What is Sukkot?
Sukkot is a festival that begins five days after Yom Kippur and lasts for seven days (eight outside of Israel). Sukkot means booths and this is a reference to the temporary dwellings built and lived in by the people of Israel in their travels through the desert after their exodus from Egypt and before their receiving the Torah.
Sukkot is one of the three foot-festivals. The foot-festivals were times of pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem when it was still standing. People from all over the country of Israel would travel in order to stand before G-d on these festivals.
All three foot-festivals have agricultural and historical significance. In the case of Sukkot, it commemorates the G-dly protection provided in the desert in the forty years of wandering. Furthermore, it is a harvest festival and an alternative name for Sukkot is fittingly the Festival of Ingathering.
What is the source for Sukkot?
The festival of Sukkot is established in the book of Leviticus (23:33).
What are the religious practices and customs of Sukkot?
- Jewish people live in a temporary hut (Sukkah) throughout Sukkot. This hut is set up as early as the night after Yom Kippur. Jewish males are obligated to eat all of their meals in a Sukkah during the festival. Some people will even sleep in the Sukkah throughout the festival. The wide-spread custom is to decorate the Sukkah in order to beautify the experience. Others prefer to leave the Sukkah unadorned, believing that the people inside are what beautify the experience.
- No work is permitted on the first and last days of the holiday. Work is permitted on the intermediary days. The intermediary days are regarded as more elevated that a regular day and many have the custom to dress in a fancier way than usual. In Israel the intermediary days are days of outings throughout the land as the people take delight in touring the holy land.
- As well as the Sukkah, another main symbol of Sukkot is that of the Four Species. The Four Species are a palm branch, willows, myrtle and a specific citron fruit called Etrog which is mostly kept in a special Etrog box. A blessing is recited over the Four Species every day of Sukkot.
- Special prayers are recited throughout the festival from a specially assigned prayer book called a Machzor.
- Special celebrations called Simchat Beit Hashoeva are held throughout Sukkot. They commemorate the libation of the water on the altar in the Temple. These libations were performed with intense joy. Tradition relates that "He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Simchat Bet Hashoeva, has never seen rejoicing in his life". At these nightly celebrations there is boundless happiness expressed through singing and dancing that often goes on until the early morning hours.
What are the main motifs of Sukkot?
- Prayers on Sukkot refer to the specific commandment to rejoice on Sukkot. Another name for Sukkot is "The Season of our Rejoicing". Sukkot is the only festival in the Torah on which we are told to be happy.
- Universalism is a main theme of Sukkot. In the time of the Temple, the Sukkot offerings included seventy oxen. These oxen corresponded to the seventy nations of the world. This offering was a prayer for universal peace.