What is Sukkot?
Sukkot is among the most important Jewish holidays in the Torah. From ancient times, the holiday has been associated with temporary dwellings called “sukkot” in Hebrew, and “booths” or “tabernacles” in English. Originally a harvest festival, Sukkot is also called “The Festival of Ingathering”. There are several theories of how Sukkot went from agricultural holiday to “The Festival of Tabernacles.” The Torah itself (Leviticus 23) includes several hints, including a historical one: “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.”
Sukkot is also called in the Talmud “Zman simhatenu” the time of our joy, as the Torah (Deuteronomy 16:13) commands rejoicing for all members of the Israelite community. The second day of Sukkot was traditionally the occasion when every seven years (in the year following shmita), the king would ceremoniously read sections of the Torah to the people.
Whatever meaning Sukkot had for earlier generations, it has plenty of appeal for our generation, largely living cut off from nature. It is a reminder that we are dependent upon the bounty of the natural world for our livelihood, and that ultimately we are not the ones in control. The Talmud (Sukka 22a) specifically requires that the roofing of the Sukkah allow rain to get in — but also starlight. While in the Sukkah, we are reminded of our vulnerability, but also of the grandeur of the universe in which we are temporary dwellers. Sukkot also reminds us of the ultimate equality of rich and poor. Everyone's soup gets rained on; everyone's sukkah is fragile and temporary, and open to the winds and storms.
When is Sukkot?
The Festival of Sukkot starts on the 15th of Tishrei and lasts for seven days. The first and last day (or, first two and last two days outside of Israel) being Yamim Tovim—holidays on which no creative work is to be done, but cooking is allowed with certain restrictions.
Sukkot 2015 – September 27 to October 4
Sukkot 2016 – October 16 to October 23
Sukkot 2017 – October 4 to October 11
Sukkot 2018 – September 23 to September 30
Sukkot 2019 – October 13 to October 20
In Israel the first day of Sukkot is a holiday and businesses are closed. School remains closed all week but stores reopen from the second day. The festival’s intermediate days, called “hol hamo’ed,” have many customs and rituals associated with them, but lack the restrictions of a holy day.
Outside of Israel, the two days following the festival are separate holidays: Shemini Atzeret (“the eighth day of assembly”) and Simhat Torah (“rejoicing of the Torah”). Simchat Torah marks the festive end and the immediate restarting of the year-long cycle of reading the Five Books of Moses in synagogue. In Israel, these two days are condensed into one holiday.
How to observe Sukkot: do's, don'ts and must's
On Sukkot, we build the temporary shelters from which the festival gets its name. Traditionally, building of the Sukkah begins as soon as Yom Kippur ends. Some have the custom of decorating the Sukkah with decorations, hangings, and fruit.
The commandment of the Torah regarding Sukkot is that, “You shall live in Sukkot for seven days”(Vayikra 39: 42). The sages of the Talmud interpreted the expression “live in” to mean “live in the Sukkah just as you would in a permanent dwelling” — take your meals in the Sukkah and entertain guests in the Sukkah, and, unless for some reason you find it uncomfortable, sleep in the Sukkah. While this obligation traditionally applied only to men, these days, the whole family takes its meals in the Sukkah, and young children enjoy sleeping outdoors as well.
Another important theme of the holiday is the four species that the people were to bring to the Temple. These are enumerated in Leviticus (23:40): “the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook.” From at least the days of the Hasmonean Dynasty, Jews have interpreted this verse to refer to: a citron fruit (etrog), a myrtle branch, a date frond, and a willow branch.
Over the years, Sukkot gained new traditions not originating in the bible or the Talmud. For example, a tradition dating back to the time of the Gaonim is to recite prayers called Hoshanot — poems asking for different kinds of divine favor. On the last day of the holiday, the congregation recites the final prayer, called Hoshanah Rabah — the Great Hoshanah, walking in a circle outside the synagogue and shaking the four species in their hands.
Another tradition stemming from the Zohar has it that on each day of Sukkot a biblical figure—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David—visits the sukkah. These are collectively called the Ushpizin, which is Aramaic for visitors.
In ultra-Orthodox circles, Sukkot is the occasion for Simhat Beit Hashoeva celebrations, a throwback to the time of the Second Temple, when water was ceremoniously drawn from the Gihon spring as a water libation, and a celebration took place at the Temple compound, with music and dancing throughout the night. Incidentally, it was this event that eventually led to today’s institution of the mechitzah dividing men from women in the synagogue.
With its emphasis on the local agricultural scene and the harvest, Sukkot, more than any other holiday, reminds us that the Jewish focal point is the Land of Israel.
What to eat on Sukkot
The festive meal, eaten in the Sukkah, is complete with wine, full grain breads, and the first fruits of the harvest. Because Sukkot is an autumnal holiday, Jews outside of Israel will often serve fruits symbolic of the autumn harvests where they live, such as pumpkins, squash, and various root vegetables. In the southern hemisphere, of course, the situation is reversed, and spring veggies grace the table.
Only in Israel does the harvest match up with the types of fruit traditionally associated with Sukkot. Ironically, however, the fruit most symbolic of Sukkot — the etrog — is not generally eaten, though some make jam out of its peel. This should not be done with etrogs used for the Four Species, as these usually owe their beauty to a heavy dose of pesticides.