Of all the many Jewish holidays, Sukkot is easily one of the most fun and interesting ones! For 7 or 8 days, we relax in beautifully decorated Sukkahs, shake our Lulavs and Etrogs, and eat delicious meals outdoors under the stars and sky. Arriving in the early fall when the weather couldn’t be better, Sukkot gives us a wonderful opportunity to spend quality time with family, try new recipes, and get creative with our decorating skills as we furnish our little makeshift home away from home. However, this isn’t all this beautiful holiday has to offer. While Sukkot is fondly known for its rather enjoyable customs, it is also identified as one of the most deeply significant holidays in Judaism. Symbolically, each of its observances and traditions has a great and profound meaning behind them, some of which we’ll be learning about today. Simply continue reading on to find out everything you ever wanted to know about Sukkot and its delightful celebrations!
What is Sukkot and why is it celebrated?
Let’s start at the beginning. While most Jewish holidays are observed in commemoration of historic events, Sukkot is a bit different because it doesn’t seem to be connected to a specific event, but rather it’s celebrated to remember the wondrous miracles G-d performed in the desert, namely the divine shelters G-d gave to the Jewish people to protect them as they wandered for 40 years. Observed on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, just five days after Yom Kippur, Sukkot also celebrates the harvest season, which is why Sukkot’s other name in the Torah is Chag HaAsif – the Festival of the Ingathering.
What do people do on Sukkot?
The main objective of Sukkot is to fulfill the obligation of building a Sukkah and “dwelling” in it to commemorate the supernatural homes Israel lived in after being liberated from Egypt. A Sukkah is a type of makeshift hut that can be constructed of almost any material. It can be built so it is either freestanding or using the support of existing structures like the side of a building or a porch, but it must have a roof made from S’chach. S’chach can be any shade-providing covering made from organic material, usually palm fronds, bamboo mats, or large leafy branches, as long as the branches are cut and no longer connected to the ground. The S’chach should be arranged so that it can adequately provide shade from the sun, while still leaving gaps to see the stars. From the first night of Sukkot until the last, people should try to spend as much time as possible outside in one’s Sukkah. Most opt to spend at least their meal times in the Sukkah since this is the minimum requirement, but some will also choose to sleep in their Sukkah as many considered this the ideal fulfillment of the mitzvah.
Why do we eat in the Sukkah?
Over Sukkot, the Sukkah essentially becomes an extension of our homes. In fact, throughout the holiday’s 8 days and nights, (7 days in Israel) we are encouraged to do our best to regard the Sukkah as a fully-functional, temporary substitute to our permanent residences. This means that for all intents and purposes, the Sukkah becomes the place where we should ideally pray, sleep, take our meals, or otherwise operate in as though it were our real home. Of course, that’s not as easy to do as it sounds. Practically speaking, because of the way a kosher Sukkah is built, it can be rather exposed to the elements, making them potentially uncomfortable in bad weather. Therefore, many people choose to fulfill the minimum of just eating meals in the Sukkah. That said, if you are a woman or external factors such as harsh weather, pests, or a medical condition causes this small effort to become unbearable, most rabbinic authorities hold that under certain circumstances, it is permissible to eat indoors instead of inside one’s Sukkah.
Are you allowed to work on Sukkot?
During the days of Chol Hamoed, yes, you may work, however, most people choose not to. The reason for this is although Chol HaMoed, the intermediate days, are viewed as the ‘weekdays’ of long festivals like Pasach (Passover) and Sukkot, they are still part of the celebratory period. This means that even though you are allowed to do everyday activities such as going on the computer or driving in a car, one should do their best to devote their time to enjoyable pursuits that give them happiness. For this reason, many religious Jews choose to schedule vacations on Chol HaMoed instead of going to work.
Is sukkot a High Holiday?
No. The two major Jewish holidays commonly associated with the High Holidays (or ‘Yomim Norei’im’ in Hebrew) are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, however, that said, Sukkot is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the Three Pilgrimage Festivals. Back in the days of the Holy Temple, the Shalosh Regalim – which includes Sukkot, Pasach, and Shavuot – were the three major festivals when every Jewish man over the age of 20 was obligated to journey to Jerusalem for special services at the Temple. As Sukkot was also a harvest festival in biblical times, the secondary purpose for Sukkot’s yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem would be to celebrate the harvest and offer appreciation to G-d for that year’s fruitful bounty.
What are the Four Species of Sukkot?
The Four Species of Sukkot, or the Arba Minim, consists of an Etrog (citron), a Lulav (the closed frond of a date palm), a branch of Hadass (myrtle), and a branch of Aravah (willow.) Three of the species, the Lulav, the Hadass, and the Aravah – are bound together to be held in one hand, while the Etrog is held in the other. They will be used to fulfill the mitzvah of shaking the Lulav and Etrog.
What is the purpose of the Lulav and Etrog?
According to Jewish tradition, the Four Species represent the Four Types of Jews: each one at a different level of observance or knowledge, yet together, comprises the identity of the Jewish nation. In Judaism, unity is a central, reoccurring theme but on Sukkot, the idea of unity is especially significant, thus when we bring the Etrog and Lulav together, we are representing the wholeness of the Jewish people. One of the defining mitzvahs of the Sukkot holiday is to shake the Lulav and Etrog in six directions: South, North, East, Upwards, Downwards, then West, in that order. The simplest explanation for this is that we are acknowledging G-d’s divine presence in every corner of the world, but the great Kabbalistic teacher, the Arizal, offers another perspective. According to the Arizal, each direction represents an emotion: South is Chessed – kindness; North is Gevurah – discipline; East is Tiferet – harmony; while Upwards is Netzach – perseverance; Downwards is Hod – submission; and West is Yesod – connection. A seventh attribute, Malchut – communication, is represented by the heart, and since between each wave, the Lulav and Etrog are repeatedly brought close to the heart, this action is thought to symbolize the four types of Jews continually returning to the heart of Judaism: the Torah, which communicates the ideology and legacy of what it means to be a Jew to people in every corner of the world!
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