What is Sukkot?
‘Sukkah’ is the Hebrew word for ‘booth’ or ‘tabernacle’. ‘Sukkot’, the plural, is the name of the festival of booths. Sukkot were the huts in which the Jewish people lived during their years in the desert after they left slavery in Egypt and before they arrived in the Promised Land (Israel).
Sukkot begins two weeks after Rosh Hashanah, on the eve of the 15th day of Tishrei. Inside Israel we celebrate it for seven days, until the 22nd of Tishrei, but outside Israel it lasts for one extra day until the 23rd day of Tishrei.
Sukkot comes at the end of the High Holydays, which are the most serious days of the Jewish year. Sukkot is a joyful festival and one of the Three Pilgrim Festivals.
The Story of Sukkot
During Sukkot we remember when God freed us from slavery in Egypt. After our ancestors left Egypt, they wandered for forty years in the desert before they reached the Promised Land of Israel. Along their way during these forty years, they built temporary homes out of dry palms and branches.
To remind us of their journey and these temporary homes, and of how our ancestors relied on God to help them, on Sukkot we ‘live’ for seven days in huts made from branches and palms.
Sukkot was also an autumn harvest festival, celebrated at the time when the Jewish people gathered the crops from the fields and the fruits of the orchards.
These harvests were always celebrated with great excitement. As a result, we also call Sukkot ‘Chag HaAsif’ (‘The Festival of Gathering’) and ‘Zman Simchatenu’ (‘The Time of Our Happiness’).
How do we celebrate Sukkot?
Building a sukkah
It is traditional to start building a sukkah to use during the holiday of Sukkot straight after Yom Kippur so that it will be ready in time.
A sukkah must have at least three walls. The walls of the sukkah can be made out of anything: canvas, wood, bricks, even metal or stone. They may even be a permanent structure, such as the side wall of a house.
There are, however, certain rules about the roof of a sukkah:
- it must be made out of something which grew from the ground (e.g. branches are allowed, plastic or metal is not).
- the material it is made from must no longer be connected to the ground. e.g. you may not use a living branch as part of the sukkah roof - it must be cut off the tree before it may be used.
- It must be possible to see at least 3 stars in the night sky through the sukkah roof (it must not be such a good roof that it protects us totally from the environment - instead, we need to still have some trust that God will continue to protect us).
Living in a Sukkah
We are commanded to ‘live’ in a sukkah for the whole week of Sukkot. This means that we should try to eat all our meals in the sukkah and say the blessings for bread, wine, and a prayer that thanks God for Sukkot. Some people, especially men, also sleep in the sukkah at night time.
During Sukkot, it is a great (and very enjoyable) mitzvah to invite guests over to eat with you in your sukkah. We also imagine that seven special guests, known as the Ushpizin, join us in the sukkah. These guests are the Biblical characters Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David.
The Four Species
On Sukkot we use four kinds of plants known in Hebrew as the Arbah Minim (literally, the 'four species'.). They represent the oneness of Israel, and the harvest. They are:
Aravot - willows that have no fruit and no fragrance
Lulav - palm branch that has no fragrance, but has fruit which can be eaten
Etrog - citron, a fruit like a lemon, that has a sweet fragrance and can be eaten
Haddasim – myrtles, that have a nice smell but cannot be eaten
The three myrtle twigs and the two willows are tied together to the palm branch. This bouquet is called the lulav.
Shaking The Four Species
- We read a prayer before saying a blessing for the lulav. We than hold the etrog in the left hand (stem pointed downwards, then after the prayer, upwards)
- We then shake the lulav, holding it next to the etrog, while facing east towards Jerusalem. We shake it three times- once to the south (right), once to the west (over the shoulder) and once to the north (over the other shoulder). We wave the lulav as a sign of joy and thanks that God has given us a final harvest. Waving the lulav also shows that we wish for rain in Israel.
- We also wave the lulav during Hallel (psalms of praise).
- We do not shake the lulav on Shabbat because we are not allowed to carry anything on Shabbat, and shaking the species involves carrying them.
- Each person should have their own lulav - it cannot be borrowed, but it can be given as a gift.
Chol HaMo’ed Sukkot
Outside Israel, the first 2 days of Sukkot and the last 2 days of Sukkot are yom tov (inside Israel, only the first day and the last day are yom tov). The middle four days are not yom tov (i.e. the restrictions of yom tov do not apply to them, although it might also be Shabbat) and are known as Chol haMo'ed Sukket (the intermediate - or middle - days of Sukkot).
During the morning service in synagogue, we say Hallel prayers. There is a procession with the lulav and the etrog.
The seventh day of Sukkot is called ‘Hoshanah Rabah’, which means ‘the great help’. It is called this after one of the prayers we say on the day.
The night before Hoshana Rabah people spend their time praying and studying. This is because Hoshana Rabbah is believed to be the very final opportunity for God to make a favourable judgment about what will happen to us during the coming year.
On the day of Hoshanah Rabah in the synagogue we walk around the bimah in a procession, carrying the lulav and etrog. While walking, we say prayers for a good harvest. Seven circuits are made, and then we bind together five aravot (bundles of willow twigs) and beat them on the ground whilst saying a special prayer.
For more information about Hoshana Rabbah please see our Hoshana Rabbah page.
Babaganewz: Sukkot Central
Chabad: Sukkot Kids Zone
Shema Yisrael: My Favorite Sukkos Coloring Book
Torah Tots: Sukkot
Activities for Children
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