After the somber Yom Kippur comes the joyous feast of Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles as some know it. This mo’ed is first mentioned in Leviticus 23:33-44 as a commandment from God for Bnei-Israel to have a feast of thanksgiving and rejoicing. It took place during the season of ingathering when the remaining crops sown during the previous winter were harvested, thus it was also called Chag HaAsif (Feast of the Ingathering). This is also one of the three pilgrimage feasts in which Israel would travel up to Jerusalem to the Temple.
Sukkot, as it is commonly called, refers to the temporary dwellings/sukkot (sukkah (sing.)) God instructed Israel to live in during this feast after they settled in the land. This was a reminder to the people that God made their ancestors dwell in sukkot after He brought them out of Egypt. They were to dwell in them for 7 days starting from the 15th day of the 7th month (today the month of Tishrei). The first day is a Yom Tov, a day similar to Shabbat that we celebrate with great joy. It is on this day when the lulav is taken and waved about and we begin to dwell in our sukkot. This is continued for each of the seven days until Shemini Atzeret. Shemini Atzeret adds an eighth day which is also to be a holy day of convocation.
Sukkot are built and lived in for seven days. Tradition dictates that a sukkah has at least three sides and a roof of thatch or branches which provides shade but allows for the stars to be seen at night and it is prescribed that all meals should be eaten in them (weather permitting of course). Some will even sleep in their sukkah as well. Typically families will decorate their sukkah with crafts, decorative fruit, art, or whatever they see fit to add a homey touch. After all, it is their home for the week.
A lulav of four species is taken and waved on each of the seven days. Torah dictates that the four species are to consist of the best fruit from the trees, palm branches, boughs from leafy trees, and a willow branch. This was done to celebrate and to give thanks to God for the bounty of the land. In Nehemiah’s time, they used olive branches and wild olives as part of the lulav (Neh. 8). Today we use an etrog, a yellow citron of the citrus family, and branches of an aravah (willow), a lulav (date palm frond) which is the most prominent element and why we call this bundle the lulav, and a hadass (myrtle) which was also used in Nehemiah’s time. We hold together these elements and, in the sukkah, wave them three times in each direction; to the east, the south, the west, the north, to the sky, and to the earth. The sages teach that this is to represent us taking the species to the One who owns each direction and the heavens and the earth.
Hoshanah Rabah & Shemini Atzeret
The seventh day of Sukkot is called Hoshanah Rabah, which means “the Great save us”. This is the greatest day of the feast in which the final sealing of judgment takes place. It is on this day when it is traditional to march around the sanctuary of the synagogue with the lulav and sing Hallel psalms. At the end of the processionals, the willow branch is beaten on the ground, symbolizing the expulsion of any remaining sins. It is also customary in some communities to have the processional with the Torah as well as read from Deuteronomy all night followed by prayers in the morning. In the days of the Temple, the high priest would lead a processional to fill a golden pitcher in the pool of Siloam and return to pour it out on the southwest corner of the Altar. As water symbolizes life, this ritual brought great joy to the people as noted by the sages and in accordance with Isaiah 12:3 “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Hoshanah Rabah is mentioned in John 7 when Yeshua invited those who thirst to come to him to receive living water. The connection to water here is important as it was also at this time that it is said that the world is judged to determine the amount of rainfall for the coming year. As rain is crucial to farming and the ecosystem, praying for sufficient rain was also apart of this feast.
The following day is called Shemini Atzeret, generally understood to mean “eighth stop”. This day is a Yom Tov like the first day of Sukkot where we pause and enjoy our relationship with God. After seven days of feasting and rejoicing, this is one extra day for just us and God.
Simchat Torah is a celebration that is apart of Shemini Atzeret. Since those of us in the Diaspora observe many feasts for two days, Simchat Torah is usually celebrated on the second day of Shemini Atzeret. The meaning of this festival is “joy of the Torah.” It is customary to parade the scroll(s) around the synagogue and rejoice with dancing and singing. By this time, our annual Torah cycle is complete. In communities that have at least three scrolls, they will read from each of them. From one will be read the final portion, Vezot Haberacha, from another, the first, Beresheet, and verses of the day’s sacrifices from the last. Typically this is also when the scroll is rewound all the way back to Beresheet.
References to Sukkot
Sukkot is mentioned in a few places throughout the Bible. The first mention is in Exodus 34 which references the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the agricultural year. As stated before Sukkot is found in Nehemiah 8 when Ezra instructed the Jews, who recently returned from Babylonian exile, how to follow Torah. Later on in the book of Second Maccabees (found in Catholic and Apocryphal Bibles), the feast of Chanukah came about as a substitute for Sukkot as they could not observe it in its proper time due to Greek occupation. Some scholars would also suggest that an allusion to Sukkot is made in Revelation 21 which says that God will dwell among His people.
The act of dwelling in a sukkah is not only commemorative of the time when Bnei Israel lived in temporary dwellings, but also alludes to a future time when God will dwell amongst us. Living in a sukkah should also be a reminder to us that God is the supplier of all our needs. A sukkah generally doesn’t have all the comforts of home like air conditioning, running water, or electricity. Not to say that we cannot enjoy these luxuries in our homes during this time, but it wouldn’t hurt to reflect upon all that God has provided for us as we dwell in our minimized home.
It is also important to remember that this mo’edim is about rejoicing. It’s the time of the last harvest of the year, so we give thanks to God for the bounty of the land for everything He has provided for us, and all that He continues to provide.
Z'man Simchateinu! This is the time of our rejoicing!