Sukkot (Festival of Tabernacles) is a Jewish autumn festival celebrated in the Hebrew month of Tishrei. A distinctive feature of the holiday of Sukkot is the commandment to live in a special foliage-covered booth called “sukkah”. From here comes the name of the holiday – Sukkot, literally – “boots”; in Russian tradition, the name “Tabernacle Festival” is also found. Sukkot lasts seven days, and all this time it is customary to live in a boot made of tree branches, in memory of the clouds of glory that protected the people from the sultry sun of the Sinai desert during the Exodus: they eat and drink in Sukkah, have fun with festive meals, meet guests, dance and even sleep in sukkah.
Holiday Sukkot in the Jewish Calendar
Only four days separate Yom Kippur from the festival of Sukkot, called “the time of our fun.” The content of this short passage is perfectly expressed by the book of Tehilim (Psalms of David): “Light is sown for the righteous, and for the straightforward – joy.” After our hearts straightened to Yom Kippur, the joy and peace of Sukkot come.
And in fact, speaking of the festival of Sukkot, the Torah mentions the fun three times:
- “And have fun before the Lord for seven days” (Vaikra, 23);
- “And have fun on your holidays …” (Dvarim, 16);
- “And you will only be merry” (Dvarim, 16).
Therefore, in our holy books wherever it is simply said “holiday,” we mean the festival of Sukkot.
This holiday is also called “harvest festival” in the Torah – as it falls at the harvest time. It begins 15 Tishrei and lasts seven days, and the eighth day is an independent holiday called Shmini-Atzeret, when we are no longer sitting in the “sukkah” – the booth, which concentrates the essence of the holiday of Sukkot. Shmini-Atzeret is so called because the Torah says of it: “On the eighth [shmini] day you will have a feast [atzeret] – do not do any work at this day.” (Bemidbar, 29). Literally, the word “atzeret” means “delay.” Talmud explains why this holiday is called that way, the Midrash explains: “The Almighty told the Jews at the end of seven days of Sukkot:“ Please stay with Me for another day – it’s hard for Me to part with you!..””
In the Land of Israel, Shmini Atzeret connects with the Simchat Tora holiday, however among the Jewish people in other countries, where they double each day of the holiday, Shmini Atzeret is the eighth day after the beginning of Sukkot, and Simchat Torah is the ninth. Holidays between the first (and abroad – the first and second) day of Sukkot are called hol-hamoed, which means “holiday weekdays.”
Sukkot is very rich in commandments. Jewish Sages say that the expression from the book of Tehillim (Psalms of David) “saturation with joy in the sight of Thy” (ch. 16th) refers precisely to this holiday. At the same time, there is a play on words: the word “sova” (“satiation”) is written so that it can be read as sheva (“seven”), and the sages see this as an allusion to the seven commandments of the Torah related to the holiday of Sukkot: 1) “sukka” ; 2-3-4-5) “arbaa minim” (four types of plants: etrog, lulav, hadas and arava); 6) holiday sacrifices; 7) sacrifices expressing festive fun.
The last two commandments were fulfilled only in those times when the Temple existed.
Sukkot is one of the three festivals of the year for which the Torah orders all the sons of Israel to gather in Jerusalem and celebrate them there.
To the seven commandments listed above, two more should be added, which were fulfilled in the Temple, but the memory of which is still alive, giving a special character to the Sukkot festival: the libation of water on the altar (nisuh hamaim) and the joy about it (simchat beit ashoeiva). Although they are not mentioned in the 613 commandments of the Torah, there is a tradition that they relate to those laws that Moshe-Rabbeinu received from the Almighty in Sinai verbally.
Why should we sit in a foliage-covered booth?
Of all the wealth of these commandments and customs, the commandment to sit in a foliage-covered booth (“sukkah”) stands out especially – so even the whole holiday is called “Sukkot” (“booths”).
What is this commandment and what is its meaning?
Torah answers this question in the book of Vayikra, in ch. 23rd: “Live in sukkah for seven days: every native inhabitant of Israel must live in sukkah so that all generations know that I have put the sons of Israel in the booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
What were these sukkahs in which the Jews lived after leaving Egypt?
Our sages point out that we are talking about booths in the literal sense of the word: about temporary buildings in which nomads usually live in the desert. But another point of view says that the word “booths” must be understood figuratively: we mean the so-called “clouds of glory” – wonderful clouds with which the Most High surrounded on all sides the people of Israel for all those forty years that they were in the desert. There are sages who reconcile these two extreme points of view: they say that immediately after leaving Egypt the Jews really lived in booths, and then the Almighty surrounded them with “clouds of glory”.
Be that as it may, the commandment of the “sukkah” is intended to remind us of the exodus from Egypt and of the confidence that our ancestors showed: leaving for the desert, they completely relied on the Almighty, who promised to bring them to the promised land, to give it to them and provide them with a happy, abundant life there.
However, if the commandment about the sukkah is intended to remind us of the exodus from Egypt, would it not be more logical to fulfill it in the month of Nisan – when, in fact, did the exodus from Egypt take place?
Our sages answer: if we did so, then there would be nothing unusual in the fact of our leaving the solid houses and the settlement in the booths. Indeed, in the Nisan month, in the spring, when it gets warmer, many people act in this way, and it would not be noticeable that we are doing this for the sake of perpetuating a historical event. However, in the fall, with the onset of cold weather, people usually leave their summer dwellings and return to their warm, strong houses – at this time we are doing just the opposite: we leave houses and settle in booths for seven days, and therefore it is immediately evident that in our actions have some special meaning.
The holiday of Sukkot is celebrated at the time of abundance and summing up material achievements (“the fruits of your threshing floor and sharpened”). Naturally, at this time, the heart of the farmer is filled with pride in his successes. But there is a danger that this feeling will lead him to the thought that “my strength, my strength hands gave me all this good.” So, in order to emphasize that material wealth is transient and achieving them cannot be an end in itself, the Torah tells a person who is looking at everything he has acquired with satisfaction: right now leave your house – from your warm, reliable fortress, equipped with all amenities – and change it to a shaky temporary dwelling, open to all winds and defenseless against the vicissitudes of the weather. Know that our whole life in this world is living in a booth covered with leaves that are green today and will fade tomorrow. Your only valuable gain is the fulfillment of the commandments of the Almighty and your spiritual enrichment.
What should be the booth like?
In order for your sukkah booth to be “kosher” – that is, it meets the requirements of the Torah, it is necessary to fulfill a number of conditions.
A “sukkah” should not be located under any building, it cannot be covered by any canopy – but it must be in the open air. First, its walls are erected. In extreme cases, it is enough that there are two real walls, and the third would be only symbolized by a board with a width of at least 10 cm (tefakh). The length and width of the “sukkah” should be at least 70 cm (7 tefakhim), and its height from the ground to the “shah” (roof of branches) should be at least 80 cm and not more than 10 m.
A “skhakh” should consist of plants – but always of plucked, cut or chopped. It is impossible to use as “shah” branches of a tree or shrub growing from the ground. It is also customary to use mats as a “skhakh” – however, they must be made specifically for the “skhakh” and cannot be used for any other purpose.
Care must be taken to ensure that the “skhakh” is thick — so that there is more shadow than the sun inside the “sukkah”. That is, that at noon when the sun’s rays fall almost steeply, there would be more shadows inside the “sukkah” than sun bunnies. It is impossible, however, to make the “shah” too dense: it is necessary that at night the stars look through the cracks in the “shah”. It is worth remembering the rule: if there is more sun than shadows in the “sukkah” – it is unusable, but if no stars are visible through the “skhakh” – the “sukkah” of the kosher.
It is customary to “decorate” the sukkah, as far as possible. The words of the Torah “This is my G-d, and I will glorify him,” our sages interpret this way: glorify G-d, trying to keep the commandments as beautiful as possible. That is, try to make your “sukkah” beautiful, to have a beautiful “tallit”, etc. There is a custom to decorate the “sukkah” with those seven kinds of fruits, which the Country of Israel is famous for, with beautiful pictures on which are quotes from Tanakh associated the holiday of Sukkot and listed “Ushpizin” (we will talk about them below), curtains, etc.
The main part of the commandment is to spend the night in a “sukkah”. The Torah commands: “live in booths for seven days,” and the most striking sign that a person lives here is if he sleeps here.
You cannot eat outside the “sukkah” for all seven days. At the beginning of each meal, we utter a special blessing: “Blessed are you, Lord, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to live in a booth!”
Women, in principle, are exempted from the obligation to live in a “sukkah,” because this commandment is one of those whose fulfillment depends on the arrival of a certain time. Men whose health condition doesn’t allow sleeping in a “sukkah” are also freed from this commandment. Therefore, for example, a patient who is in danger of sleeping in the open air should not sleep in a “sukkah”. For the same reason, we can leave the “sukkah” when it starts raining so hard that the rainwater might spoil the food on the “sukkah”’s table.
“Ushpizin” – guests of the Sukkot holiday
Seven “Ushpizin” (guests) attend the “Sukkah” of every Jew who observes the commandments of the Torah during the festival. These are the souls of Abraham, Yitzhak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aaron, and David, and each of the “Ushpizin” takes turns leading them all.
Each of these guests, each of these fathers of our people at one time learned the taste of wanderings: Abraham – left Haran for Knaan, and from there – to Egypt; Yitzhak wandered in the country of the Philistines; Yaakov – fled to Haran, and at the end of his life he went to Egypt; Yosef – was sold to Egypt; Moshe – fled from the pharaoh to Midian, and later, together with Aaron, wandered the desert for forty years; David, pursued by Shaul, fled to the country of the Philistines, to Ahish, king Ghat. Reading the invitation “ushpizin” to enter the “sukkah” – a symbol of wandering life – we express a hope that we will no longer wander, that we will no longer go into exile.
In order to be honored with a visit to these seven guests and for the holiday fun to be real fun, we must also invite guests from the flesh and blood: we should think about the lonely, the homeless, the needy, who have no way to fulfill the commandment of the “sukkah”, and invite them to the shade of your “sukkah,” as the Torah says: “And you will have fun on your holidays – and you, and your son, and your daughter, and your slave, and your slave, and Levite, and a convert, and orphan, and the widow that is in your gates. ”
Four types of plants – “Arbaa minim”
Another major commandment related to the holiday of Sukkot is the commandment “arbaah minim” (“four kinds of plants”). This commandment encourages us to improve our relationships with others. Four types of plants – etrog, lulav, adas and arava – over which we say a special blessing on the days of this holiday, symbolizing the unity of our people and our mutual responsibility for each other.
What is the commandment “arbaah minim”?
It is said in the Torah: “And take for yourself on the first day of the holiday the fruit of a magnificent tree, the shoots of date palms, the branches of a leafy tree and river willows, and have fun before the Lord, your God, seven days” (Vaikra, 23).
So, the Torah commands to take four species of plants, which are representatives of the entire plant world. Why are these four particular species chosen from the whole plant world?
Because each one of them is not like everyone else: “the fruit of a magnificent tree,” that is, an etrog, has a wonderful smell and taste; “Date palm shoot”, called lulav – taken from a tree whose fruits are sweet but not smelling; “The branch of the leafy tree,” called adas (myrtle), smells great, but is inedible; “Branch of the river willow”, called arava is inedible and odorless.
Our wise men found that each of these plants symbolizes a certain circle of the Jewish people: there are those who have two advantages at once – the aroma (knowledge) of the Torah and the taste (aspiration) for fulfilling the commandments, they are likened to an etrog, there are those that learned the Torah a little and have very modest knowledge of it, but they are distinguished by diligent fulfillment of the commandments – they are like a lulav, others, on the contrary, even teach the Torah to others, but do not fulfill its commandments – they are symbolized by adas; and, finally, there are Jews, likened to a river willow (arava): they do not study the Torah and do not obey its commandments … But what does the Almighty do? “One cannot reject them! May they be connected in a single bundle and complement each other, atone for their sins. ” That is why we must connect these four types of plants different throughout, to thereby demonstrate the worldview of Judaism: the desire to educate all these four types of Jews on the basis of the Torah and the commandments and give them a sense of unity and reciprocity in relations between the individual and society. And so we pray in “Terrible days”: “… and they will become one link to fulfill Your will from the bottom of our hearts.” And in the Talmud, the Sanhedrin treatise says: “All Jews are responsible for each other.”
Being one of the most important religious holidays of Judaism, Sukkot is also a cozy family holiday celebrated by all Jews, regardless of their degree of religiosity. The entire territory of Israel for the holiday period is covered with booths, many restaurants also build sukkah for their customers, so that they can have lunch, following the command to eat in Sukkah, large sukkahs are also found in all synagogues in Israel. Those who are unable to build their own sukkah can fulfill the commandment to build a sukkah simply by helping their neighbors build it.