SUKKOT – SEASON OF OUR JOY – A HARVEST FEAST
~ Keren Hannah
As we approach the week-long festival of Sukkot [soo-koht], we are aware that the seasons are changing. Summer is slowly but surely giving way to the cooler nights and days of Fall. We are reminded that time is divided into years and each year has its seasons, each filled with its unique characteristics and opportunities for change and growth. It is no coincidence that our Creator set each festival in its particular season and specifically appointed the time of its celebration.
Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, occurs at the time “when the [Fall] harvest is gathered from the fields” (Exodus 23:16); thus, it also is called Chag Ha’Asif, the Festival of Ingathering. This can be understood on a natural, personal and historic level. In the physical world of nature, the crops that were tended during the hot summer months are now ready for harvest and the produce is gathered into storehouses or sold in the markets. The American holiday of Thanksgiving is associated with Sukkot, which was termed Tabernacles by the early Pilgrims.
On a personal and spiritual level, it is a time to survey our inner growth and the work accomplished during the year and gratefully to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The festival also is simply called HaChag, The Feast, because on a wider, historic perspective Sukkot represents the culmination of history, the end of time, when the full spiritual harvest will be gathered at the great and final Redemption. It will be the grand finale of the drama of history!
A sukkah and lulav – 18th century, Dutch painting
SHEMINI ATZERET, THE EIGHTH DAY
A crowning day of celebration called Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Assembly, is added to the week of Sukkot. Its name points to its significance. The Hebrew number seven, sheva, represents completeness and is related to the word savayah, which means satisfied. We have the opportunity to experience this satisfied completion every week on Shabbat, which recalls the seventh day of Creation when God ceased His work, was satisfied, and set the day apart as holy (Genesis 2:2-3).
The Hebrew number eight is shemoneh, derived from the word shemen, oil or fat. It conveys the concept of increase, a step beyond completion, as pure oil which is derived from a ripened olive, a new beginning. Shemini Atzeret can, therefore, be viewed as a taste of the glorious arrival of the “Day that is all Shabbat” – when Mashiach, the Messiah, will establish the Kingdom of God in the earth and will reign from His City, the New Jerusalem. On the Eighth Day we look forward to the eternal, resurrection life promised in Olam HaBa, the world to Come, where we will rejoice in our Father’s presence in redeemed, fully transformed, “new creation” bodies.
In Israel Shemini Atzeret is combined with the celebration of Simchat Torah, Rejoicing in the Torah. In Israel they are observed on the same day, while in the Diaspora (lands outside of Israel) Simchat Torah is held the day after Shemini Atzeret. Without God’s gift of His Word and teaching, His Torah, we could not arrive at the fullness and completion of Redemption. As we walk in the ways and ‘pleasant paths’ of God’s Word, we are transformed from “glory to glory” until the “eighth day” when all Creation ultimately will be redeemed.
THE LOWLY SUKKAH
Three mitzvot (commandments) are listed in the Torah concerning Sukkot:
(1) building and living in a sukkah (Lev. 23:42-43);
(2) gathering together the four species (Lev. 23:40a) and
(3) rejoicing during the holiday (Lev. 22:40b).
The sukkah is the most important and visible element of the holiday, apparent in its name Sukkot (plural form of sukkah). The sukkah is constructed during the days immediately following Yom Kippur and it is used for the first time on the Eve of Sukkot when the festival candles are lit and the blessings recited and the first meal is enjoyed in the sukkah.
A question…What does one do if it rains? The sages determined, with much common sense, that as the purpose of the sukkah is beauty, blessing and enjoyment, it is wiser to remain indoors if the weather makes it uncomfortable to be in the sukkah.
Friends’ lovely sukkah in Jerusalem!
The sukkah must be a temporary dwelling with at least three walls. Existing outside walls can be used. It is generally made of wood, with two by fours used for a frame and thin wooden sheets attached for walls. Easily assembled kits are available in Israel, and can be ordered online, comprised of light metal frames and strong plastic or canvas walls. You can also be creative.
Once, when I lived on a rather remote Israeli kibbutz for a while, I used four wooden poles as a basic frame and strung up sheets for walls (one of which, appropriately, was light blue with white fluffy clouds that reminded me of our Father’s presence that covers us like the sky and His “clouds of glory” that accompanied the Israelites through the wilderness). For the roof, I attached a light wooden trellis square atop the four poles, upon which I lay some cut palm branches. I added a floor rug, a small table covered with a colorful plastic cloth, a chair and a cushion. Then I pinned up some attractive decorations and pictures of Jerusalem and – voila! – a perfect little sukkah, albeit shaky, wherein I could sit and eat, and study and pray, and even squeeze in a guest or two!
Many families construct large and beautiful sukkot, big enough to add couches or mattresses and to sleep in. Great fun for children! I can attest to the fact that no matter the size or the splendor of one’s sukkah the Lord is faithful to meet one there in a unique and special way.
Beautiful communal sukkah in the Western Wall plaza, Jerusalem.
The basic purpose of the sukkah is to remind us of the portability of the dwellings of the Israelites on their wilderness journey. Likewise, our lives are a journey and our security is not in the solid houses we build but in the One who guides and provides for us every step of the way. The temporary, fragile sukkah thus depicts the nature of our lives. Life on this earth is impermanent and frail, it has a time limit. Like the sukkah, if the weather is sunny and pleasant we feel happy and sheltered. How suddenly this changes if the wind starts to blow, clouds build and a storm closes in to spoil our sukkah or, if severe enough, causes it to collapse altogether.
This vital lesson is emphasized by the roof, which should be made of organic material, something that has grown from the ground but is no longer attached to it. For example, leafy branches, bamboo poles or strips, and even corn stalks can be used. There should be enough covering to ensure more shade than sunlight and one should be able to see the stars through it at night. Then, as we look up we are aware that we are covered by the Heavenly canopy, we are tachat kippot HaShamayim; in fact we are covered by the protective hands of God Himself. Like the sukkah, our physical lives are fragile and fleeting; our goals and focus, however, are upon the infinite and the eternal. Our true home is in the endless Presence of the Creator of all.
SEASON OF OUR JOY – Zeman Simchateinu
Sukkot is associated with beauty, life and joy. It is the only appointed festival upon which God commands us to be joyful. “You shall rejoice before the Eternal, your God, seven days” (Lev. 22:40). Our Father designed the earthly sukka, or tent, of our body and did not intend that our existence be a vale of tears. Through the trials and sufferings the world brings, He is with us and the faithful promises of His Word enable us to view life in a cheerful and optimistic light. When our hope and trust are in Him, we truly can be joyful always!
The highest point of joyous celebration in the time of the Temple took place during the Water Libation ritual on the day of Hoshana Rabah. It is written in the Mishna: “He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Water Libation has never witnessed true joy!” (Sukkah 5:1).
Trumpets sounded and in joyous procession the celebrants would accompany the High Priest to the Pool of Siloam. There he would fill a golden pitcher with water and carry it up to the Holy Temple, where he would ceremoniously pour the water upon the altar. The priestly choir sang and the people praised their Father and King who had cleansed them of their sins a few days before on Yom Kippur and they were now free to go forward in hope and gratitude. They also were aware that the day of ultimate joy was imminent – the Eighth Day, with its promise of the arrival of Messiah and the fullness of God’s Kingdom.
Other Sukkot customs include: (1) reading the book of Ecclesiastes, (2) special Hoshana prayers in the synagogue and (3) inviting Ushpizin, symbolic guests, into the sukkah.
1. Reading Ecclesiastes, Kohelet , adds a serious note to the festivities and underscores the message that our security does not lie in material possessions, which are vain and transitory. It also beautifully reminds us that “to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven” (3:7).
2. The seventh day of Sukkot is Hoshanah Rabah, literally the Great Hosanna or Many Hosannas. This is not regarded as a full festival day but special rituals are practiced, namely (i) the circling of the synagogue seven times instead of one while carrying the lulav and etrog [we will explore the lulav and etrog in more detail next week] while reciting the Hoshana prayers and (ii) the beating of the willow branches on the floor of the synagogue, which replicates how on this day, in temple times, branches were struck on the ground near the altar.
Willow leaves die quickly without water and can represent our weakness and sin when we depart from God and His Word. When the willow branches, now wilted at the end of the Sukkot week, are struck on the ground the leaves fall off easily – symbolizing the casting off of our sins.
3. To have Ushpizin, or guests, in our sukkah is a blessing.  A joyful custom in Jerusalem, and certainly in other communities, is to ‘sukkah-hop’ – to arrange a time with friends to visit from sukkah to sukkah. It also is customary to ‘invite’ a special biblical guest each night, in particular Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and King David and to consider the life of each one and to learn from their example.
A sukkah in Jerusalem
1. Blessings said on the first night in the sukkah:
* Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, Asher kidshanu be’mitzvotav ve’tzivanu le’hadlik ner shel Sukkot.
Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to light the lights of Sukkot.
**Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, Asher kidshanu be’mitzvotav ve’tzivanu leishev ba’sukkah.
Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to dwell in the sukkah.
***Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, She’hecheiyanu, ve’kimanu ve’higianu le’zman hazeh.
Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.
3. To enjoy a Sukkot treat, try to locate a DVD of the Israeli movie Ushpizin (pronounced Oosh-pea-zeen). It has many laughs along with meaningful lessons and affords insight into life in a religious neighbourhood in Jerusalem.