What Is Sukkot and Why Is It celebrated?

The word Sukkot is Hebrew for “booths,” and Sukkot is known as the festival of booths or, the feast of tabernacles. In biblical times, Sukkot was considered the most important festival and was simply referred to as ha-chag (the festival).

Sukkot, along with Passover and Shavuot, are the three pilgrimage festivals, known as shalosh regalim, commanded in the Bible. During these festivals, the Hebrews made pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. But this holiday has deeper origins, reaching back beyond the days of the Temple.

Sukkot has its historical roots in the time the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for forty years as punishment for refusing to enter the promised land after spies delivered a deceitful report claiming the inhabitants were too fierce to be overcome. (Appropriately enough, the forty years in the desert correspond to the forty days the spies spent in Canaan.)

To help ensure that the Hebrews could survive in the desert, God created “clouds of glory” around the Hebrews to protect them from the harsh elements. The Hebrews lived in temporary dwellings, or booths, represented today by the Sukkah (singular of Sukkot, which means a “booth” or a “tent”).

To ensure that the Jews would never forget this part of their history, God commanded in Leviticus 23:42–43: “You shall live in booths seven days 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.”

Historically, Sukkot is also a harvest festival, sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif (the Festival of the Ingathering). This holiday marked the end of the harvest, when farmers completed their work and traveled to the temple in Jerusalem with their families to celebrate and offer their gratitude for a good harvest. During this time, they resided in booths.

In Exodus 23:16, Torah teaches the Hebrews to celebrate the festival of ingathering when they “gather in” the results of their labors. In Deuteronomy 16:13, God instructs the Hebrews to celebrate the Feast of Booths for seven days after the harvest.

Furthermore, this holiday reminds the Jews of those days of wandering in the desert and how God protected them with the clouds of glory that enveloped the Hebrews from above, below, and all around—just as the Sukkah surrounds people when they enter it. Spending time in a Sukkah can serve as a reminder to all Jews that everything they have, including the shelter they live in, ultimately comes from God.

Keep in mind that, unlike more somber Jewish holidays, Sukkot is a holiday meant for having a good time. In fact, this festival is sometimes referred to as Zeman Simkhateinu, or the “Season of Our Rejoicing.”

What Makes a Kosher Sukkah?

The central custom and mitzvah of Sukkot is to dwell in a Sukkah, a booth or temporary structure. In constructing a Sukkah, Jews must follow specific requirements.

The Sukkah structure must be at least three feet high and at least twenty-six inches in length and width. The walls cannot exceed thirty feet in height (although some sources specify that they may be as tall as forty feet). The Sukkah may be constructed from cinder blocks, lumber, canvas or nylon sheeting attached to a frame of wood, metal piping, or any other suitable material.

The rules governing the sekhakh (covering) are very explicit; following these rules will ensure that the sukkah is kosher. Because the Sukkah is meant to be a booth, the sekhakh must be temporary, and the material allowed for its construction is limited.

Only organic material grown from the ground that is no longer attached to the ground can be used. Hence, wood of all kinds, such as leafy branches and evergreens, are usually acceptable, while metal, plastic, and glass may not be used.

The sekhakh must be spaced evenly, with gaps no wider than eleven and a half inches, so that the covering is ample enough to provide shade. Furthermore, the boards or beams used should be no wider than sixteen inches, so that people inside can still see the stars at night.

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However, there are exemptions to Sukkah duty. For example, if sitting inside the Sukkah causes physical discomfort—for instance, if it’s raining heavily or you’re under attack by killer bees—you don’t have to remain in the Sukkah.

However, in the event of inclement weather that’s not severe, the obligation to spend time in the Sukkah remains. If it does rain, more material should not be added to fill in the gaps on the sekhakh, because then the sukkah will no longer be kosher.

The Talmud includes a number of suggestions for decorating a Sukkah. hanging carpets and tapestries, nuts and almonds, peaches and grape branches, and wreaths made from ears of corn.

More contemporary decorations include fruits, Indian corn, pictures of Jerusalem and other Jewish symbols or works of art (especially those made by your own family), and New Year’s greeting cards.

Many Jews invite guests to their Sukkah, to fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality (hachnasat orechim). In accordance with another custom, called Ushpizin, seven symbolic biblical guests are invited to the Sukkah each day.

These guests are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Recently, some Jews have begun extending this invitation to female biblical figures, such as Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther.

The mitzvot of Sukkot also require that meals be eaten inside the Sukkah. In fact, today, this is the Sukkah’s primary function. There is a special obligation to eat in the Dukkah on the first night of the holiday, even if it is raining. However, the elderly and sick, as well as mothers with small children, are not required to eat meals in the Sukkah.

There are a few other exceptions. For one, a bride and groom are exempt from dwelling in a Sukkah. And when people are traveling they are not required to locate a Sukkah in which to have their meals.

Before eating any food in the Sukkah, a holiday blessing must be made. It is customary to visit friends, travel from Sukkah to Sukkah and make Kiddush if partaking of a festival meal. A blessing must also be made before sitting in the Sukkah.

And like Shabbat, each time people eat a meal they must say a blessing for washing the hands, and the motzi over the bread. There is another special blessing when eating food made from the five grains or when drinking wine. As with all holidays, Sukkot is welcomed with the lighting of candles on the night it begins.

At times when it’s difficult for Jews to construct a traditional Sukkah (for instance, when living in an apartment where there is no backyard) people can do other things, such as designating an area inside the home as a symbolic Sukkah and spending time decorating and then dwelling in that space. Or some people establish a holiday table where they place a miniature Sukkah as a centerpiece and add other adornments. At any rate, most Jews have access to a communal Sukkah that they can use to fulfill this special mitzvah.

Sukkot Services and Liturgy

While Sukkot is best known for what occurs outside the synagogue, in the Sukkah (booth), the services and liturgy are significant and distinctive. During Sukkot, readings are taken from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet).

The congregation follows each morning’s Amidah with Hallel (psalms of praise). Hymns asking God for forgiveness are also recited during morning services. These hymns are known as Hoshanot because they all begin with the Hebrew word hoshanu (save us).

Hoshanot are chanted while parading in a procession (except on Shabbat, when the congregants recite the hoshanot while standing beside their seats) and serve as a reminder of similar processions during the time of the Temple. All Hoshanot but one were composed by Rabbi Elazar Hakallir during the Middle Ages.

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Then there is the Four Species (arba minim), which has to do with one of the mitzvot associated with Sukkot. In Leviticus 23:40, it is written God commanded that on the first day of the festival, “You shall take the product of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you will rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.”

The Four Species include an etrog (a member of the citrus family native to Israel that resembles a lemon), a lulav (a dried palm branch), aravot (two willow branches), and hadasim (three myrtle branches). The lulav, aravot, and hadasim are bound together in a specific manner and referred to collectively as the lulav.

The lulav and etrog come into use twice during the service. During the Hallel prayer, members of the congregation shake and wave the Four Species. During the Hoshanot processions, conducted every day of Sukkot (except Shabbat), people hold the lulav and etrog in hand, shaking and waving them in all directions, actions that symbolize God’s omnipresence.

On the seventh day of Sukkot, the procession makes seven circuits around the bimah (the pedestal where the Torah scroll is placed during Torah readings). Therefore, this last day of Sukkot is known as Hoshanah Rabbah (the Great Hoshanah).

According to the Jewish tradition, the Four Species may symbolize four types of Jews. The etrog has taste and smell, and stands for those who possess knowledge and good deeds; the lulav has taste but no smell, representing knowledge but not good deeds; the myrtle, having smell but no taste, portrays those who have good deeds but no knowledge; the willow has neither taste nor smell and represents those with neither good deeds nor knowledge.

Some Jews see the Four Species as symbolizing the human body, with the lulav denoting the spine; the etrog representing the heart; the willow symbolizing the lips; and the myrtle depicting the eyes. Together, they form a shape very similar to a complete person, symbolizing the unity of the Jewish People.

Shemini Atzeret: the Assembly of the Eighth Day

As soon as the Sukkot celebration is complete, there is another holiday in the Jewish cycle. Shemini Atzeret, a day dedicated to the spiritual component of the Sukkot festival days, focuses on the relationship between God and the Jews. Shemini Atzeret is the Assembly of the Eighth Day: shemini means “eighth,” referring to the eighth and final day of Sukkot, and atzeret translates as “solemn assembly,” or “holding back,” suggesting another dimension to Shemini Atzeret. Indeed, the day represents a holding back from ending the festival days of Sukkot. This eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, is dedicated to bringing Sukkot to a state of completion or perfection.

Historically, Shemini Atzeret was the day of sacrifices for the benefit of the People of Israel. Since the Hebrews were primarily farmers in an arid land, a special prayer for rain was made on this day. This prayer remains part of the Shemini Atzeret liturgy.

Since Shemini Atzeret is a festival day in its own right, traditional rituals like lighting candles, reciting the Kiddush over the wine, and saying grace after the meal, are performed at home on the eve of the holiday.

In keeping with the festival’s historical significance as a day when God’s intervention is sought for a good harvest ahead, a special prayer for rain, called Geshem, is still recited, during the Musaf service. While chanting Geshem, the cantor traditionally dons a white gown and chants a melody similar to that for the Days of Awe. Shemini Atzeret is also an appropriate time for reciting the Yizkor, the memorial prayer for the dead.

Simchat Torah: Completing the Cycle of Torah Readings

Several times a week, Jews read a prescribed portion of the Torah, which is divided so that the reading may be completed within a year. Simchat Torah, which follows Shemini Atzeret, is a joyous holiday that marks the Jews’ completing the cycle of Torah readings each year.

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Simchat Torah takes place on the second day of Shemini Atzeret. These special days occur on the twenty-second and twenty-third of Tishri (the seventh month of the Jewish calendar). However, in Israel, as with all two-day holidays except Rosh Hashanah, Shemini Atzeret is observed for one day and thus includes Simchat Torah.

Known as “Celebration of the Torah” or “Rejoicing of the Torah,” Simchat Torah is the day on which the congregation reads the last chapters of Deuteronomy, denoting the completion of the cycle. However, immediately thereafter, the first chapter of Genesis is read to signify the continuing cycle of worship and to demonstrate that the Torah has neither beginning nor end, nor a time when the Jews are not engaged in its reading.

The honor of reading the final verses of the Torah is called chatan Torah (the bridegroom of the Torah). The honor of reading Genesis is called chatan Bereshit (the bridegroom of Genesis). Should this honor fall upon a woman, the word for “bride” is substituted.

Simchat Torah is primarily celebrated in the synagogue. On the eve of the holiday when the Ma’ariv service is held, the congregation reads selected verses known as Ata Horayta (you have been shown), which recount how God revealed Himself to the Hebrews at Mount Sinai. Upon completion of Ata Horayta, everyone in the synagogue looks toward the ark, and the Torah scrolls are removed.

At this time, every member of the congregation has an opportunity to dance and parade with the Torah scrolls, an act of honor and reverence. (In most non-Orthodox synagogues, this honor also applies to women.) This custom involves seven hakafot (revolutions), similar to the hosha-not made during Sukkot. Large congregations add hakafot until every member of the congregation has had the opportunity to march with the Torah scrolls.

The hakafot are performed with one member leading those carrying the Torah scrolls in a circuit around the synagogue. As the Torah scrolls pass, each congregant kisses the scrolls. The rabbi then leads the congregation in reciting special prayers. Once the procession is completed, the next hakafa begins. After services, refreshments may be served, including honey cake and apples. During morning service on the following day, the congregation again performs seven hakafot with the Torah scrolls.

In many congregations, children are invited to join in the hakafot. Some youngsters may carry miniature Torahs while others bear banners or flags with apples placed on the top. Following the processions, the children are often rewarded with treats. Children receive a great deal of attention during the Simchat Torah services because the responsibility of the reading of the Torah will soon fall upon them and the generations to come.

The morning service also has a special Amidah (silent recitation) and Hallel (psalm of praise). Each member of the congregation (in Orthodox synagogues, each man) is then given an aliyah, the blessing before the Torah reading.

The last aliyah, which is reserved for children, is called kol ha-ne’arim (translates as “all the boys,” though some congregations include girls in this honor). At this time, all the children in the congregation are called up to the bimah (the raised platform upon which the Torah scrolls are set when they are read). A large tallit (prayer shawl) is spread over the children’s heads to form a canopy. Led by an adult, the children recite the blessings over the Torah.

In some congregations, Simchat Torah is also an appropriate time for consecration services. During this time, the congregation welcomes new students to the synagogue’s religious school. Generally, the youngsters receive a blessing from the rabbi and perhaps a gift, such as a small prayer book or miniature Torah scroll.