The Jewish holiday known as Sukkot, meaning “booths” or “huts”, is one of the Shalosh Regalim, or three biblical pilgrimage festivals. This autumn holiday commences on the 15th of Tishrei and lasts for seven days.
The Sukkah is reminiscent of the huts in which the People of Israel dwelled during their forty year sojourn in the desert prior to their entering Israel. They were entirely dependent on God for sustenance and protection. The commandment to live in a Sukkah for the entire holiday is to remind us that essentially, this is true today too, although we sometimes delude ourselves that the case is otherwise.
Throughout Sukkot, we eat and sleep (in many cases) in the Sukkah, and generally spend pleasant time there with family and friends.
Immediately after Sukkot come the Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah holiday, one day in Israel, and two days in the diaspora.
Building a Sukkah
The walls of the Sukkah may be made from any material such as wood, canvas, aluminum and may either be free-standing or include sides of a building or porch. The roof (s’chach) must be of organic material that was once attached to the ground but isn’t now, such as bamboo, palm fronds and wood. The interior of the Sukkah is decorated with beautiful Sukkah decorations and posters. Some have variations of the Seven Species hanging, while others have posters of Jerusalem and of Rabbis and holy men. The custom of Chabad is not to decorate the Sukkah at all stating that the Sukkah itself is beautiful and any addition may detract from it.
The first day of Sukkot in Israel (two days in the diaspora) is celebrated as a full festival with special prayer services and holiday meals. The intermediate days following are called “Chol HaMoed” and have a special status of being less than festival days and more than weekdays. They have special prayers and are great days for family and friends to get together. Any housework that isn’t necessary and will interfere with enjoyment of the holiday such as laundering, mending etc. is not permitted. (Great, finally a holiday for housewives!) Chol Hamoed is traditionally a time for men to study Torah in the Sukkah in a relaxed and spiritual atmosphere. The seventh day is “Hoshanah Rabbah” (great salvation) which is a solemn day spent in prayers. During the holiday of Sukkot, the world is judged for water and blessing for fruit and crops. This day is the final sealing of the judgement and since all life depends on water, it is a day spent in supplication and repentance. Seven circuits are made by worshippers with the Lulav and etrog while reciting special prayers.
On all days (except Shabbat) the Four Species are taken and included in the prayers.
Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah – we leave the Sukkah and return to eat and sleep at home. Simchat Torah is a joyous holiday as the last portion of the Torah is read in the synagogue, and immediately afterwards, the first portion of Bereshit (Genesis) is read to show that Torah study never ends. During both the night and morning prayer services, congregants engage in lively dancing with all the Torah scrolls which have been removed from the Ark.
The Aramaic term for “guests” refer to the spiritual guests who are invited into the Sukkah every day. Each day a different guest arrives, with the other six following, one of the “Seven Shepherds of Israel” coinciding with the seven days of Sukkot.
Every day of Sukkot has a special spiritual focus which is represented by the guest of that day. A special prayer is said each day welcoming the day’s guest. So who are these Guests?
Abraham – our first Patriarch
Symbolizes Chesed – or benevolence, the character trait personified by Avraham.
Isaac - our second Patriarch
Symbolized Gevurah – restraint or self discipline.
Jacob – our third Patriarch
Symbolized Tiferet – harmony, beauty and truth.
Moses – the greatest Jewish prophet
Symbolized Netzach – victory and endurance.
Aaron – brother of Moses, the first Kohen Gadol, or High Priest
Symbolized Hod – Splendor and humility.
Joseph – Jacobs most famous son who became King of Egypt
Symbolized Yesod – foundation, often associated with Kabbalah
David – King of Israel
Symbolized Malchut – leadership
- Four Species
What are the Four Species?
1. Etrog – citron fruit combining a good taste with a good fragrance is compared to a person who has good deeds and Torah learning.
2. Lulav – palm branch is from a tree that bears good fruit, dates, but is odorless, in comparison to someone who is a Torah scholar but isn’t rich in good deeds.
3. Hadassim – myrtle leaves are fragrant but tasteless which represents Jews who are rich in good deeds but not particularly in Torah learning.
4. Aravot – or willow, which have neither taste or smell, compared to a Jew who hasn’t good deeds or Torah learning.
The commandment to combine the Four Species in the Synagogue and pray with them teaches us a lesson that all Jews must be unified and that the Jewish nation isn’t complete without each and every single Jew.
Sukkot in times of the Holy Temple:
The ceremony of Hakhel, was held every seven years, in the year following the Shmita (Sabbatical) year. All Jewish men, women and children on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festival would gather in the Temple courtyard on the first day of Chol Hamoed Sukkot to hear the Jewish king royally bedecked and standing on a specially built platform in the center of the courtyard read selections from the Torah.
Simchat Beit Hashoeiva (Rejoicing at the place of the Water Drawing)
A unique service was performed every morning throughout the Sukkot holiday in the Holy Temple called “Nisuach HaMayim”, or “Libation of Water”. Since Sukkot is the time when the world is judged for water, this ceremony is to supplicate God to send rain in its proper time. The water for this ceremony was drawn from the Pool of Siloam in the City of David amongst great joy, inspiring the verse in Isaiah: “And you shall draw waters with joy from the wells of salvation”. (Isa. 12:3). Every night in the outer Temple courtyard, tens of thousands of people would gather to watch the Simchat Beit HaShoevah as esteemed and pious leaders of the community sang, danced, and performed juggling acts to the accompaniment of beautiful music of the Levites. It is written in Mishnah, Tractate Sukkah: “He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Place of the Water Drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life”.
Every day, after the regular daily offering in the Holy Temple, the Additional Offerings were brought. These additional offerings included a total of seventy oxen, each day a different amount. These correspond to the seventy original nations of the world who are descendants of the sons of Noah and who are the ancestors of all nations of this day. The sacrifices brought symbolizing these seventy nations served as an atonement for them and in prayer for their wellbeing as well as for universal peace and harmony amongst them.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “If the nations of the world had known the value of the Temple for them, they would have surrounded it with fortresses in order to protect it. For it was greater value for them than for Israel ..”