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 mentioned above, In Israel (and in some Jewish communities abroad) Sukkot “markets” spring up in the streets immediately after Yom Kippur where they sell everything from Sukkah building kits (poles, sheets, s’chach roofing) to decorations, lulavim, and etrogim. Here are some pictures from a Jerusalem Sukkot market (h/t David Newman):
And here is a video of a Sukkot market in Golders Green, London (which I never dreamed I would see when I grew up there!)
Since I mentioned the frailty of the sukkah, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo has a thought-provoking piece on Sukkot as a state of mind:
In the emptiness and silence of the desert, an authentic inner voice can be heard while sitting in the sukkah, a hut that existentially gives protection but in no way physically shields. Its roof leaks and its walls fall apart the moment a wind blows. It is a place with no excuses. But it can only be experienced by a people of the wilderness; a people who are not rooted in a substance of physical limitations and borders; a people who are not entirely fixed by an earthly point, even while living in a homeland. Their spirit reaches far beyond restrictive borders. They are particularistic so as to be universalistic. They are never satisfied with their spiritual condition and are therefore always on the road, looking for more, even when they live in their homeland, which is nothing more than a feeble sukkah.
But a desert is even more. It is an area where nothing can be tangibly achieved. In a desert, people cannot prove themselves, at least not in the conventional sense. It doesn’t offer jobs that people can fight over and compete for. It has no factories, offices, or department stores. There are no bosses to order people around, and no fellow workers with whom to compete. It is ‘prestige deprived.’ In a desert, there is no kavod (honor) to be received. It doesn’t have cities, homes, or fences. If it had these, it would no longer be a desert. Human achievements would end its desert status and would undermine and destroy the grandeur of its might and beauty.
It has only a sukkah, a place that lacks all physical security. People can only “be,” but never “have” anything, in a desert. There is no food to be eaten but the manna, the soul food, and one can easily walk in the same shoes for 40 years, because authenticity does not wear out. People’s garments grow with them and don’t need changing or cleaning, because they are as pure as can be (See Rashi’s commentary on Devarim 8:4). And that which is pure continues to grow and stays clean.
The desert is therefore a state of mind. It removes the walls in our subconscious, and even in our conscious way of thinking. It is an out-of-the-box realm. In a desert one can think without limits. As such, one is open to the impossible and hears murmurs from another world, which can never be heard in the city or on a job. The desert allows for authentic thinking, without obstacles, and therefore is able to break through and remove from us any artificial thoughts that don’t identify with our deeper souls. Nothing spiritual gets lost, because the fences around our thoughts become neutralized and no longer bar the way to our inner lives. The desert is the ultimate liberty. It teaches us that openness doesn’t mean surrender to what is most “in” or powerful. The desert doesn’t consist of vulgar successes that have been made into major accomplishments.
And therefore it is a place of miracles.
Read it all. It is extremely interesting.
The Times of Israel provides us with a closer look at how the lulavim, the palm fronds which are part of the Arba Minim used on the festival, are harvested on Kibbutz Tirat Zvi. Their catchy punny headline is “Fronds in high places“:
In Tirat Zvi, Buddhists are the experts on kosher lulavs. The Thai agricultural workers who labor in the kibbutz’s date plantation are the first to separate the kosher palm fronds from the rest. The lulav forms the basis for the Four Species, a group of ritual plants used over the Sukkot holiday.
“They’re Buddhist, but they know and understand what makes it kosher,” Avner Rotem, the manager of the date plantation on the kibbutz, said as Somjit, a Thai worker who declined to give his last name, deftly maneuvered a yellow cherry picker to the top of one of the 13,000 palm trees used for growing lulavs.
The lulavs come from the baby palm fronds on the tops of trees, where the newest branches poke out. They must be harvested when they are about a meter in length, but before the fronds begin to split and open, rendering them unkosher.
For seven months a year, Somjit brings the cherry picker to the top of the trees and reaches beyond the tough outer leaves, which have already split open into the traditional palm shape, to pick out the newest branches. With two quick snips, he cuts off two meter-long lulavs, checks them for size, ensures the tips are not damaged, and places them carefully in a cardboard box, before moving to the next tree.
Tirat Zvi, a religious kibbutz that bakes in one of the hottest parts of Israel in the Beit She’an valley, is the largest producer of lulavs in Israel, shipping out 150,000 each year. Rotem estimates that Jews shake about 700,000 lulavs in Israel and 500,000 abroad during the festival.
At Tirat Zvi, lulavs are harvested from a type of palm tree called the Dery Palm. As the story goes, in 1985, Shabtai Kovin, a young rabbi from Safed, came to the Beit She’an area in search of the “perfect lulav.” (Date trees love heat, so the Beit She’an Valley is one of the most popular places for date trees.)
He met with growers from Tirat Zvi, examining all types of palm fronds that come from the kibbutz’s nine species of date trees. After careful scrutiny, he proclaimed that the Dery species produces the best lulav.
Today, approximately half of the kibbutz’s 25,000 date trees, spread out over 1,500 dunams (370 acres), are Dery. While dates are the kibbutz’s biggest agricultural product, lulavs account for about a third of its profits.
Tirat Zvi sells its lulavs wholesale, in boxes of 40, for approximately NIS 25 per lulav. They are considered high-end lulavs, and can sell on the market for NIS 100 for just the palm fronds (without the willow, myrtle and etrog). Rotem has seen Tirat Zvi lulavs for sale in New York for as much as NIS 350 ($100).
The high prices mean the kibbutz’s date trees are also a target for theft. Over the past few years, hundreds of lulavs have been stolen from shorter trees during Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, when the fields are empty.
Tirat Zvi also exports lulavs to Australia, Panama and Argentina. Each lulav is individually packed in a plastic bag, stamped with the Tirat Zvi logo.
Originally, the kibbutz would begin harvesting lulavs in the summer, after Tisha B’Av. But in the 2000s, it began experimenting with an antifungal wash that allows the lulavs to be stored for up to six months.
These days, Rotem and his 25 workers begin harvesting lulavs for Sukkot when the kibbutz children pull out their Purim costumes in early spring. The lulav packaging house has seven refrigerators that can each store 20,000 lulavs throughout the blistering summer.
Seven months of harvesting means a mature date tree can produce around 14 lulavs per year. The palm frond shoots grow at a rate of about three centimeters per day and are trimmed when they are around a meter in length, meaning each tree is harvested about once a month. The advent of cold storage also means that Israelis, unlike Diaspora Jews, no longer need to import lulavs from Morocco and Egypt to meet their needs.
Engelen said working on the date plantation has increased his appreciation of the lulav. “Usually you only see it for a week and then you throw it out,” he said. “Here, we’re thinking of lulavs almost all year round. We spend a good portion of the year working on things that people shake seven times and then throw in the trash.”
“We have several religions that work here,” said Rotem. “We have Muslim and Druze workers, Buddhist Thai workers; we also have a student from Nepal studying agriculture — all of them are working on our farm.”
He said one of the reason he likes working with the date trees is that every part of the tree has a use. “It’s written in the Talmud that there’s no trash from the date tree. You eat its fruit, you use its leaves; even the trunk we use to make benches.”
There’s even a second use for palm fronds over Sukkot, as schach, or covering, for the sukkahs (temporary huts) that families build.
What a lovely, fascinating article! Who knew there was so much to learn about lulavim and date trees? Kol hakavod to Kibbutz Tirat Zvi on their industry.
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 same’ach!
!חג סוכות שמח