The last and most joyous festival of the Jewish holiday season is almost upon us – Sukkot finishes tonight and Simchat Torah begins.
Today, the last day of Sukkot, known as Hoshana Raba, has a serious character despite the joy of the festival, as it is the last day for us to repent before the Book of Life is sealed. Special slichot (penitence) prayers are recited in the synagogue, and the hoshanot – the circuit of the shul with the lulav and etrog, which is performed every day of Sukkot – is carried out with 7 circuits of the shul. On this day we wish each other “pitka taba” or “a guten kvittel”, both of which mean “a good note”, i.e. wishing that we should be written down well in the Book of Life.
One last item about Sukkot before the festival ends. Referring to the pathetic UNESCO vote which denies the Jews’ connection to the Temple Mount, Rabbi Dov Lipman, former MK, writes (h/t Reality) that Sukkot is the perfect response to UNESCO’s vote:
Walking the streets of Jerusalem during these festive days, it suddenly struck me just how perfectly timed was the absurd UNESCO decision disconnecting Judaism from the Temple Mount – because no holiday exposes the idiocy of the UNESCO vote better than Succot.
We begin with the commandment in the Bible – written over 3,000 years ago, before Islam’s inception – that the people of Israel were to celebrate on the Temple Mount for the entire duration of the Succot holiday: “For seven days you shall celebrate for the Lord your God, in the place that the Lord will choose.” (Deuteronomy 16:15) This is the only holiday which has a specific command for the Jewish people to celebrate in the Temple for an extended period of time.
The special relationship between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount was cemented when King Solomon dedicated the First Temple on Succot (Kings I 8:2), and when the Second Temple was dedicated on Succot (Ezra 3:4). Both Jewish Temples – which sat right there on the Temple Mount – were dedicated during these days of a Succot! This, no doubt, is a major reason for our national rejoicing during these days.
(Kings I 8:41-43 and Chronicles II 6:32-33) The Jewish Temple was indeed a spiritual home for non-Jews as well. Seventy sacrifices were offered on the holiday of Succot, and many commentators explain that these were offered on behalf of each of the 70 nations of the world.
Quite remarkably, as I write these words, tens of thousands of non-Jews have flocked to Jerusalem for the Sukkot holiday as part of the Feast of the Tabernacles under the auspices of the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem. Indeed, for 35 years during this holiday, hundreds of thousands of Christians from all around the world have been flocking to the Temple Mount area, in keeping with the biblical description of the Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount on Succot as an address for Gentiles seeking spiritual connection.
Tens of thousands of Jews and Christians flooded the alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City every day this week as they make their way toward the Western Wall and the Temple Mount area.
So the 24 countries of UNESCO can decide whatever they want. Our response is Succot, in which we reaffirm our commitment to the Jewish Temple, to the Temple Mount, and to Jerusalem.
I can attest to the tens of thousands of visitors to Jerusalem on Sukkot, as we ourselves got caught up in a human traffic jam as we negotiated our way to the Kotel. It was an amazingly uplifting (if squashy) experience!
As for the celebrations on Simchat Torah itself, I refer you to a previous post on Simchat Torah.
One of the things I mentioned in that post is that the festival is almost schizophrenic in character because its two parts are so completely different. Shemini Atzeret, the name given to Simchat Torah in the Torah itself – is festive yet serious, with the Yizkor (memorial for the dead) prayer and Tefilat Geshem (more on that here).
The serious part follows the pure joy of Simchat Torah, in which we celebrate the completion of the Torah reading cycle, reading the last portion of the Torah, Zot Habracha (This is the blessing), and then starting again with the first chapters of Bereishit (Genesis). In Israel, with the festival being celebrated all on one day, it always feels very strange to me to make the sudden switch from all the happiness and jollity of Simchat Torah to the serious prayers of Shemini Atzeret during the Musaf prayers.
But such is the reality of Jewish life, with seriousness and joy and celebration all rolled together.
Joy mixed with sadness will definitely be the order of the day on Simchat Torah in the community of Peduel, which will be holding a Hachnasat Sefer Torah, a dedication of a new Torah scroll, written in memory of Naama and Eitam Henkin Hy’d, who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists in front of their children exactly a year ago, last Sukkot. (The children now live with their grandparents in the community). The joy at receiving a new Sefer Torah will undoubtedly be mixed with tears at the memory of their loss.
This year, with the chagim falling so late in the year, Tefilat geshem, the prayer for rain, has been perfectly timed, as the weather has turned markedly cooler (we were freezing in our son’s sukkah!) and we eagerly await the winter – or at least, the rainy season.
As we complete Sukkot with Hoshana Raba I wish you all “pitka taba”.
And for tomorrow, I wish those of you celebrating Chag Sameach!