The Festival of Sukkot, or Booths, is a 7-day holiday period that begins on the 15th day of the month of Tishri, only 5 days after the conclusion of the 10 Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah and culminate with Yom Kippur. Sukkot represents quite a drastic transition, from the most solemn holy days in the Jewish year to one of the more joyous. Sukkot is immediately followed by two additional holidays, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
Sukkot has a double thrust, in that it functions as a harvest festival, but also remembers the 40 years that the Israelites lived a nomadic life in the Sinai desert after leaving Egypt but before they made a home for themselves in the land of Canaan. During this time, believers build a temporary shelter, a booth called a sukkah (sukkot, pl.), in which they reside, a shelter that recalls the temporary homes in which the Israelites resided during the wandering.
The basic parameters and timing of the holidays are laid out in the Torah, in the book of Leviticus (23:33-44): “And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the feast of tabernacles for seven days unto the LORD. On the first day shall be a holy convocation; ye shall do no manner of servile work. Seven days ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD; on the eighth day shall be a holy convocation unto you; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD; it is a day of solemn assembly; ye shall do no manner of servile work. These are the appointed seasons of the LORD, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, to bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD, a burnt-offering, and a meal-offering, a sacrifice, and drink-offerings, each on its own day; beside the sabbaths of the LORD, and beside your gifts, and beside all your vows, and beside all your freewill-offerings, which ye give unto the LORD. Howbeit on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when ye have gathered in the fruits of the land, ye shall keep the feast of the LORD seven days; on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. And ye shall keep it a feast unto the LORD seven days in the year; it is a statute forever in your generations; ye shall keep it in the seventh month. Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the appointed seasons of the LORD.”
The sukkah may be built in one’s yard according to particular specifications. It must be large enough to fulfill the requirements for the week’s activity and have no less than two and a half walls made of material that will not blow away in a high wind. The roof or covering must be made of something that has grown in the ground; tree branches, corn stalks, or bamboo reeds are often used. The covering materials should generally make the dwelling shady, but are left loose, neither bundled together nor tied down. They allow rain in, and those inside can see the stars. If it is raining, rainproof material may be put over the booth to protect its inner contents, but it must be removed as soon as the rain ceases.
In the modern world, quickly assembled sukkot are available for purchase, or they may be made from scratch. Canvas is often used for the walls. One should spend as much time as possible in the booth during the seven days. The first two days of the festival are treated as Sabbaths, and no work is allowed. Though the Bible calls for one day of rest, due to the problems inherent in observing the Moon (by which the timing of the holiday and getting the word out to people in the countryside was determined), two days would often be observed to make sure the holiday had been observed correctly. Such two-day observance had became a custom among Jews outside Israel, and continued even after later sages fixed the Hebrew calendar for the future based on mathematical calculations.
The first and last (Hoshana Rabbah) days of Sukkot include gatherings at the synagogue, while the five middle days include special prayers that are read by the family within their booth. The first day and the second day of the festival in the lands of the diaspora are treated as Sabbath days of rest. The middle days are less than a Sabbath, but distinct from normal workdays. One may engage in work necessary for getting through the days, including food preparation, but nothing that interferes with the holiday spirit. This time is often treated as a vacation and a time to entertain friends and visit with neighbors, and enjoy festive meals.
Integral to Sukkot is the invitation of symbolic guests to the family booth each day. These spiritual guests, or ushpizin, are traditionally seven biblical heroes—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. Among the Hasidic Jewish communities, there are seven Hasidid heroic figures who accompany the seven traditional heroes, and in the contemporary post-feminist world, seven women are also included in the invitations. It is thought that one of the traditional heroes of the faith visits the sukkot each day.
Also integral to the festival are the materials (called the four species) that are held during the Sukkot blessings in synagogue. The four species are an etrog (citron), a citrus fruit native to Israel, and three kinds of branches—one palm, two willow, and three myrtle branches—which are bound together and are called the lulav. The citron is held in one hand and the lulav in the other. As one repeats the blessing over these, the four species are waved in six directions (north, east, south, and west, and up and down), in acknowledgment that the Almighty is everywhere. Some see the four species as four types of Jews and the Sukkot blessing reminds everyone that all four are important to the community.
Closely associated with Sukkot are two adjacent but quite separate holidays, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Because they immediately follow Sukkot, they are often incorrectly thought of as part of Sukkot. Shemini Atzeret is observed on the 22nd day of the month of Tishri, and everywhere but Israel, Simchat Torah is observed the following day. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are observed on the same day, Tishri 22. During the two holidays, one no longer resides in the booths, although outside of Israel, some continue to reside in the sukkah on Shmini Atzeret but not on Simchat Torah. Also the four species are not used on these holidays.
Shemini Atzeret is the “assembly of the eighth day.” It is explained as a time for the Jewish people to have a more intimate and exclusive celebration with the Almighty. They think of it as if God has been their host and they the guests through Sukkot. But as the time of visiting comes to an end, God asks the guests to stay an extra day, to extend their time together. The day is observed as a Sabbath, and those observing it do no work.
Simchat Torah is a day for “Rejoicing in the Torah,” the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (also known as the Five Books of Moses). Through the year, at synagogue services, one reads through the entire Torah, a few chapters each week. This cycle is completed on Simchat Torah, and on that day, the last chapter of the Torah (in Deuteronomy) is read to be immediately followed by the reading of the first chapter of Genesis. The completion of the cycle is an occasion for rejoicing that occurs as people process around the synagogue carrying Torah scrolls. The service includes spirited singing and dancing in the synagogue with all the Torah scrolls, which are removed from the ark in which they normally rest.
The first day of Sukkot and the joint celebration of Shimin Atzeret and Simchat Torah are official public holidays in Israel. In the days prior to the destruction of the temple and the diaspora of the Jewish people through the Middle East and around the Mediterranean Basin, Sukkot was one of three major holidays (along with Passover and Shavuot, or the Festival of Weeks), during which Jews made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the celebration.
Christian Appropriation The Hebrew Bible was incorporated into the Christian Bible as the Old Testament, and is held in high esteem by most Christian denominations. In North America in the 19th century, from their reading of the books of Moses, a new appreciation of the Jewish festival cycle appeared among a small group of Christian denominations, most notably those that had emerged from the disappointed expectation of the Second Coming of Christ announced by William Miller in the 1830s. Initially, some groups adopted the seventh-day Sabbath. In the 20th century, some groups that grew out of the Church of God (Seventh-day) began to follow the Jewish liturgical year, the most notable being the Worldwide Church of God. For these groups, what they termed the Feast of Tabernacles (“tabernacle” being the common translation of sukkot in English-language Bibles) became the most important event of the year. Members of the Worldwide Church of God would save 10 percent of their income to enjoy a week of feasting with fellow church members at campgrounds around North America and increasingly other countries to which the church spread. The money would be spent on fine camping equipment and fine food and given in offerings at the church meetings.
In the 1990s, the Worldwide Church of God went through a radical change of belief and practice that included the abandonment of its belief in the Old Testament festival cycle. It lost most of its members to several splinter groups such as the United Church of God and the Philadelphia Church of God, and an uncounted number of smaller groups, which continue this Christianized version of the Feast of Tabernacles.
Sukkot is also celebrated among the different Messianic Jewish groups that emerged in the 1970s. These groups consider themselves to be Jews who have discovered that Jesus Christ (whom they refer to by his Hebrew name Yashua) to be the Messiah, a claim rejected by all mainstream Jewish groups. Messianic Jews continue as much of Jewish culture, including synagogue ritual, that they find compatible with their Christian faith and reinterpret Jewish holidays as heralding Christianity. They also invite Gentile Christians to celebrations as a means of educating them about their Jewish heritage.
Days of Awe; Hasidism; Judaism; Rosh Hashanah; Worldwide Church of God; Yom Kippur.
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