Sukkot is a seven day celebration. It is the third of the Pilgrim festivals, together with Pesach and Shavuot, that was celebrated in Jerusalem. In days gone by, it was celebrated as the end of the harvest and agricultural year. As with all festivals there is also a historical reason for the festival.
The Torah teaches us that the reason for the festival is that:
בַּסֻּכֹּ֥ת תֵּשְׁב֖וּ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים כָּל־הָֽאֶזְרָח֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֵשְׁב֖וּ בַּסֻּכֹּֽת׃
You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths,
לְמַעַן֮ יֵדְע֣וּ דֹרֹֽתֵיכֶם֒ כִּ֣י בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God. (Leviticus: 23:40-42)
The historical reason for the celebration is to recall how the Jewish People travelled in the desert. The Torah wants that we should remember how we journeyed through the desert as this teaches us gratitude and thanksgiving.
There is so much to this festival. So lets get into the details.
- How do we celebrate the festival?
- How do we build a sukkah?
- What are the 4 species known as Lulav and Etrog?
- How do we use the Lulav and Etrog?
- Why do we use the Lulav and Etrog?
- Why do we celebrate Sukkot now? Why not when we left Egypt at Pesach? Why not sit in a Sukkah and read the haggadah?
How Do We Celebrate Sukkot?
Sukkot is a seven day celebration. We celebrate by leaving our homes and moving into temporary structures called Sukkot, booths. These structures consist of a minimum of three walls made from any material and a roof which is covered with natural foliage, palm branches etc. or bamboo sticks.
For 7 days we make the sukkah our permanent dwelling place. We eat our meals, work and even sleep in the sukkah. Of course this depends on the weather, if it’s raining or extremely uncomfortable we do not have to be in the sukkah. For the 7 days we celebrate with friends and family, having multiple events to remember the Exodus.
There is a strong tradition that we welcome the Ushpizin– the 7 shepherds of our People, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aharon, Joseph and King David and regale with stories about their lives and lessons learnt from them. We still eat round challot dipped in honey. The meals are festive and we are commanded to be happy over the festival.
During the day we recite Hallel and shake the Lulav and etrog. This is done each day except for Shabbat. We also use the Lulav and Etrog during the Hoshana ceremony.
Greeting for Sukkot: The traditional greeting is Chag Sameach.
How To Build A Sukkah
A sukkah is easy to construct here are the things you need:
These can be permanent or temporary. One can use anything from brick walls, to plastic sheeting or canvas on poles. There needs to be a minimum of 3 walls. The height must be at least a meter– but 2 meters is a good guide and enough area to fit a table and chairs so that you can eat.
The roof is called schach and is made from natural unprocessed materials. So palm branches yes, broken arms and legs from wooden chairs and tables no. Many people today use permanent schach, which is bamboo mats which are rolled out over the sukkah support beams.
The schach must be thick enough so that there is more shade than sunlight in the sukkah, but thin enough so that the rain can fall in.
It is important to decorate the sukkah. This is part of the general obligation to beautify the mitzvot. Take pride in you decorations. This is a great way to involve all the members of the family in the sukkah.
When to build to build the Sukkah? Most people start to build the sukkah straight after Yom Kippur, but if you started before that is totally fine.
Using the sukkah: Each time we enter the sukkah to eat a meal we recite the blessing of לישב בסוכה layshev basukkah – dwell in a sukkah. For the first meal we add a second blessing of שהחינו sheh-hecheyanu.
What Are The 4 Species Known As Lulav and Etrog?
The Torah teaches us:
אַ֡ךְ בַּחֲמִשָּׁה֩ עָשָׂ֨ר י֜וֹם לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י בְּאָסְפְּכֶם֙ אֶת־תְּבוּאַ֣ת הָאָ֔רֶץ תָּחֹ֥גּוּ אֶת־חַג־יְהוָ֖ה שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בַּיּ֤וֹם הָֽרִאשׁוֹן֙ שַׁבָּת֔וֹן וּבַיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֖י שַׁבָּתֽוֹן׃
Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the LORD [to last] seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day.
וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַעֲנַ֥ף עֵץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃
On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.
The Torah itself does not reveal what are the species that we take for the Lulav and Etrog. This is found in the Oral tradition and there we are told that the fruit of the Hadar tree is the Etrog- citron, the Lulav is the central branch of the palm tree. The boughs of the leafy tree are the myrtle and the willows is clear. All together we have 6 branches and one fruit. The etrog, the lulav, 3 branches of the myrtle and 2 branches of the willow.
How Do We Use The Lulav and Etrog?
The Lulav and Etrog are held together and shaken once a day. We hold the Lulav in our right hand and the etrog in our left. Hold the etrog upside down and recite the blessing of Al netilat lulav. Turn the etrog right side up and shake the lulav first to the right, then behind you , left, front, up and down.
The reasons for using the four species are varied. The Torah itself does not reveal the reasons for taking the species but a number of explanations appear in the commentaries:
On Sukkot we are judged for the rainfall for the year. Each of the species grow in a different region and requires different amounts of rain. We turn to the four directions and ask Hashem to send the winds to bring the rains. (The prayer for rain only is recited on Shmini Atzeret as we don’t want the rain to fall during sukkot)
The 4 species represent different body parts. The lulav – the spine. The Etrog – the heart. The myrtle – the eyes and the willows- the mouth. We use all our body parts to serve Hashem, as we do when we sway during our prayers.
The 4 species represent the different members of the Jewish community. The etrog has smell and a fruit represents the jew who is learned and does good deeds. The lulav has fruit but no smell represents the Jew who is learned but does not involve themselves with good deeds. The myrtle has a good smell but no fruit represents the Jew who has good deeds but no learning. The willow has neither fruit nor smell, represents the Jew who has neither learning nor engages in good deeds. We bring them all together for we need unity to serve Hashem. We cannot exclude anyone from the mitzvah. A powerful lesson in our world of intolerance and inability to hear alternate opinions.
Why do we celebrate Sukkot now? Why not when we left Egypt at Pesach? Why not sit in a Sukkah and read the Haggadah?
On the surface this makes a lot of sense. Pesach we celebrate the exodus from Egypt. Let’s all pack up our houses and move into a sukkah and have the seder in the sukkah. That would surely create the feeling of the Exodus. So why not? There are many answers to this question. The one that I particularly like was presented in the name of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of vilna 1720-1797) one of the greatest rabbinic scholars of the past 1000 years.
The Gaon explained that Sukkot has a second reason for its celebration. The word sukkah is a strange term, it means a covering. In the grace after meals on sukkot we make a request that Hashem should rebuild the Sukkat David- the sukkah of David is a euphemism for the Temple. As such he suggests that the building of the Sukkah is to symbolise building the Temple. He explains. We know that the Jews came out of Egypt and the plan was to receive the Torah, enter Israel, build the Temple and live in peace forever. The plan didn’t quite work that way as we know. But if we follow the timeline from the Exodus we find something quite amazing.
The Jews left Egypt on the 15th of Nisan. 7 weeks later they arrive at Sinai to receive the Torah – which we celebrate on Shavuot. Moses goes up the mountain to receive the Torah and returns 40 days later on the 17th of Tammuz. The people have built the Golden Calf. Moses smashes the tablets and prays to Hashem for 40 days for forgiveness. This is granted and on the 1st of Elul Moses once again goes up the mountain, returning 40 days later on Yom Kippur with the second set of tablets.
The very next day Moses commands the people that Hashem wishes to build a Mishkan a sanctuary or tabernacle that He can be in the midst of the People. The people collect the materials for the building. According to the Gaon, the day that they started to build the Mishkan was the 15th of Tishrei, which is sukkot. The English name for the festival is tabernacles and hints not only to the booths that they traveled in but also the Tabernacle the Mishkan built in the desert.
After we have experienced Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, days of repentance. We are now ready to restart the intimate relationship with Hashem, this is symbolised by the building and dwelling in the sukkah. We leave our homes and move to be enveloped by Hashem. For 7 days we live outside our homes and then we pray that we can take this experience back into our homes as we journey through the year.
Sukkot is a multi faceted festival. Sukkot is not only the final festival of the Pilgrim cycle it is also the final festival of the High Holiday season of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. There is also a judgement that takes place on Sukkot, this time for water. The celebration is thus not only for the end of the agricultural year it is a culmination of the repentance process and the restoration of our relationship with Hashem. Sukkot must fall at this time of the year.
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