“You shall hold the Feast of Huts…You shall rejoice in your festival… for seven days… for the Lord your God will bless you in all your income and all your handiwork, and you shall be fully joyful”. (Deuteronomy 16:13-17)
With the fullness of the moon in the month of Tishrei, exactly six months from the holiday of Pesach and following the solemnity of Yom Kippor, we joyfully celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, one of three pilgrimage festivals mentioned in the Torah. Sukkot reminds us of the time of traveling in the wilderness, (Leviticus 23:42-43) making camp in fragile, temporary huts, with the sturdy walls and familiar settings of home left far behind; with only the protection of God to surround us. These dwellings were also used as transitory housing during the ancient journeys to Jerusalem. A second name for the holiday is Chag HaAsif, the Harvest Holiday. The agricultural aspect is mentioned in Leviticus, 23:39. We celebrate the harvest, particularly in Israel, delighting in the ripened fruits of the land. A third name for the holiday is Z’man Simchatenu, the season of our joy, for at this time we begin the New Year with faith and optimism in the judgments that have been determined for us in the coming year. Additionally, King Solomon chose this time to dedicate the Temple in Jerusalem. During the time of the Temple, Sukkot included a ritual of water-pouring which was a time of intense and wide-spread celebration.
HOW WE CELEBRATE
Immediately upon the conclusion of Yom Kippor, we begin construction of our Sukkot. The sukka should be large enough for a family to eat and live in, the walls are made of canvas or wood, and most importantly, the entire roof is covered with schach, a covering that is made of material that grows from the ground and has been cut from it, such as cut evergreen branches (Portland) or palm fronds (Negev desert) or bamboo sticks. And most beautifully, the schach must be laid loosely on the roof in order to provide those within the sukkah a view of the moon, the stars, and the sky. Another Biblical observance which we still perform today is to take and shake the aarbat minim, or four species of plants. These consist of an etrog, (citron) and a lulav, which is comprised of a palm branch tied together with willow and myrtle branches. In traditional synagogues, there is a daily procession around the sanctuary with the four species in hand, while special prayers, called Hashanot, from the phrase “save us,” are recited. Our Rabbis have compared the lulav and etrog with four types of Jewish people. The etrog is compared to the person who possesses both Torah learning and good deeds. The palm tree has no fragrance but produces dates that taste sweet and can be eaten, and so it is compared to Jews who possess learning but no good deeds. The lovely myrtle, or hadas, has fragrance but no taste, and is compared to those Jews who possess good deeds but no learning. And finally, the willow has neither taste nor fragrance, and is compared to those Jews who lack both learning and good deeds. Yet, the Rabbis emphasized that the presence of each of the four plants is necessary in order to create the four species, the lulav and etrog. And just so, every type of Jewish person is necessary in order to make the Jewish community whole. Each individual fulfills an essential and unique role.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FAMILY CELEBRATION
Children love to decorate the sukkah, and the endeavor offers parents and adult friends the chance to get crafty, too. Typically, the sukkah is decorated with hanging fruits and vegetables, (the “seven species” mentioned in the Torah are: grapes, figs, dates, olives, pomegranates, wheat, and barley,) to commemorate the abundant harvest, and with beautiful scenes of Israel and signs with Bible quotations. Some modern families would rather not use food as a decoration, and create “fruit” from paper mache or laminated magazine cutouts. Decorating suggestions include paper chains; Rosh Hashanah cards strung along a long piece of yarn; posters of Israel; strings of beads, popcorn, or cranberries; ornamental gourds; mobiles depicting Jewish symbols; and placemats to use in the sukkah. To depict the special tradition of ushpizin that is practiced during Sukkot, an ushpizin chart can be created and hung. Ushpizin (oosh-pee-zeen) is a mystical custom begun and practiced in the sixteenth century by the mystics in Safed, Israel, to invite one of our ancestors to “visit” our sukkah as our “guests.” These were traditionally Biblical characters, and included Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. In recent years, our foremothers have been included: Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, and Esther. Many families will enjoy “inviting” guests from their family ancestry, or including other heroes of Jewish history. Dramatically inclined family members may enjoy dressing up and portraying one of the characters. A “Who Am I?” guessing game, modeled after the game Twenty Questions, is lots of fun. Families with older children may ask the characters to respond to issues of contemporary life from the perspective of time past. Make a model doll-sized sukkah with young children to add to their dollhouses. Save the etrog, press cloves into the sides and use it for besamim (spices) at Havdalah. Tzeddakah collected during this holiday may be given to a food bank or other institution that feeds the hungry.