Sukkot is a weeklong Jewish holiday that comes five days after Yom Kippur. Sukkot celebrates the gathering of the harvest and commemorates the miraculous protection G‑d provided for the children of Israel when they left Egypt. We celebrate Sukkot by dwelling in a foliage-covered booth (known as a sukkah) and by taking the “Four Kinds” (arba minim), four special species of vegetation.
Sukkot also means “booths” or “huts” in Hebrew and is named for the temporary structures in which Jews “dwell” during the holiday. Meals are eaten in the sukkah, and many choose to sleep, read and hang out in them as well. According to a tradition from the Talmud, the sukkah represents the portable huts or tabernacles in which the Israelites lived during the 40 years they wandered the desert. Although Sukkot is the most common name of this holiday, it is also called Chag Ha-asif (“the Feast of Ingathering”). This refers to rejoicing and thanking God in the period after the crops had been harvested. In Yiddish the holiday is often referred to as “Sukkus,” and many Jews of Ashkenazi descent pronounce it that way.
Sukkot combines themes of joy and vulnerability. It is a joyful holiday, a time when we focus on the simple pleasure of being close to nature and with family and friends.
The Torah (Devarim/Deuteronomy 16: 13-15) establishes Sukkot as a joyful holiday: “You shall hold Chag HaSukkot for seven days… You shall rejoice in your festival… and you shall have nothing but joy.”
At the same time, Sukkot is a holiday of vulnerability and insecurity, recalling the fragile condition of the Israelites wandering in the desert and their total reliance on God.
It is traditional to start building a sukkah as soon as possible after the end of Yom Kippur. According to the Shulchan Arukh, a code of Jewish law by Rabbi Joseph Karo (born in 1488 in Spain), this is based on the principle, “Mitzvah haba’ah liyadcha al tachmitsena” (“If an opportunity to perform a mitzvah presents itself to you, do not be slow in performing it”)
A sukkah must be built in the open air under the sky (i.e., not in a room or under a tree). It must have at least three sides and a covering (called sekhakh), usually made of cut branches or plants. The sekhakh must be loose enough to see the stars at night, but thick enough so that the shade it provides is greater than the light let in from the sun. It is customary to decorate the sukkah based on the Talmudic idea that the mitzvot should be performed in a beautiful way: “Beautify yourself before [God] in mitzvot. Make before Him a beautiful sukkah, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar
The Four Species
In addition to dwelling in a sukkah, a person is obligated to take what are known as the four species (arba’at haminim) and shake them. This should be done ideally in the morning, but can be done at any time during the day (but not at night and not on Shabbat). The four species are below:
- Etrog (Citron)
- Lulav (Palm branch)
- Hadasim (Myrtle)
- Aravot (Willow)
The origin of this commandment is Vayikra (Leviticus) 23:40: “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.” The Talmud (Sukkah 32b and 35a) explains that this refers to the four species. Today, the palm branch, myrtle and willow are referred to together as the lulav.
How to shake the lulav and etrog:
- Hold the lulav in your right hand and etrog in your left. Hold them together in the position in which they grow (the pitom or stem of the etrog should be facing down).
- Recite the blessing: “Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat lulav.” (“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us concerning the waving of the lulav.”)
- If it is also the first day of Sukkot, recite the following: “Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam shehehiyanu v’kiyemanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh.” (“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustenance, and permitted us to reach this season.”)
- Then, reverse the position of the etrog so the pitom is facing upward.
- Stand facing east and shake/wave in the following order:
- East (in front of you)
- South (to your right)
- West (behind you)
- North (to your left)
It is said that the four species symbolize different segments of the Jewish people, and the need for unity among them:
It is traditional to read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on the Shabbat of Sukkot because it urges people to rejoice in their portion and not run after increased wealth. A person who enjoys what he has, it is a gift from God.
The main point is that Sukkot is a festive time meant for gathering together. It also recalls the vulnerable state of the Israelites as they wandered through the desert. Let’s face it, Jews throughout the ages have been able to experience risk and uncertainty at every level of their existence and yet…they were able to rejoice. That is spiritual courage of a high order. This faith therefore is the ability to rejoice in the midst of instability and change, travelling through the wilderness of time toward an unknown destination and that is back in the desert and here today.