Jewish Holiday: Sukkot

By: Amy J. Kramer

Sukkot, The Festival of Booths

Four days after Yom Kippur, Jews world-wide celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. The holiday is celebrated from the 15th of Tishri through the 21st or 22nd of Tishri, depending if you live in Israel or in the Diaspora. Sukkot usually falls out in late September or early October.

After the harvest from your threshing floor and your vineyards, you shall celebrate the Feast of Booths for seven days. (Deuteronomy 16:13)

The Torah also says:

You shall live in booths seven days 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. (Leviticus 23:42-43)

Historically, Sukkot commemorates the wanderings of the Israelites, which began with the exodus from Egypt (Passover) and continues with the giving of the Torah at Sinai (Shavuot) and ends with the wandering in the desert for the full 40 years as punishment for the sin of the golden calf.

A major agricultural festival, Sukkot is also the third of the shalosh regalim, or three pilgrimage holidays, when it was the custom of Jews everywhere to converge onto Jerusalem every Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.

Sukkot also marks the end of a long harvest, the time of year when farmers finish their work. Traditionally, this was the time for grapes to be gathered and made into raisins or wine; for olives to be picked and pressed into oil; and fruits to either ripen, or be eaten or stored.

To celebrate their hard work, the farmers and their families would go to the temple in Jerusalem to offer thanks. They built sukkot, or booths, to remember how the children of Israel built booths in the desert. The pilgrims lived in them for seven days while they, and the families they brought to Jerusalem, celebrated.

This is also why Sukkot is known as hag-ha-asif, the festival of ingathering. The Torah says:

You shall celebrate the festival of ingathering, at the end of the year, when you gather in your labors out of the field. (Exodus 23:16)

In addition, because of its strong agricultural elements, some scholars believe that the current custom of building your own sukkah stems from the harvest when workers would live in temporary huts in fields. They argue that our sukkot with their open roofs bear more resemblance to the harvester's huts than they do with the dwellings the Jews lived in the desert.

Sukkot is a happy holiday. In biblical times, Sukkot was considered to be the most important festival. It was actually referred to as ha-chag, the festival, (Kings 12:32). King Solomon chose Sukkot as the holiday during which he consecrated the first temple. It was also the occasion every seven years for the ceremony hak'heil, the public reading of the Torah before the whole people (Deuteronomy 31:10-13). Sukkot is also said to be the festival of the future, when in the messianic period, all nations will come to Jerusalem and celebrate.

Shemini Atzeret: The final day of Sukkot, called Shemini Atzeret, was reserved for a special set of sacrifices for the benefit of Israel and for a special prayer for rainfall. Not completely understood, Shemini, meaning eight, and Atzeret, meaning solemn assembly; referred to an extra set of rituals performed at the close of the holiday. A midrash, or allegory, explains that as the children of Israel are about to take leave of G-d after having rejoiced with Him since the beginning of Rosh Ha Shannah. G-d, like the parent of a child about to end a cherished visit, says ''It is difficult to have you leave me. Stay another day.''

The only time celebrating Sukkot was suspended was during the Babylonian exile since the holiday was so connected to rejoicing at the temple and harvesting the land.

During the next century, when the Jews returned to Israel under the leadership of Ezra and Nechemia, they were ready to embrace the Torah's commandments. The Jews, ecstatic to be reunited with the land, built sukkot out of olive, pine, myrtle, and palm branches. The importance of Sukkot continued during the second temple era, with pilgrims coming to Jerusalem from Jewish communities all over. They participated in praying and singing and joining in the religious processions. The etrog and the four species- palm, willow and myrtle, which are bundled together to make a lulav - became part of the ritual.

Sukkot changed little following the destruction of the second temple. However, in its memory, Rabbi Yokhanan ben Zakkai, a leading rabbinic authority at the time, instructed that ceremonies using the four species be performed every day of the week except on Shabbat, even though the Torah only commands to use them on the first day of the holiday. (Leviticus 23:40)

Simkhat Torah: As life in the Diaspora continued, it became customary on the second day of Shemini Atzeret, to remove torah scrolls from the ark and circle around the bimah, the traditional stage located in the center of the synagogue where the Torah is read. Named Simkhat Torah, rejoicing with the torah, the custom became its own holiday, especially for children, with dancing and singing in the synagogue and festive meals at home. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah are celebrated together on the seventh day of Sukkot.

In modern times, the custom of building sukkot was reestablished in the early 1900s. Since then, Jews everywhere celebrate the seven or eight days of Sukkot, (depending where you live) including Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah from the Diaspora and from Israel.