07 October 2022
A ‘determination that all … shall
enjoy the blessings of the earth’
The Jewish Festival of Sukkot this year begins at sunset on Sunday evening (9 October 2022) and ends at sunset the following Sunday (16 October 2022).
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 stay over in during the holiday.
The customs include buying a lulav and etrog and shaking them daily throughout the festival: the lulav is a palm branch joined with myrtle and willow branches; an etrog is a citron fruit, usually a lemon.
A sukkah is a temporary dwelling in which farmers once lived 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.
Sukkot is a joyous and upbeat celebration, and is celebrated today with its own customs and practices.
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. There are traditional readings from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
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. At times, they are listed as the seven women prophets: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hulda and Esther. Other lists name seven matriarchs: 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 next Friday evening (14 Ocvtober), 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.
The conclusion of Sukkot marks the beginning of the separate holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
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.’
On her blog Velveteen Rabbi, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat shared this poem for Sukkot some years ago [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.