Sukkot: The Feast of Tabernacles
Sukkot is a holiday of eight days, beginning on the 15th of the Hebrew month Tishrei. This year it will start on the fourth of October. The eighth day is actually a separate holiday. Sukkot has an ancient history and commemorates the tabernacles or huts in which the children of Israel dwelt in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt. (Lev 23:39-43). "You should dwell in booths for seven days that your generatons may know that I made the Children of Israel dwell in booths." (Actually, they dwelt in tents, another type of temporary structure.) The festival of Sukkot lasts eight days, (nine in the Diaspora). Another name for Sukkot is The Feast of Ingathering, which was celebrated at the time of harvest of wheat and grapes. Other names are The Feast of the Lord (Lev 23:39) or simply the Feast (1 Kings 8-2, 65).
The Holy Temple of King Solomon was consecrated during Sukkot and the prophet Zecharia says that at the end of days all the peoples of the world will assemble for the Feast in Jerusalem to worship the Lord (Zech 14:16ff). Also, every seven years the Torah was to be read to all the gathered people on Sukkot (Deut 31:110-11).
The sukkah is usually decorated in a delightful manner with pictures and objects hanging from the roof. That roof is a thatching of natural materials, which may be pine branches, palm branches or a bamboo mat. Taking up certain ritual objects, taken from the natural world is part of the essential observance of the holiday. The book of Leviticus enjoins us to take "the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of thick trees and willows of the brook." Later Rabbinic authorites named these four species as citron (etrog), myrtle twigs (hadassim), palm branch (lulav) and willow (aravot). During prayer in the synagogue or in the sukkah, the lulav is held, together with the other three species. People say a blessing and then wave the lulav in six directions. At the end of the service when the scroll of the Torah is taken out of the ark, the congregation walks in joyous procession around the chief prayer desk, while holding the lulav. People eat the ritual meals of the first and last days of the holiday in the sukkah. Weather permitting people sleep in the sukkah. Some eat all meals during the seven days in the sukkah, in effect, moving in to this temporary structure.
During the times of the Temple the intermediate days of the holiday were highlighted by a water-pouring ceremony, accompanied by flute music and skillful juggling of lighted torches by respected Rabbis. This ceremony, called "The Rejoicing of Water-drawing" was based in the prophet Isaiah: "Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation." This relates to yet another name for Sukkot, "The Time of Our Rejoicing."
Since the 16th century it has been a Kabbalistic custom to invite the Shepherds of Israel into the sukkah each night before the meal. The great leaders and teachers, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David, together with their wives -- each exemplify an archetypal spiritual quality: lovingkindness, power, beauty, victory, splendor, foundation and sovereignty.
The seventh day of Sukkot is called Hoshana Raba. Hoshana, which means, "Save, I pray" and raba is "great." On this day we pray for a good harvest in the year to come, the congregation proceeds seven times around the chief prayer desk and then five willow branches are beaten on the floor. Hoshana Raba is a day when the decrees of Yom Hakippurim for the coming year are finalized. It is customary for people to spend the whole night of Hoshana Raba in prayer and study.
Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot is really a separate festival. Memorial services for the departed and a special prayer for rain are said in the synagogue. The Book of Ecclesiastes is read in the synagogue if it has not been read on the Shabbat of the intermediate days of Sukkot.
Simhat Torah, the Rejoicing in the Torah, is the last day of the whole autumn holiday cycle. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah take place on the same day. On this day the annual cycle of reading of the Torah scroll is completed. People spend the whole day in the synagogue dancing and singing with the scrolls of the Torah. Small children, waving flags, perch on their fathers' shoulders or are held in arms, like living scrolls of Torah.
The Power of Faith: Living in the Sukkah
Rachel Trugman shared some insights and anecdotes about Sukkot with me last week. She and her husband Rabbi Avraham Trugman and their three children reside in Moshav Modiin in Israel. Originally from the U.S. they have lived in Israel for many years and run a program called Visa to introduce college students to the richness of the Jewish tradition. Rachel is also a family therapist and is a teacher of Torah.
israelVisit: Rachel, what comes to mind when you think of the holiday of Sukkot?
Rachel: I am able to remember three amazing Sukkot holidays. The first one I call "The Sukkot that that shook the World." I was a student at Santa Rosa Junior College in California in 1969. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was a guest of my philosophy teacher during the holiday of Sukkot. We left the classroom and went out to the lawn where Rabbi Shlomo said to form a human Sukkah so he could shake the lulav. He began to chant a haunting melody from the Bobover Rebbe. He said to stand even closer because he was going to shake up the world. That night the earth started shaking in an earthquake that was 5.8 on the Richter scale, with its epicenter in Santa Rosa. I ran out from my house and into the sukkah where the earth shook like a bowl of Jell-O but nothing fell down or caved in.
israelVisit: What's the other sukkah story?
Rachel: I call this the "Flying Carpet Sukkah." My husband and I lived on the top floor of a building in Jerusalem. There was a tiny space in the ceiling of the balcony that was opened before the holiday and branches spread on the opening. When we ate we had to lean forward to be under the tiny opening in order to fulfil the requirement of eating in the sukkah. The third story I call "The Sukkah in the Snow." Each year when we lived in Denver there was a thick snowfall during the holiday. Although one is not required to stay in the sukkah if it is too uncomfortable or a danger to health, we bundled up in down jackets and blankets and kept ourselves warm singing heart-warming chassidic melodies.
israelVisit: What other Sukkot memories come to mind?
Rachel: Last year we had fifty college students from the Visa program in our Sukkah. We served them endless bowls of turkey soup. Whenever I see Greg, a student from Tel Aviv University, he jokingly asks me if there's any turkey soup left.
israelVisit: Which of the observances of Sukkot to you feel particularly connected to?
Rachel: All of them. They are all beautiful and meaningful and deeply moving. I especially love to read the Book of Ecclesiastes, which helps us to put the priorities of life into perspective. Ecclesiastes speaks of impermanence and change. During Sukkot we leave the protection of our house and the presence of our possessions to live in a simple little hut, partially open to the sky and the elements. We put our faith in the Eternal to protect us and teach us. The word "season" is mentioned twenty-eight times in this book, which is the numerical value of the Hebrew word koah, strength. The sukkah is also known as tsilah de Mehemunta in the Zohar, which means the Shade of Faith.
israelVisit: What decorations does your family put in the Sukkah?
Rachel: We decorate the sukkah with a lot of birds. The Bobover Rebbe used to have 91 birds in his sukkah. The kan tsipor, the bird's nest, is a designation for the place in the upper worlds where the Meshiah is waiting to be called from. The branches covering the roof of the sukkah is likened to the hovering of bird wings.
Beautiful buys from israelVisit for Sukkot
Enrich and beautify your experience of the holiday of Sukkot with Judaica items from noted artists who work in various media.
Lorna Sakalovsky, a world famous ceramic artist creates ceramic chess sets with rabbinical figurines. People have traditionally played chess while relaxing in the sukkah during the week-long holiday.
It is customary for men to present their wives with jewelry before the holiday and what better way to keep this custom than to give one of Sarah Tamir's striking sterling silver necklaces to your beloved. She makes a unique pendant celebrating Jerusalem 3000 and her chai pendant is also memorable.
Shoshana Oliva makes sterling silver Judaica items such as kiddush cups, a yahrzeit candle holder and necklaces. She uses the same precious and semi-precious stones that were used in the breast plate of the High Priest in the Holy Temple. Each stone has a special symbolism and quality.
During the times of the Holy Temple incense, ketoret, was offered daily and especially on holidays. Let the special fragrance of the ketoret set of essential oils waft through your sukkah to remind you of the Temple service. Brought to you by Reuven Prager of Beged Ivri, of course .
Grace the walls of your sukkah with one of Michael Folickman's exquisite miniature oil paintings with a wide range of Jewish themes. Gift a friend with one of Michael's hand painted bottles.
Calligraphy artist Orly Lauffer offers you an original mizrakh for the walls of your sukkah. The mizrakh is traditionally placed on an eastern wall, so that your prayers can be directed to Jerusalem.
Chaim Peretz creates lovely vitrage work made of stained glass and sterling silver. Hang them on your sukkah wall for an original decoration. He also produces hamsas, the Kabbalistic hand with the eye in the center, for good luck.
Master silver and goldsmith, Yaakov Davidoff, offers you stunning creations. His holiday kiddush cup, in either 24 karat gold or sterling silver, depicts the three Biblical holidays of Pesach, Shevuot and Sukkot. Take a look at his unusual seven species spoon set in his festival collection. The seven species for which the Land of Israel is famous are represented: wheat, barley, grapes, dates, figs, pomegranates and olives. Very appropriate for the Sukkot harvest festival. His maim aharonim set is appropriate all year round.
Listening to music is part of the joy of the intermediate days of Sukkot. Listen to the klezmer music of master composer and performer, David Perkins. Listen to prophecy music from Mitch Clyman. This Kabbalistically inspred music has themes derived in part from the hallel prayers recited on Sukkot.
Yonatan Cinnamon's Splendor Records uses a symphonic style. Take an online listen of his fanfare for the Meshiach, Messiah.