If you love the outdoors, love to eat on a patio or love to camp, then you’ll understand why Sukkot (known in English as the Feast of Tabernacles), which began at sundown on September 27th, is one of the most delightful Jewish holidays. The Jewish people were commanded in Leviticus in the Old Testament to do all the mitzvot (commandments) for the holiday, and those instructions included dwelling in the sukkot, or booths, for seven days. Eating and even sleeping in them (weather permitting) commemorates the temporary structures that the Jews built in their 40-year sojourn in the desert.
There are definite instructions for how many walls the booth should have — a minimum of two and a half. There should be a covering of something that grew from the earth. Jews were also instructed to say blessings over arba’a minim, the four species, which are four types of vegetation mentioned in the Torah: lulav (palm branch), an ethrog (a citron with a stem), three myrtle branches and two willow branches. Blessings are made over this combination of species, aiming them in six directions to indicate that G-d is everywhere. The commandments also said to rejoice in the holiday and the building of the sukkot, which are often family affairs, with older boys helping erect the structures and the little children decorating them. With family and friends coming to admire the individual sukkahs, it is definitely a joyous holiday. It is one of the major holidays that brings families together to celebrate from different parts of the country.
The holiday of Sukkot is seven days long, and most Jewish people try to eat all of their meals in their sukkot. It’s also a great time to invite friends and family over for meals and company.
Each sukkah is decorated festively. Many have artificial fruits and flowers hung from rafters, and people decorate sukkah walls with pictures of rabbis, flowers and fruit as well. Some people even have small fountains in their sukkahs. Christmas lights of all kinds are some of the favored decorations which hang from the ceiling.
Children usually do most of the decorating, and in the Jewish schools, little children draw pictures specifically to be hung in the sukkah. The children really look forward to doing this and have a great time.
The Biblical instruction also says that the ceiling covering should be made of plant matter and allow people to see the stars. In northern climates, most ceiling coverings are made of fir boughs while palm leaves are used in southern climates. Corn stalks and bamboo are also used. For the last several years, mats of natural materials have been available in stores for people to cover the top of the sukkah.
It’s become the custom in many communities to have sukkah-hopping excursions, where groups of people go from sukkah to sukkah in a neighborhood to see how individual sukkahs are made and decorated. This is an especially fun event for children because inside each sukkah, guests will find treats like candy, cake and fruit laid out for them.
During Sukkot, men march in the synagogues with their lulav and arba’a minim in processions called hakofot. They circle around a platform, the bimah, where the Torah is situated, and on the seventh day, they march around the bimah seven times.
There is an even livelier holiday attached to Sukkot which comes the day after Sukkot ends, and it is called Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of assembly. Sukkot itself is one of the three holidays in which the Jewish people were required to visit the temple in Jerusalem. In Numbers XXIX 12-39, it is instructed that on Sukkot, when there is a temple, we offer 70 sacrifices — more than on any other holiday. The Talmud explains that these sacrifices are on behalf of the original 70 nations of the world. Therefore, on Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day, Jews can then offer a sacrifice on their own behalf.
As most holidays outside of Israel are celebrated for two days, the second day of Shemini Atzeret is Simchat Torah. This marks the annual cycle of reading the five books of the Torah (the five books of Moses).
Simchat Torah literally means the joy of the Torah, and it is one of the two most lively holidays in the Jewish calendar. There is a lot of dancing and singing (done separately by men and women), and children wave special flags. Children of many ages are carried on their father’s shoulders during the dance, and the festivities last well into the evening.
So the combination of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah make this grouping of festive holidays a wonderful time for the entire family. From children to adults, everyone has something to look forward to, so the commandment to rejoice seems to be an easy one to follow!