Sukkot, the Autumn Harvest Festival


Fifteen days after the stocktaking of Rosh Hashanah, and five days after the more rigorous stocktaking of Yom Kippur, falls the weeklong holiday of Sukkot—one of the most joyous and pleasant Jewish holidays. It began this year at sundown on Wednesday, September 18.

In ancient Israel, Sukkot was (along with Passover and Shavuot) one of three pilgrimage festivals in which Jews from throughout the land made their way to the Temple in Jerusalem. In its oldest origins Sukkot was an autumn harvest festival. Exodus 23:16 calls it:

the feast of ingathering, which is in the end of the year, when thou hast gathered in thy labours out of the field.

But in the next biblical book, Leviticus, God confers on Sukkot a more specific significance as he tells (Lev. 23:42-43) the Israelites:

Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths:

That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt….

The reference is to the Israelites’ dwelling in rough, temporary structures during their 40-year desert-trek to the Promised Land. Hence the “booths”—sukkot in Hebrew—that observant Jews (and in Israel, some not-so-observant Jews) build, decorate, eat meals in, and even sleep in during Sukkot.

Hence also the holiday’s English name, the Feast of Tabernacles.

Indeed, some historians make a highly plausible case that the holiday of Thanksgiving has its origins in Sukkot.PJ-Sukkot2

They can’t be just any old booths; Jewish sources give quite explicit instructions for them. At least three walls have to be covered by material, like canvas, that won’t blow away in the wind. Keeping a sukkah intact can be a challenge especially in North America when Sukkot falls in October, though I’ve seen them blow down in Israeli October too.

And the roof has to be made of skhakh—leafy plant material, in Israel usually palm leaves. This skhakh has to be placed loosely enough that you can see the stars through it—like the Israelites in their hastily built huts in the desert over three thousand years ago.

The holiday’s intimate connection with the Land of Israel is also evident in the customs surrounding the Four Species—a citron (from a type of citrus tree common in the Middle East), a palm branch (palm trees being ubiquitous in Israel), a myrtle branch (myrtle trees are mentioned several times in the Bible), and a willow branch (willows being abundant along Israel’s swampy littoral).PJ-Sukkot3

On September 6, 1984, we moved from upstate New York to an absorption center outside Hadera, a town in Israel’s coastal plain. Rosh Hashanah fell that year on September 27, Yom Kippur on October 6. Though the surrounding community wasn’t particularly “religious,” I was struck by how these holidays were all-encompassing events, comparable only to an Orthodox neighborhood outside of Israel.

Then, on the evening of October 10, Sukkot started, and sukkot were everywhere; just about every family that had a yard had one. I met, for the first time, the Sukkot moon—full and dazzling, shining down on the skhakh, on the dark, lush, ancient land of the Sharon Plain.

Since then Sukkot has been my favorite of all holidays. The sukkot with their thatched roofs, their walls of canvas or wood, sprout like an infusion of the rude and rustic in the very modern, high-tech Israel of today. With the air at night in a perfect equipoise between summer and fall, warm and cool, one could do worse than sit in a sukkah, looking up through the leaves at the stars.