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Sukkot

"After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival... for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy." (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)

Sukkot is indeed a happy holiday. In Hebrew it is called z'man simhateinu -- the season of our joy. Also called the Harvest Festival, it is a time to celebrate the fall season and all that the summer harvest has brought us. Historically, it reminds us of the journey through the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Sukkot is also a time for thanksgiving to God, the Source of the earth's bounty. In ancient times, our people brought the first portion of their harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, we celebrate by thanking God for the harvest of food available to us. At the same time, we are mindful of those in need.

Throughout the ages, we have celebrated the holiday by building sukkot (booths). The sukkah represents the temporary dwellings used by our ancestors as they wandered through the desert. It also served as a dwelling in the fields at harvest time. Finally, the sukkah represents the fragility of our lives and our dependence on nature. The roof of the sukkah has branches and greenery across it, yet it is purposely left with openings.

The Sukkot holiday is rich in symbolism that connects us to our history while providing joy, meaning and beauty to our lives today.

The Torah commands us to gather four species during Sukkot: We are asked to take the etrog (a citron), the lulav (branches of palm trees), hadas (myrtle) and aravah (willow) and rejoice with them for seven days. Except for the Sabbath, these four symbols are held together during portions of the morning worship service throughout the seven days of Sukkot. They are waved in all directions in acknowledgment of God's sovereignty over all of nature. That the four plants are to be held in the way they grow -- upward, not downward -- has been understood as a hint that the Torah does not wish to thwart human growth, but to encourage us to reach our full potential.

We are taught that the tent of Abraham and Sarah had an opening on each side so that wayfarers -- from whichever direction they came -- would feel welcome to partake of their hospitality. Hakhnasat Orhim, welcoming guests, is a time-honored tradition among Jews. The invitation to "all who are hungry" in the Passover Haggadah is well known. Less familiar is the ceremony known as "ushpizin," in which we extend to our ancestors an invitation to join us in our sukkot. Each day of the holiday, a different guest is featured. The origin of the ushpizin ceremony is found in the Zohar -- a primary source of Jewish mystical traditions. It is our hope that accompanying these guests will be the Shekhinah, God's spirit, which shelters and protects us.

The eighth and ninth days of the fall festival (as celebrated in the Diaspora -- in Israel they are combined on the eighth day) are called Sh'mini Atzeret (The Eighth Day of Assembly) and Simhat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah). On Sh'mini Atzeret, we introduce the seasonal prayer for rain, thus marking the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. On Simhat Torah, we mark the end of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah, finishing the book of Deuteronomy and immediately beginning to read from Genesis. Both in the evening (this year, Saturday night, October 21) and the morning, there is prolonged dancing and singing while carrying the Torah Scrolls around the synagogue in a joyous procession.

The first two days of the holiday and the last two days are considered festival days, yamim tovim, with restrictions similar to those observed on the Sabbath.

With contributions from Kay Pomerantz, Senior Assistant Director, Department of Education.


 
 
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