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.
You can see a picture of our own rather simple sukkah in our car park at the top of this post. By comparison my sister’s sukkah is a fantastic glittering edifice which has been entered into our city’s Beautiful Sukkah competition. 🙂 Good luck!
This year, because of the coronavirus restrictions, we will each be celebrating in our own Sukkah, with no visits to or by friends and family, and as in the previous chagim, the prayer services are going to be held in small minyanim outdoors only. It’s not going to be the same, it’s going to be a lot quieter than usual obviously, but we must not be sad because one of the prime mitzvot of Sukkot is to be happy – ושמחת בחגך והיית אך שמח – And you shall be happy on your festival and be only happy.
One way to spread happiness is to share your joy. These families showed us how working together spreads the joy. Here is my niece’s building in Lod, where they ran one huge paper chain from one balcony to another to decorate the entire building! Note too the sukkah on every balcony. ♥
And here are some children in my daughter’s yishuv holding a 150m long paper chain to decorate the length of the street. 🙂
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.
In pre-corona days, the weekdays of Sukkot, as on Pesach, are called Chol Hamo’ed (lit. the weekdays of the festival) 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. This year, as mentioned above, there will be no trips and no visits, and it’s going to be a very subdued festival. Please G-d our efforts will reduce the numbers of infections and enable the country to slowly open up again very soon.
This year there is no intermediate Shabbat (Shabbat chol hamo’ed) of Sukkot, since tomorrow is the first day, so Megillat Kohelet (the book of Ecclesiastes) will be read tomorrow in the thousands of minyanim around the country. We won’t be able to have the pleasure of hearing our son reading the megillah this year, as in previous years, but I’m sure he’ll do a great job!
If you want some extra insight into the meaning of Sukkot in the age of corona, then you could do no better than read Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:
Succot is the time we ask the most profound question of what makes a life worth living. Having prayed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to be written in the Book of Life, Kohelet (the book we read on Succot) forces us to remember how brief life actually is, and how vulnerable. “Teach us rightly to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). What matters is not how long we live, but how intensely we feel that life is a gift we repay by giving to others. Surely this is a message that resonates even more forcefully this year as we approach Succot in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.Ultimately joy, the overwhelming theme of the festival, is what we feel when we know that it is a privilege simply to be alive, inhaling the intoxicating beauty of this moment amidst the profusion of nature, the teeming diversity of life and the sense of communion with those many others with whom we share a history and a hope – even if this year we cannot physically share a succah. We are all strangers on earth, temporary residents in God’s almost eternal universe. And whether or not we are capable of pleasure, whether or not we have found happiness, we can all feel joy.
May this Sukkot be a festival of pure joy, despite the restrictions, and may we merit to celebrate it in good health in the rebuilt Temple speedily in our days.
I wish all those celebrating a chag Sukkot same’ach!
!חג סוכות שמח