Transitioning from one of the most solemn to one of the most festive holidays, the weeklong Sukkot (Booths, Harvest Festival, or Feast of Tabernacles) celebrations begin each year five days after Yom Kippur, on the 15th Day of Tishri, based on Leviticus 23:24.
Dwelling in the greenery-covered sukkah or hut that would have protected our ancestors from the scorching desert sun, partaking in the Four Kinds, representing our unity and belief in God’s omnipresence, and rejoicing abundantly are the main themes of this festive time of year. This joyful holiday is also sometimes referred to as Zeman Simkhateinu (the season of our rejoicing), as the Torah reading cycle is nearing its end for the year and a new year is ahead of us with opportunities to study the Torah again in its entirety and learn more about the divine character, inspiration, and mysteries of our Lord and Creator.
There is not another festival or holy day with such an undercurrent, if not an outright explicit, commandment to rejoice as Sukkot. Sukkot has such themes of joy that back in the Talmudic era, someone could simply utter the word "chag" without being specific about which holiday was being referred to, and one could automatically assume the reference was to Sukkot. Thus, it should not be surprising that Sukkot is sometimes also referred to as "the Time of our Happiness."
Sukkot is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three annual pilgrimages (along with Passover and Shavuot) where adult male Jews are expected to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Then every seven years on Sukkot, the King would read the Torah aloud to all the men, women, and children of Israel in an event known as the Hakhel. Yet if, for some reason, one could not make it to the spring pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Sukkot would be the primary pilgrimage one would want to undertake, as it is viewed as the holiday of holidays. If one only made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem once a year, it would be for Sukkot.
Unlike other holidays, the various names of Sukkot do not commemorate a historical event. The name more often refers to the temporary dwellings that the children of Israel would reside in while they traversed the Sinai Desert from Egypt to the Promised Land. It also refers to Chag-HaAsif (the Harvest Festival) or the fall harvest festival (the Festival of Ingathering). In Israel, farmers often grow their crops in the winter months, which are subsequently ready for harvest in the late spring months. However, some crops remain in the field for several months after this to dry out, and thus would be ready for harvest in the early fall. As a result, Chag HaAsif is a reason for rejoicing in the Lord’s harvest, celebrating the bounty and the provisions that God has made for us.
It would not be uncommon to light candles at twilight, partake in festive meals with family and friends, recite the Kiddush, and enjoy challah dipped in honey the night before Sukkot. Then the first day of Sukkot itself is considered holy, thus Yom Tov. During the subsequent intermediate days of Sukkot, one is permitted to work and participate in normal activities, with the only stipulations being waving the lulav and etrog daily, partaking in one’s meals in the sukkah, and living in the sukkah insofar as one is physically able for the duration of the holiday.
During Chol Hamoed, or the subsequent intermediate days of Sukkot, it would be prudent to dwell in the sukkah and fulfill the tradition of the Four Kinds each day of Sukkot, except for Shabbat, when the Four Kinds ceremony is not included.
Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, is a day when our fates, which were sealed on Yom Kippur, are finalized. This occasion may include processionals around the bimah seven times (symbolizing processions around the later Temple of ancient times; each processional is known as a hoshanah), praying, and striking the ground five times with five willows (Hoshanot) as the leaves shake loose from the branches. Though there are various different explanations offered for where this tradition originated, one of the most commonly accepted explanations is that the leaves falling from the willow branch when beat on the floor represent our desire for adequate rainfall to bless the land with the hydration needed to prevent drought and provide an adequate agricultural bounty the following year.
Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret, which follow Sukkot, are often misunderstood to be part of Sukkot when, in reality, these are distinct holidays occurring immediately after Sukkot, sometimes spanning two days and sometimes condensed into one day with a level of exhilaration exceeding even that of Sukkot.
Sukkot in Religious Life
Congregants will often say Hallel (Psalms 113–118, the psalms of praise) each day of Sukkot during the local congregation’s morning prayer services. The exception to this occurs on Shabbat, when Hallel is recited while holding the Four Kinds, as is prescribed in the siddur. The climax of the Sukkot festivities includes lively singing and dancing as congregants parade the Torah scrolls around the bimah holding the lulav and etrog (fruit of the citron tree).
On each day of Sukkot, congregants may collectively recite special blessings over each of the Four Kinds and wave the four species of plants (arba minim, based on Leviticus 23:40 and implied in Nehemiah 8:15) in six directions (right, left, forward, up, down, and backwards), which together symbolize the Jewish people "rejoicing before the Lord."
It is not uncommon for the Jewish people to dwell in the sukkah for seven days and nights, weather and health permitting, including all meals, which would be the bare minimum activity that would occur within the sukkah, based on Leviticus 23:42.
Generally, when a sukkah is constructed, there are at least two and a half and, realistically, usually three walls designed from natural flora and fauna, such as but not limited to bamboo, corn stalks, sticks, palm fronds, pine boughs, or other branches, and a roof often constructed from a particular material known as sekhakh (a "covering" that would be manufactured from something that grew from the ground and was cut off). Installing a roof on a sukkah is characteristically considered the final step of construction.
Though it is considered to be rather flimsy in its construction, a sukkah should be covered with a material that will prevent the dwelling from blowing away in the wind. It is designed with enough integrity to provide some shade from the sun, but the walls are often not completely solid, allowing one from inside the sukkah to see the stars twinkling in the night sky or for raindrops to enter the inside of the dwelling.
A sukkah can be designed to be of any size, as long as the size is sufficient for fulfilling the mitzvah to dwell within the structure. The first two nights of Sukkot include especially festive meals taking place in the sukkah.
A waterproof cover may be used on top of a sukkah to protect the structure during heavy rains, but a sukkah with a waterproof cover does not fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah, and the cover must be removed for it to qualify as dwelling in a sukkah. It is customary to decorate a sukkah with such things as dried squash, corn, apples, various other fruits, artwork drawn by one’s children, or sometimes even mittens. These items are often donated to charity upon the conclusion of Sukkot.
Overall, the time in the sukkah is a time of fellowship with family and friends, and it is encouraged to invite guests and strangers who do not normally enjoy the company of others.
While eating a meal in the sukkah, the most common blessing would be: "Blessed are You, Our God, Creator of time and space, who enriches our lives with holiness, commanding us to dwell in the sukkah" (Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu leisheiv basukkah).
The blessing over the lulav and etrog combined with the stem of the etrog pointing downward would be, "Blessed are You, our God, Creator of time and space, who entriches our lives with holiness, commanding us to take the lulav and etrog" (Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b'mitzvotav'tzivanu aln'tilat lulav).
Sukkahs could also be symbolic of the dwellings that farmers would live in during those last final days before the fall harvest, striving to complete the fall harvest before Israel’s winter rainy season. According to Jewish traditions, God will determine on Sukkot how much rain will fall during the upcoming winter (the rainy season). Building on that concept and the fact that the Temple sacrifices included one person pouring wine over the altar, on Sukkot, water may be poured over the altar.
The Four Kinds
The four kinds, used in this form most likely since the First Century, include a palm branch (lulav), two willows (aravot), a minimum of three myrtles (hadassim), one citron native to Israel (etrog), and the aravot (willows). This is symbolic of four different types of Jewish people, with varying levels of understanding of the Torah and the significance of Sukkot.
Based on ancient ceremonies that occurred during Temple services (though some question whether willows and citrons existed in the context of Leviticus), the purpose of the Four Kinds according to the sages of the Midrash era is to represent all these different demographics of Jewish people that comprise the greater Israel during this holiday of rejoicing that unites the Jews as a whole in a way that is greater than any one of the groups alone. Unity is an important theme of Sukkot.
After the Four Kinds ceremony, it would not be uncommon for congregants to circle the bimah holding the Four Kinds and recite Hoshanot, which refers to certain poems and prayers requesting different types of divine favor recited twice daily on each day of the holiday.
Along the lines of the aforementioned connections to Israel’s rainy season, some congregations will have water ceremonies, symbolic of the Second Temple ceremonies when water was brought into the Temple from the Gihon Springs and poured over the altar along with wine. One could extrapolate a foreshadowing of Yeshua as our Living Water today. A customary refrain after each prayer would include "Hoshanah!" ("Please save us"). Thus the seventh day of Sukkot is known as Hoshanah Rabbah, or the Great Hoshanah—a day when congregants process around the outside of the synagogue with the Four Kinds in their hands.
A welcoming ceremony known as ushpizin (an Aramaic term for "welcoming") may occur, in which our ancestors are symbolically invited to join our families and friends in these festive meals. Dwelling in the sukkah should not be limited to one’s immediate blood family, ignoring our greater family in faith, who may not have a place to go to fellowship and for whom dwelling in a sukkah for days on end alone could be emotionally difficult. Maimonides had much to say about those who live comfortably amidst their own families but do not reach out to the poor—and not only those poor financially, but those poor in spirit, relationships, fellowship, health, or other needs. "While eating and drinking himself, one is obligated to feed the stranger, orphan, and widow, along with the other unfortunate poor... [One who does not] is not enjoying a mitzvah, but rather his stomach" (Laws of Yom Tov 6:18). Hospitality is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, not to mention the themes of it throughout the Bible.
The Zohar (Emor 103a) elaborates after its explanation of ushpizin: "One must also gladden the poor, and the portion [that would otherwise have been set aside for these Ushpizin] guests should go to the poor. For if a person sits in the shadow of faith and invites those guests but does not give their portion [to the poor], they all remain distant from him... One should not say, "I will first satisfy myself with food and drink, and I shall give the leftovers to the poor." Rather, the first thing must be for one's guests. If one gladdens his guests and satisfies them, God rejoices over him. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the others shower him
Sukkot often brings about a season of simplicity and the primitiveness of living in a temporary shelter in the wilderness. Dwelling in the sukkah away from the comforts of our everyday lives often helps us refocus our minds on what is truly important in life without the distractions of modern society and the lavishness experienced by many in first-world countries in particular, which so many of us often take for granted without extending thanks to God for.
Other than kreplach (stuffed dumplings), there are not really any traditional Sukkot foods, though many families may choose to incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables and other foods symbolic of the harvest in their area, such as challah, kugels, and chicken soup. Many people will, at this time, include an olive-sized piece of bread or mezonot out of tradition. Some Jewish communities will not consume any food or beverage outside the Sukkah. It is variable whether groups sleep in the sukkah; some do, some do not.
In the State of Israel itself, there may be no Temple today, but it is not uncommon to encounter singing, dancing, and live music each night of Sukkot.
In addition to the aforementioned passages in Leviticus, Sukkot is referenced in John 7:2-4: "Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, "Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world."
References to Sukkot may also appear in Revelation 7:9–10, where a people gathered before Yeshua carrying palm branches and crying out salvation," which parallels the hoshana theme: "After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
Sukkot is a holiday that reminds us of God’s provisions for His children throughout history and His ongoing faithfulness to His children even today, providing provisions not only in terms of our daily needs but also in the form of the Living Water and Light that is Yeshua Our Messiah. There is reason to believe such a season of incredible rejoicing in one form or another may continue into eternity based on Zechariah 14:16: "And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations that came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles."