With the final blast of the shofar on Yom Kippur, the High Holidays draw to a close and the focus of the Jewish community shifts to the jubilant celebration of the Festival of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles.
The festival is sometimes referred to as Zeman Simchateinu, the Season of our Rejoicing and tradition teaches that one of the mitzvot or commandments associated with the holiday is to rejoice and be happy.
Sukkot is the third of the Pilgrimage Festivals, the Shalosh Regalim, during which Jews traveled to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and agricultural gifts to God. Historically, we continue the story of the Israelites that began with the Exodus from Egypt (Passover) and the Giving of the Torah (Shavuot). Sukkot focuses on the Jews' travels through the desert. Agriculturally, the holiday celebrates the final harvest in the land of Israel before the onset of winter. For this reason, the holiday is sometimes called Chag Ha'assif, the Festival of Ingathering.
Sukkot Customs and Observance
One of the two major rituals associated with Sukkot is the sukkah. From this ritual comes the name of the holiday. The word sukkah means booth or hut (plural, sukkot). The sukkot we build today are symbolic of the temporary structures in which the Jewish people lived during the 40 years they wandered the desert before entering the land of Israel.
Tradition teaches that all meals eaten during the festival should be eaten in the sukkah; we are also encouraged to entertain and socialize in the sukkah. Depending on climate and location, some choose to sleep in the sukkah as a way of making it their home for seven days.
The sukkah should be built in the open air under the sky. Its walls may be constructed from any material including wood, canvas, aluminum, metal and fiberglass. The roof is made from sekhakh (literally, covering), or something that grew from the ground and was then cut down, such as tree branches or bamboo. The sekhakh should not be tied down, but rather should be left loose and placed sparsely enough so that the stars can be seen when sitting inside.
It is common practice to decorate the sukkah. We beautify the sukkah by hanging decorations, pictures, plants, gourds and new year's cards. A sukkah decorating party is a wonderful way to bring together family and friends to celebrate the uniqueness of the holiday.
Arba'ah Minim - The Four Species
The second major ritual of Sukkot is that of the Four Species, or Arba Minim, known simply as the lulav and etrog after its two most important elements. This mitzvah emphasizes the agricultural aspect of the holiday. As the farmer harvests his crops, we too gather four kinds of growing things and use them to praise God for all He has provided us.
The Four Species are the lulav (braches of a palm tree), etrog (citron fruit), hadassim (myrtle branches) and aravot (willow branches). The lulav is bound together with two willow branches on the left side and three myrtle branches on the right side.
The basic commandment is to take these four growing things together as a unit, and to shake them together in all directions at various times throughout the holiday. Some say that the Four Species represent different parts of the body. The tall and straight palm branch resembles the spine; the almond-shaped myrtle leaves represent the eyes; the willow represents our lips; the citron represents our heart. When we hold and shake the Four Species together, we praise God with our entire body and soul.
Each day of the holiday, we invite symbolic guests to join us in our Sukkot. These honorary guests are the biblical figures Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. In recent years, it has become customary to invite the matriarchs and other important women in the bible to be ushpizin as well. These women include Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah, Miriam, Abigail and Esther.
In addition to our ushpizin, it is a mitzvah to invite those who do not have a sukkah so that they may too fulfill the commandment of eating and celebrating in the sukkah.
Immediately following the last day of Sukkot, we celebrate the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, literally, the Eighth Day of Assembly. Rabbinic literature explains the holiday in this way: God is like a host, who invites us as visitors for a limited time, but when the time comes for us to leave, He has enjoyed Himself so much that He asks us to stay another day. In this way, the holiday celebrates the relationship between God and the Jewish People.
Shemini Atzeret is one of the four times during the year that Yizkor, a special service in remembrance of loved ones who have passed, is held.
Simchat Torah, literally, the Joy of Torah, marks the completion and restart of the yearly cycle of Torah reading. Each week throughout the year a portion of the Torah is read. On Simchat Torah, we read the last verses of Deuteronomy and then immediately begin the Torah again with the first verses of Genesis.
The day is one of the most joyous of the entire year as we celebrate our love for the God's Torah and the unending cycle of Torah reading and learning. All of the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and people march around the synagogue singing and dancing with the scrolls. Children also dance around the synagogue carrying flags and miniature Torahs. These processions around the synagogue are known as hakafot.