Sukkot is a weeklong Jewish holiday that comes five days after Yom Kippur. Sukkot celebrates the gathering of the harvest and commemorates the miraculous protection G‑d provided for the children of Israel when they left Egypt. We celebrate Sukkot by dwelling in a sukkah, a foliage-covered booth, and by taking the Four Kinds, arba minim.
The first two days (sundown on October 2 until nightfall on October 4) of the holiday are yom tov, when work is forbidden, candles are lit in the evening, and festive meals are preceded by Kiddush and include challah dipped in honey.
The intermediate days (nightfall on October 4 until sundown on October 9) are quasi holidays, known as Chol Hamoed. We dwell in the sukkah and take the Four Kinds every day of Sukkot, except for Shabbat.
The final two days (sundown on October 9 until nightfall on October 11) are a separate holiday: Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah.
What's in a Name
Of all the Jewish holidays, Sukkot is the only one whose date does not seem to commemorate a historic event. The Torah refers to it by two names: Chag HaAsif, the Harvest Festival, and Chag HaSukkot, Festival of Booths, each expressing a reason for the holiday.
In Israel, crops grow in the winter and are ready for harvest in the late spring. Some of them remain out in the field to dry for a few months and are only ready for harvest in the early fall. Chag HaAsif is a time to express appreciation for this bounty.
The name Chag HaSukkot commemorates the temporary dwellings G‑d made to shelter our ancestors on their way out of Egypt (some say this refers to the miraculous clouds of glory that shielded us from the desert sun, while others say it refers to the tents in which they dwelled for their 40-year trek through the Sinai desert).
For seven days and nights, we eat all our meals in the sukkah and otherwise regard it as our home. Located under the open sky, the sukkah is made up of at least three walls and a roof of unprocessed natural vegetation—typically bamboo, pine boughs or palm branches.
The goal is to spend as much time as possible in the sukkah, at the very minimum eating all meals in the sukkah—particularly the festive meals on the first two nights of the holiday, when we must eat at least an olive-sized piece of bread or mezonot (grain-based food) in the sukkah. The Chabad practice is to not eat or drink anything outside the sukkah.
The Four Kinds
On each day of the festival (except Shabbat), we take four special species of vegetation recite a blessing over them, bring them together and wave them in all six directions: right, left, forward, up, down and backward. The sages of the Midrash tell us that the Four Kinds represent the various personalities that comprise the community of Israel, whose intrinsic unity we emphasize on Sukkot.
The Holiday of Joy
On Sukkot, G‑d determines how much rain will fall that winter. Thus, while every sacrifice in the Temple included wine libations poured over the altar, on Sukkot, water was also poured over the altar in a special ceremony. This ritual engendered such joy that it was celebrated with music, dancing and singing all night long. This celebration was called “Simchat Beit Hasho’evah.” This holiday is so joyous that in Talmudic times, when someone said the word chag, holiday, without specifying which one, you could know that they were referring to Sukkot.
Although we may not have the Temple or pouring of water on the altar, Sukkot remains the Fesitval of Joy. It is customary to hold nightly celebrations that include singing, dancing, and live music (during the intermediate days of the holiday).
Sukkot in the Holy Temple
In the days of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, there was a special regimen of sacrifices that were to be brought on the altar. On the first day, no less than 13 bulls, two rams, and 14 lambs were to be sacrificed. Every day, the number of bulls was depleted by one. All in all, 70 bulls were brought, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world.
Along with Passover and Shavuot, Sukkot is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three annual pilgrimages, when every male Jew was to be in Jerusalem.
Hoshanot and Hoshanah Rabbah
Every day of Sukkot we say Hallel, a collection of psalms of praise, as part of the morning prayer service. Every day aside for Shabbat, we hold the Four Kinds during this prayer, waving them in all directions at certain key points in the service, as outlined in the siddur.
Afterward, we circle the bimah (the podium on which the Torah is read) holding the Four Kinds, reciting alphabetically arranged prayers for Divine assistance known as Hoshanot.
The seventh day of the holiday is known as Hoshanah Rabbah. This is the day when our fates for the coming year—which were signed on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur—are finalized. On this day, we circle the bimah seven times. We also say a short prayer and strike the ground five times with bundles of five willows (also known as Hoshanot).
Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah
The Torah tells us that after the seven days of Sukkot, we should celebrate an eighth day. In the diaspora, this eighth day is doubled, making two days of yom tov. On the final day, it is customary to conclude and then immediately begin the annual cycle of Torah reading, making this day Simchat Torah, the Torah Celebration. The highlight of this holiday is the boisterous singing and dancing in the synagogue, as the Torah scrolls are paraded in circles around the bimah.
Although the eighth day follows Sukkot, it is actually an independent holiday in many respects. We no longer take the Four Kinds or dwell in the sukkah. (Those Jews that don't live in Israel eat in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret, but without saying the accompanying blessing.)
By the time Simchat Torah is over, we have experienced a spiritual roller coaster, from the solemn introspection of the High Holidays to the giddy joy of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Now it is time to convert the roller coaster into a locomotive, making sure that the inspiration of the holiday season propels us to greater growth, learning and devotion in the year ahead.
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