24 September 2021

A ‘determination that all … shall
enjoy the blessings of the earth’

‘Just as the etrog has a both a beautiful taste as well as a beautiful fragrance, so there are (those) who are learned and who do good deeds …’ (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 30:12) … lemons on a tree in Cordoba (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Jewish Festival of Sukkot began this year at sunset on Monday (20 September) and ends at sunset next Monday (27 September).

Sukkot is known as the ‘Festival of Tabernacles’ or the ‘Feast of Booths,’ and it is one of the three central pilgrimage festivals in Judaism, along with Passover and Shavuot. 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 shaking 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.

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 traditional to perform a waving ceremony with the ‘Four Species’ or specified plants: citrus trees, palm trees, thick or leafy trees and willows.

On each day of the festival, worshippers walk around the synagogue carrying the ‘Four Species’ while reciting special prayers known as Hoshanot.  This takes place either after the morning’s Torah reading or at the end of Mussaf. This ceremony recalls the willow ceremony in the Temple in Jerusalem, when willow branches were piled beside the altar with worshippers parading around the altar reciting prayers.

A custom originating with Lurianic Kabbalah is to recite the ushpizin prayer to ‘invite’ one of seven ‘exalted guests’ into the sukkah. According to tradition, each night a different guest enters the sukkah followed by the other six. Each of the ushpizin has a unique lesson to teach that parallels the spiritual focus of the day on which they visit, based on the Sephirah associated with that character.

Some streams of Judaism also recognise a set of seven female shepherds of Israel, known as Ushpizot or Ushpizata. They are sometimes listed as the seven women prophets: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hulda and Esther. Other lists name: Ruth, Sarah, Rebecca, Miriam, Deborah, Tamar and Rachel.

The interim days of Sukkot, known as hol HaMoed (חול המועד, festival weekdays), are often marked with special meals in the sukkah, when guests are welcomed.

The Shabbat that falls during the week of Sukkot, beginning this evening, is known as Shabbat Hol HaMoed. The Book of Ecclesiastes is read, with its emphasis on the ephemeral nature of life: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ This echoes the theme of the sukkah, while its emphasis on death reflects the time of year in which Sukkot falls, the ‘autumn’ of life.

A meditation on Sukkot in Service of the Heart, a prayer book I use regularly in my daily prayer and meditation, offers this Kiddush, composed by Rabbi Sidney Brichto (1936-2009), for welcoming Sukkot:

‘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 … shall enjoy the blessings of the earth.’

Shabbat Shalom

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