Type of Holiday: Religious (Jewish)
Date of Observation: 15-21 Tishri (begins between September 20 and October 18)
Where Celebrated: Europe, Israel, United States, and by Jews all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Beating the Willow, Four Species, Sukkah, Water Libation Ceremony
Related Holidays: Simhat Torah, Yom Kippur
The holiday of Sukkot is part of the traditions of Judaism, one of the oldest continuously observed religions in the world. Its history extends back beyond the advent of the written word. Its people trace their roots to a common ancestor, Abraham, and then back even farther to the very moment of creation.
According to Jewish belief, the law given to the Jewish people by God contained everything they needed to live a holy life, including the ability to be reinterpreted in new historical situations. Judaism, therefore, is the expression of the Jewish people, attempting to live holy (set apart) lives in accordance with the instructions given by God. Obedience to the law is central to Judaism, but there is no one central authority. Sources of divine authority are God, the Torah, interpretations of the Torah by respected teachers, and tradition. Religious observances and the study of Jewish law are conducted under the supervision of a teacher called a rabbi.
There are several sects within Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is characterized by an affirmation of the traditional Jewish faith, strict adherence to customs such as keeping the Sabbath, participation in ceremonies and rituals, and the observance of dietary regulations. Conservative Jewish congregations seek to retain many ancient traditions but without the accompanying demand for strict observance. Reform Judaism stresses modern biblical criticism and emphasizes ethical teachings more than ritualistic observance. Hasidism is a mystical sect of Judaism that teaches enthusiastic prayer as a means of communion with God. The Reconstructionist movement began early in the twentieth century in an effort to “reconstruct” Judaism with the community rather than the synagogue as its center.
The Jewish holiday of Sukkot can be traced back to an ancient Canaanite holiday held after the grape harvest, around the time of the AUTUMN EQUINOX. Jewish farmers made little booths or SUKKAHS from the branches of fruit trees and evergreens and lived in them throughout the seven days of the celebration. It was primarily a festival of thanksgiving, a time to celebrate the fruit harvest—as opposed to SHAVUOT, which marked the end of the grain harvest. Many farmers collected some of their produce, gathered up their families, and made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festival. Often referred to as the Feast of the Ingathering because of its associations with the gathering of the harvest and the close of the agricultural year, Sukkot also involved the performance of special ceremonies designed to induce rainfall.
After the Jews were released from slavery in Egypt, they wandered for forty years before entering the Promised Land. During this period they lived in tents or booths (called succot or sukkot), which they pitched wherever they happened to stop for the night. When they finally reached the Promised Land, most of them became farmers. Because the fields were so far from their homes, they would often live in the fields for the entire period of the harvest, once again building succot to protect themselves from the sun during the day and the cold wind at night. The holiday that originally celebrated the ingathering of the harvest, therefore, took on added significance as the Feast of Tabernacles or the Feast of Booths, commemorating the period in Jewish history when the sukkah was the only home that the Jews knew.
Sukkot begins at sundown on the fourteenth day of Tishri. On the first two days, people build small huts out of branches to recall the sukkot in which their ancestors lived. The inside is hung with apples, grapes, corn, pomegranates, and other fruits and vegetables to commemorate the harvest. In the synagogue, Jews give thanks to God for the plants He has created by waving the FOUR SPECIES in all
directions. The seventh day is more of a holiday than the third through sixth days, which are considered half-holidays. According to tradition, this is the last possible day on which one can seek and obtain forgiveness for the sins of the previous year—an extension of the Day of Atonement or YOM KIPPUR. Pious Jews stay up half the night chanting psalms and reading sacred books. Most try to stay awake until midnight, when they believe that the heavens open up. Children in particular believe that if they make a wish at the moment the skies open, it is certain to come true.
The eighth day of Sukkot, known as Shemini Aztaret, is the Day of Solemn Assembly. A more serious mood prevails on this day, and it is customary to eat meals in the SUKKAH. Special services for people who have died are held in the synagogue, and prayers are offered for rain in Israel. No matter where they live, Jews pray for rain in their homeland during this season because it is needed there to ensure a good spring harvest. The afternoon of Shemini Aztaret is spent visiting and receiving friends and relatives. The following day, known as SIMHAT TORAH, celebrates the completion of the reading of the Torah, which immediately begins again. Simhat Torah is now celebrated as a separate holiday by Orthodox and Conservative Jews.
Sukkot has remained a major festival throughout the centuries. Ceremonies that were originally held in the Temple have been moved to the synagogue and the home, but the holiday has retained both its agricultural and historical significance. But of all the Jewish festivals, Sukkot has suffered the most from the changes brought about by modern life. It is difficult to build a sukkah in many modern cities, and because the festival is based on events that occurred more than 3,000 years ago, modern Jews have found it difficult to identify with the customs and hardships they are commemorating.
On the last day of Sukkot, willow twigs (see FOUR SPECIES) are beaten against the altar until all the leaves fall off. The usual explanation for this custom is that it symbolizes the fragility of human life, which fades and falls like autumn leaves. Some say that the falling leaves are also symbolic of sins that have been cast away.
The tradition is probably rooted in the primitive belief that the willow is a symbol of fertility and that beating people with willow branches ensures potency and fertility. The beating of the willow branches on the seventh day of Sukkot is not unlike the “Easter smacks” used in some European countries to promote fertility.
In the religious services held each morning during Sukkot, Jews engage in a thanksgiving ritual involving four symbolic plants: the lulav or date palm, the myrtle, the willow, and the etrog, a fragrant citrus fruit that resembles a large lemon. Three myrtle twigs and two willow branches are tied around a long branch of lulav, while the etrog is taken out of its special, well-padded box. As prayers are said, the lulav and the etrog are waved in all directions, and the worshippers thank God for the good things that come from the earth. Because Sukkot has its roots in farming, harvesting, and the world of nature, these prayers usually include a plea for rain to help the crops grow.
These four fruits or “species” were chosen because they were abundant in ancient Israel and would last throughout the seven-day festival without wilting. But over the years, they have accumulated symbolic meaning as well. Some say they stand for the four most important bodily organs: the heart (etrog), the spine (lulav), the eye (myrtle), and the lips or mouth (willow). Another interpretation is that they stand for four different types of people: The etrog represents the person who possesses both beauty and character; the lulav is the person who is beautiful but has no character; the myrtle is the person with character who lacks beauty; and the willow is the person who lacks both. Yet another theory is that they symbolize the four periods of Jewish history: The stately lulav recalls the period of kings and prophets; the fragrant myrtle is a reminder of the Talmudic era of learning and wisdom; the drooping willow symbolizes the Jews’ period of exile and wandering; and the etrog, which is both beautiful and fragrant, symbolizes their hope for the future.
A simpler explanation is that the Four Species represent all forms of vegetation. The etrog tree, whose fruit resembles an oversize lemon, is fragrant but needs human attention to help it grow. The lulav or date palm, which has no scent, represents those fruit-bearing trees that can survive on rainwater alone. The myrtle is a pleasant-smelling, ornamental shrub that does not yield edible fruit. And the willow, which needs a great deal of water to grow, has neither fruit nor fragrance but is useful for building things and for making fires.
In the synagogue, there is a procession in which the lulav and the etrog are waved in unison each day during Sukkot. On the seventh day, the procession is repeated seven times. After the service, the lulav is given to the children, who weave rings, bracelets, and baskets from strips of palm leaf.
Building a sukkah in the backyard—or on a terrace or rooftop—is the primary tradition associated with Sukkot. It must have at least two standing walls, and the roof must be made of leaves and twigs so that the stars can shine through and people will be reminded of God in heaven. Some Jews avoid using nails when they build the sukkah because metal is associated with the tools of war.
The sukkah represents the huts in which Jewish farmers traditionally lived during the harvest season in Palestine and the tents in which the exiled Jews were sheltered during their desert wanderings. It also stands as a symbol of the brevity and insecurity of human life. For modern Jews, it serves as a reminder of the lack of safety and security experienced by millions of Jews in Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Hungary, and other countries. According to the Talmud, the sukkah's frail roof should remind people not to put too much trust in the power of man.
Traditionally, all meals are eaten in the sukkah throughout the festival. But since it is often impossible to do this in modern cities, the rules have been modified to require that at least one meal be taken in the booth each day and each night of the festival. Since building a sukkah may be impossible for those who live in apartment buildings, the usual solution is a communal sukkah set up in the courtyard of the synagogue. The greens, fruits, and flowers with which it is decorated are more likely to come from the local florist or grocery store, and a perfunctory visit to the sukkah after the synagogue service often substitutes for spending the night in it.
The task of building the sukkah, as well as eating and sleeping in it, usually falls to the male members of the family. The mother and girls are responsible for decorating it, typically with the seven Israeli farm products mentioned in the Bible (grapes, figs, pomegranates, wheat, barley, olives, and honey). In Europe, the decorations often include cutout paper chains and lanterns, pictures of holy men and places, and birds made out of egg shells and feathers.
At one time, the second day of Sukkot marked the ancient water-drawing (or water-pouring) ceremony described in the Talmud. A golden pitcher was filled with water from a spring outside Jerusalem. The person who carried the pitcher was greeted by three blasts of the shofar (or ram's horn) and by shouts of joy from several thousand pilgrims who had gathered at the city's Water Gate. They joined the procession to the altar, where the priest took the golden vase and poured water over the altar while the pilgrims sang. That night, the Temple court was illuminated with candles and torches, and people danced and sang around the pillars. At a given signal, they formed a huge procession and marched to the eastern gate of the city accompanied by harps, lutes, cymbals, and trumpets.
The water libation ceremony is based on “sympathetic magic,” the ancient notion that the things men do may induce similar actions on nature's part. Pouring water, for example, was probably designed to induce rain, and lighting candles and torches might originally have been a magical rite that would rekindle the sun at the time of the AUTUMN EQUINOX.
Nowadays, the once elaborate water-pouring ceremony has dwindled to a special celebration in the synagogue on the night of the second day. Psalms are chanted and the evening is spent eating, drinking, and being entertained. Jewish organizations often organize special parties on this evening, which they call Simhat Bet Hashoevah gatherings.
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The palm branch ( see lulav ), citrus fruit ( see etrog ), willow (‘aravah’) and myrtle (‘hadas’) are the four...