We're halfway through the Jewish fall holiday marathon. Next in the batting order: Sukkot, sometimes called the Feast of Tabernacles in English. With this, we go from one of the most solemn days of the Hebrew year (Yom Kippur) to one of the most joyous ~ quite a transition in four days ;-)
Below, I'm going to explain the holiday a bit (since these diaries have sometimes attracted people who aren't Jewish, I'm going to start with an introduction) and then provide some more philosophical musings.
Follow me below the Great Orange Doodle for the holiday fun!
First, some basics for background:
Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, or Chag HaAsif (Festival of the Ingathering = harvest), is one of the Shalosh Regalim (pilgrimage festivals), meaning that ~ when the Temple stood in Jerusalem ~ Israelites would make a pilgrimage to the Temple. The holiday is also sometimes (especially in liturgy) as Z'man Simchatenu (the time of rejoicing), from a passage in Parshat Emor:
And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.The holiday is also referenced in Parshat Re'ei:
The Feast of Tabernacles you shall keep seven days...And you shall rejoice in your feast ... and you shall be extremely joyful.
Outside Israel, Sukkot is two initial days of yontif/yom tov (Yiddish and Hebrew for good day = holiday, with limits on what work is allowed), followed by five days of chol hamoed (intermediate days, with fewer work restrictions). The two days after Sukkot are also holidays (Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah), linked to but also separate from Sukkot. In Israel, Sukkot is one day of holiday and five intermediate days, with one day at the end for Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah combined.
The most obvious mitzvah (commandment) of Sukkot is dwelling in a sukkah ~ a temporary dwelling with at least three walls and with a roof made of schach (branches from a living plant). The roof needs to provide more shade than sun during the day, but also allow the stars to be seen at night. Interestingly, the mitzvah is to dwell in the sukkah (more on that shortly), not build one, so using a neighbor's or a synagogue's sukkah is quite acceptable.
Some people build their own sukkah, while others buy kits. If you are traveling, you can buy a little pop-up sukkah for your convenience ;-) Since the stars need to be visible at night, there needs to be open sky above where a sukkah is built ~ no overhanging trees or balconies allowed. So, to accommodate this, apartment building in Israel are often built with staggered balconies so each family can have a sukkah. Picture here and here.
My last year's sukkah, with bonus kitty in the window:
The sukkah is meant to commemorate the era when the Jewish nation journeyed from Egypt to Israel, when they lived in tents and other temporary shelters during their wanderings.
It's also a mitzvah to decorate the sukkah, to add to the joy of the holiday. Families with children often have handmade decorations, which are often joined by fall/harvest fruits and fancy tablecloths.
The other miztvah specific to Sukkot is the obligation to take the four species (arba minim), with which various prayers and ritual motions are done. Based on a verse in Parshat Emor (Leviticus 23:40), the four species are
1) lulav ~ palm branch
2) hadassim ~ myrtle
3) aravot ~ willow
4) etrog ~ citron
More on the arba minim below....
The liturgy for Sukkot is very similar to what then davening is for Pesach and for Shavuot, the other pilgrimage festivals, with Hallel said after Shacharit (morning services) each day. Extra prayers, called Hoshanot ('please save') are added during the mussaf prayers. On the last day of Sukkot, all of a synagogue's Torah scrolls are removed from the ark they are kept in, and ~ with the arba minim ~ they are carried around the sanctuary seven times.
One of the traditions of Sukkot is the idea of the Ushpizin (Aramaic for guests). It is claimed that there are unseen visitors every day of the holiday, with each taking a day specially in his honor ~ day 1 is for Avraham, day 2 is for Yitzchok, and so on through Yakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, and David Ha-Melech.
Avraham represents love and kindness
Yitzchok represents restraint and personal strength
Yakov represents beauty and truth
Yosef represents holiness and the spiritual foundation
Moshe represents eternality and dominance through Torah
Aharon represents empathy and receptivity to divine splendor
David represents the establishment of the kingdom of Heaven on Earth
There's also an excellent Israeli movie titled Ushpizin about Sukkot.
Chassidic interlude.....Following from the emphasis on joy and on guests, sukkah hopping (visits, often unplanned/spontaneous, to the sukkahs of family and friends, frequently several in quick succession for short-ish visits) is quite common, especially in large Jewish communities and in Israel.
The story of told of Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz who, known for his wisdom, had Chassidim flock to him for assistance. There were so many who came to him that he felt he was short of time for Torah study, so he decided to to retreat from the world, spending his days and nights in prayer and study, only seeing his followers for worship in the synagogue.
When Sukkot arrived, he invited several people to his sukkah at the last minute, but they declined, as the rabbi's isolation led to them not really feeling welcome in his sukkah.
On the first night of Sukkot, Rabbi Pinhas entered his sukkah and followed the custom of inviting the Ushpizin (holy guests) in. He saw Avraham Avinu outside the sukkah but refusing to enter. When the rabbi asked Avraham Avinu why he wouldn't enter the sukkah, Avraham Avinu replied "I will not enter a place where guest are not welcome."
After that, Rabbi Pinchas re-opened his home to his Chassidim.
(Adapted from a couple different versions, such as the one in Philip Goodman's The Sukkot and Simchat Torah Anthology.)
The Arba Minim ~ an interpretation:
Needless to say, there are many interpretations of just what the arba minim (four species) mean. One commonly in basic introductions to the holiday is that the four species represent four types of people....
Etrog (citron): pleasant aroma and pleasant taste, so represents those both knowledgeable in Torah and who preform good deeds.
Lulav (palm branch): has a pleasant tasting fruit but no aroma, stands for those who are learned but perform no good deeds
Hadassim (myrtle): has a pleasant fragrance but no fruit, representing those who perform good deeds but who are unlearned in Torah
Aravot (willow): has neither fruit or fragrance, so represents those who are unlearned and who do not perform good deeds.
With this line of interpretation, when the four species are tied together, the combination represents the whole of the Jewish people.
Chassidic interlude.....To dwell....
The Medizbozer Rabbi said "During the High Holidays of Tishrei [the Hebrew month] a Jew serves God with his whole being: on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Remembrance, with his brain, since memory enwreathes the mind; on Yom Kippur with his heart, since fasting strains the heart; on Sukkot with his hands, as he grasps the etrog and lulav; and on Simhat Torah with his feet, when he parades in the circuits and dances with the Torah.
(From Philip Goodman's The Sukkot and Simchat Torah Anthology.
The miztvah for Sukkot is to dwell in the sukkah ~ to eat and sleep as much as possible in the sukkah.
With the obligation to dwell and the emphasis on joy, the focus is on just being ~ on focusing on the present. Pesach and Shavuot are very focused on historical events, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are fairly focused on the future..... Sukkot has a great emphasis on just being ~ and being joyful ~ in the present. While Sukkot does commemorate the years in the wilderness, that isn't the focus of the related mitzvot. There's no equivalent of the seder retelling the Exodus.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks interludeThat last line is why I chose this passage to share: "faith is not certainty: faith is the courage to live with uncertainty."
What exactly is a sukkah? What is it supposed to represent?
The question is essential to the mitzvah itself. The Torah says: “Live in sukkot for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in sukkot so that your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 23: 42-43). In other words, knowing – reflecting, understanding, being aware – is an integral part of the mitzvah. For that reason, says Rabbah in the Talmud (Sukkah 2a), a sukkah that is taller than twenty cubits (about thirty feet or nine metres high) is invalid because when the sechach, the “roof,” is that far above your head, you are unaware of it.
** ** **
Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) says the sukkah was there to remind the Israelites of their past so that, at the very moment they were feeling the greatest satisfaction at living in Israel – at the time of the ingathering of the produce of the land – they should remember their lowly origins. They were once a group of refugees without a home, living in a favela or a shanty town, never knowing when they would have to move on. Sukkot, says Rashbam, is integrally connected to the warning Moses gave the Israelites at the end of his life about the danger of security and affluence:
Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God ... Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery ... You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” (Deut. 8: 11-17)
Sukkot, according to Rashbam, exists to remind us of our humble origins so that we never fall into the complacency of taking freedom, the land of Israel and the blessings it yields, for granted, thinking that it happened in the normal course of history.
Sukkot, on this reading, becomes a metaphor for the Jewish condition not only during the forty years in the desert but also the almost 2,000 years spent in exile and dispersion. For centuries Jews lived, not knowing whether the place in which they lived would prove to be a mere temporary dwelling. To take just one period as an example: Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and during the next two centuries from almost every country in Europe, culminating in the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, and the Portuguese in 1497. They lived in a state of permanent insecurity. Sukkot is the festival of insecurity.
What is truly remarkable is that it is called, by tradition, zeman simchatenu, “our time of joy.” That to me is the wonder at the heart of the Jewish experience: that Jews throughout the ages were able to experience risk and uncertainty at every level of their existence and yet – while they sat betzila de-mehemnuta, “under the shadow of faith” (this is the Zohar’s description of the sukkah: Zohar, Emor, 103a) – they were able to rejoice. That is spiritual courage of a high order. I have often argued that faith is not certainty: faith is the courage to live with uncertainty.