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.
Since I mentioned the frailty of the sukkah, I read an interesting explanation about the meaning of Sukkot and the Sukkah in Arutz Sheva: The Sukkah – symbol of life’s shadows:
In fact, Halacha makes it clear that the Sukka must be built in such a way that it’s not able to stand up against a strong wind, that its roof must leak when it rains, and that it must contain more shadow than sunlight. These conditions should make us feel distressed, since the Sukka represents the vulnerability of life.
So why does the Torah command us to be joyful, precisely at a time when we are confronted with all that can go wrong in life?
Since the Sukka teaches us about life’s problems, we would expect that the interior of the Sukka should reflect a similar message. The Sukka should be empty of all comfort. It should contain some flimsy chairs, a shaky table and some meager stale food.
However, Halacha stipulates that the Sukka’s interior should reflect a most optimistic lifestyle. Its frail walls should be decorated with beautiful objects.
The leaking roof should be made attractive by hanging colorful fruits and decorations from it. We are required to bring our best food and have feasts in the Sukka. We should eat from the most beautiful plates and use fancy silverware.
All this seems to reflect a feeling that this world is a most pleasant place made for our enjoyment. So why do we sit in a weather-beaten frail hut?
The message of the Sukka is clear. The outside walls and the leaking roof reveal our vulnerability and uncertainty of life. But inside the Sukka walls, we need to make our life as attractive and comfortable as possible, and to enjoy its great benefits and blessings. Instead of becoming depressed, we should make the best out of life and as Tehillim states, “serve G-D with joy”.
To help us celebrate in a truly joyful fashion there are loads of attractions and activities for all ages and families all over Israel. Israel21C has a list of 15 things to do in Israel during Sukkot while the City of David has a special Sukkot schedule. Tourist Israel also has a good overview of the activities over the festival. Many municipalities hold a “beautiful sukkah” competition
While my festival posts are always joyful, this year I can’t help but mention that the first yahrzeit of the murder of Naama and Eitam Henkin Hy’d will occur on Sukkot. Who can forget that dreadful day? This year, to mark the first yahrzeit, a project, “Aguda Achat” was launched in the memory of the Henkins. Naama Henkin z”l was a graphic artist and had prepared decorative posters for the Sukkah. This project includes all kinds of sukkah posters, including by Naama herself. The pictures can be printed out and hung in your sukkah. This is a wonderful way to commemorate her and to accentuate the positive and celebrate her life.
This Dry Bones cartoon really sums up the contradictions and fragility of Jewish history and our life in Israel and yet stresses our optimism:
May this Sukkot be a festival of pure joy, and may we merit to celebrate it in the rebuilt Temple speedily in our days.
I wish all those celebrating a chag Sukkot sameach!
!חג סוכות שמח