A Sukkot Primer
by Barry Shainker
As Americans, we look forward to Thanksgiving each November. Whether we enjoy the holiday meal, watch football or college basketball, attend parades, or get prepared for Black Friday shopping sprees, it is a time when most of us take time off from work to enjoy a long weekend with family and friends. As young children, we learn that the Pilgrims created the holiday to thank God for guiding them safely from England to New World. But few us know that the Pilgrims, deeply religious people, likely looked to Sukkot, our holiday of thanksgiving, for inspiration in creating their festival.
Sukkot is drawn directly from our sacred texts, where it is mentioned as “the festival of the seventh month,” the Feast of Ingathering, and the Feast of the God. The role that Sukkot plays as a fall harvest festival is also evident in the words of our tradition; Exodus tells us to gather the labors from fields at the end of the year. In addition, the structures that we dwell in also are intended to remind us of the dwelling places of our ancestors during the journey from slavery to freedom; in Leviticus, Moses commands the people to live in sukkot (literally booths) for seven days to remind all future generations of the journey.
Our observance of Sukkot completes the fall High Holy Day season. We begin each year with Rosh Hashanah, and then Yom Kippur 10 days later. Five days after we complete our fast, Sukkot begins. In ancient times, Israelites observed the holiday by bringing crops from their fall harvest to the Temple. Today many congregations symbolically complete these rituals by decorating our pulpits with fall fruits. In addition, with the spirit of offerings in mind, foods are often donated to local food banks or shelters.
The week-long festival opens with a holy day, on which many attend special worship services that feature a traditional liturgy and special prayers for the holiday. Throughout the week, it is customary to spend time in the sukkah, usually for meals. Jewish law prescribes the building standards for the structure: It must have at least three walls made of any substance, while the fourth may remain open. The roof of the sukkah can provide shade, but it must remain open to the sky and stars; usually s’chach—leaves, branches, and plants that have grown from the ground—is used for the incomplete covering
Inside the sukkah, we bring together the Four Species mentioned in Leviticus and the Talmud to help us fulfill the various mitzvot of the holiday. The lulav, containing the palm, myrtle, and willow, and the etrog are shaken in six directions to indicate God’s presence in all of creation. In addition, we also are encouraged to welcome ushpizin, or exalted guests, into our sukkah. Traditionally these guests are the spirits of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. The integration of women into Jewish tradition has given us a list of women to include as well: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Deborah, Esther, and Ruth. Welcoming guests into our sukkah, just as we welcome them to the Passover seder, has come to represent a modern interpretation of this traditional practice.
Sukkot comes to an end with the holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. In Israel and Reform communities, these two holidays are celebrated as one, but the observances are no less festive. Meaning “joy/celebration of the Torah,” the festival ends the fall holiday season with an affirmation of our core text. Many Reform communities chose this day to celebrate the consecration of new students in the congregation’s religious school. At the same time, it is customary to see hakafot, parades and marches with Torah scrolls. Since one is never supposed to stop reading Torah, the holiday marks both the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Genesis.
Five days after atonement, Sukkot begins with a flourish. It ends a week later with the celebration of the Torah. After the somber tone of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiday affords us the opportunity to begin the New Year excited and fully charged to live the year ahead enriched by Judaism’s greatest lessons and teachings.
Barry Shainker is an education student at HUC-JIR in New York and an educational intern at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners, N.Y. He also teaches at Woodlands Community Temple and Congregation Kol Ami, both located in White Plains, N.Y.