13 October 2019

Sukkot remembers how
God’s ‘providence upheld
us in our wanderings’

‘In the mornings, when it is not raining, I sit here and watch the morning light move across the valley’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the High Holy Days in the Jewish Calendar this year, I have been posting blog-postings each morning on the synagogues of Dublin.

The Festival of Sukkot this year begins at sundown this evening [Sunday 13 October 2019] and continues until sundown next Sunday [20 October]. The conclusion of Sukkot marks the beginning of the separate holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

Sukkot (סוכות or סֻכּוֹת, sukkot or sukkos), the Festival of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths, is also known as the Festival of Ingathering (חג האסיף, Chag HaAsif) and in some translations the Festival of Shelters.

This Festival is mentioned in Exodus as agricultural in nature – ‘Festival of Ingathering at the year’s end’ (see Exodus 34: 22) – and it marks the end of the harvest time and of the agricultural year in the Land of Israel. A more elaborate religious significance in Leviticus describes the Exodus and the dependence of the People on the will of God (see Leviticus 23: 42-43).

This Biblical holiday celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei, usually between late September and late October. It is one of the three biblically mandated festivals when Jews were expected to undertake a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, along with Passover and Shavuot.

In the times of the Temple in Jerusalem, Sukkot was also the time of a water-drawing ceremony, a joyous and upbeat celebration. It is celebrated today with its own customs and practices.

The holiday lasts seven days in Israel and eight in the diaspora. The first day (and the second day in the diaspora) is a Shabbat-like holiday when work is forbidden. This is followed by intermediate days called Chol Hamoed, when some work is allowed. The festival closes with another Shabbat-like holiday called Shemini Atzeret, and the second day is called Simchat Torah [22 October 2019] in the diaspora.

It is traditional in Jewish families and homes to mark this festival by building a sukkah or a temporary hut to dwell in during the holiday. The customs include buying a lulav and etrog and shake them daily throughout the festival.

A sukkah is a temporary dwelling in which farmers once lives during the harvest. Today, it is also a reminder of the type of the fragile dwellings in which the people lived during their 40 years wandering through the wilderness after fleeing slavery in Egypt.

A meditation on Sukkot in Service of the Heart, a prayer book I use regularly in my daily prayers and meditations, offers this Kiddush for welcoming Sukkot, composed by Rabbi Sidney Brichto (1936-2009), a Jewish authority on both the Old Testament and New Testament and translator of the People’s Bible:

‘The Festival of Sukkot teaches us to give thanks to God for the harvest of fruit and grain and to share these and all nature’s blessings with our fellow men.

‘Let us praise God with this symbol of joy and thank him for his providence which has upheld us in our wanderings and sustained us with nature’s bounty from year to year. May our worship lead us to live this day and all days in the spirit of this Festival of Sukkot with trust in God’s care, with thanksgiving for his goodness, and with determination that all men shall enjoy the blessings of the earth.’

Throughout the holiday, meals are eaten inside the sukkah and some people even sleep there as well.

On each day of the holiday it is mandatory to perform a waving ceremony with the Four Species or specified plants: citrus trees, palm trees, thick or leafy trees and willows.

Prayers during Sukkot include reading the Torah every day, the Mussaf or additional service after morning prayers, reciting Hallel, and adding special additions to the Amidah and Grace after Meals.

On each day of Sukkot, worshippers walk around the synagogue carrying the Four Species while saying special prayers known as Hoshanot. This ceremony commemorates the willow ceremony at the Temple in Jerusalem, in which willow branches were piled beside the altar with worshippers parading around the altar reciting prayers.

Another custom is to recite the ushpizin prayer to invite one of seven ‘exalted guests’ into the sukkah. These ushpizin or guests represent the seven shepherds of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. According to tradition, each night a different guest enters the sukkah followed by the other six. Each of the ushpizin has a unique lesson that teaches the parallels of the spiritual focus of the day on which they visit.

‘Sometimes I sing the psalms of Hallel. Sometimes I sip coffee’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On her blog Velveteen Rabbi, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat shared this poem for Sukkot last year [29 September 2018]:

Small scenes from a sukkah

I got a new sukkah this year.
A simple white metal frame.
Three canvas walls with windows in them.
Cornstalks overhead, twined with autumnal garlands.

In the mornings, when it is not raining, I sit here
and watch the morning light move across the valley.
Sometimes I sing the psalms of Hallel.
Sometimes I sip coffee.

During the afternoon I listen to the wind rustle the cornstalks
and the tinsel garlands overhead.
Every now and then I listen to a small plane overhead,
or a flock of geese.

As afternoon gives way to evening,
the sky goes through its rapid costume change.
If I’m paying attention at the right moment
I can see it happen.

Once evening falls
the sukkah gleams
on my mirpesset,
a little house filled with light.

‘The sukkah gleams … a little house filled with light’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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