as there was very little to do without the correct personnel and setting to conduct the ceremony. Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, very famously called upon Jews to conduct their own “mini-Hakhel” gatherings in public places around the world, in order to build unity and encourage the virtues that the Jewish kings read about during the ceremonies.
However, with the founding of the State of Israel and the return of Jewish rulership to the Land of Israel, one of the first issues to return was that of Hakhel. As Jews had been keeping track of shemitah years throughout the exile, it was no secret when to do Hakhel. When the city of Jerusalem was reunited in 1967, and the Jewish people regained free access to the Western Wall, the “where” of Hakhel became a possibility, too. However, it wasn’t until 1994 that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel instituted an official Hakhel gathering at the Wall, with the chief rabbis, the president of Israel and others in attendance.
7 years ago my daughter and I attended the Hakhel ceremony at the Kotel and it was an unbelievable experience. There were hundreds of thousands of people cramming the plaza and standing on all the stairs on both sides leading up to the Jewish Quarter; people were standing on balconies and hanging out of windows all around the area, and the atmosphere was indescribable: so intense and exciting and emotional. See my pictures below from 2008.
I hope we’ll be able to repeat the experience this year!
If you want some other suggestions for trips and activities during Chol Hamoe’d, the Times of Israel has an excellent, exhaustive list of the best days out this Sukkot. The list covers all the different types of activities, from festivals to Sukkot -related themes to campsites and more, for families, active types, culture vultures, music lovers and others.
Some of the organized tours and tiyulim appeal to me:
Kfar Kedem takes you back in time to the Mishnaic period. Dressed in ancient style clothing you will milk a goat, make cheese, ride a donkey and learn all about how things were done at the time of the Mishna in the most beautiful surroundings and by fun, animated tour guides.
Scavenger hunts in the Old City or Gush Etzion make a fun way to learn and explore with your family. Book your place and tour Israel in a unique way.
Archaeological Dig in Beit Guvrin is a great activity in ancient caves. Be the first to discover new finds with tools just like real archaeologists. Great guides make this very meaningful — a real experience of Israeli history at your fingertips.
Top Tiyulim and National Park events
National Parks — As well as usual hikes, there are special events at some National Parks (free for National Park members), for example, Mamshit Nabatean Market, September 28 – October 3, The secrets of the Megillot at the Qumran, sand sculpting competitions and more…
Ramat Hanadiv — lots of choice here — great trail paths and beautiful gardens to explore as well as a lovely milky kosher restaurant.
Majrasa — Probably the most popular Tiyul especially for young adventurers — a beautiful half hour-long shaded walk in the water!
Einot Tzukim — more swimming than hiking this is a beautiful oasis in the desert great for the whole family
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