This week is the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. It’s not a well-known holiday to many people outside the Jewish religion — it doesn’t have the recognition factor of Passover, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, or Chanukah, for example. It’s even a mystery to many secular Jews.
Perhaps this is because it doesn’t have a clear meaning. Ironically, Sukkot may be one of the most easily accessible holidays to appreciate, no matter what religion you practice.
What is Sukkot all about? And why is it relevant to you, even if you’re not Jewish?
What is Sukkot?
Sukkot is a 7-day holiday also known as the Feast of the Tabernacles. It is a holiday on which we celebrate fruits of the harvest.
The two central rituals of Sukkot are
- building a sukkah, a small hut in which we eat meals
- taking the “4-kinds” — palm branches, willow and myrtle branches, and a citron — which are used in the prayer services.
Sukkot is the only Jewish holiday that doesn’t seem to commemorate or celebrate a past event or miracle.
What We Celebrate
So, what is Sukkot about?
Like anything else, it turns on a question of meaning.
What Sukkot is about depends on what the sukkah itself symbolizes — what does it mean?
The ancient sages had a difference of opinion about this. One interpretation makes Sukkot a holiday unique to the experience of the Jewish people. The other offers a more universal perspective of Sukkot that helps us recall crucial lessons about success and achievement.
The First Approach: Celebrating a Past Miracle
Some said that the sukkah is a reminder of the tents that the Jews lived in while they traveled through the wilderness. In this view, on Sukkot we celebrate the protection that God provided to the Jews during their journey.
This explanation fits Sukkot in the context of the pilgrimage holidays.
Sukkot is one of the three “pilgrimmage” festivals in the Jewish calendar, when, in the ancient times of the temple, the people would travel to Jerusalem to bring ritual sacrifice.
The other two pilgrimage holidays are Passover and Shavuot. Both of those holidays celebrate clear and obvious miracles.
On Passover, we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery. We remember all the small and big miracles that God created to facilitate the Exodus, from the ten plagues to splitting the sea so the people could cross safely to the other side. Passover is the celebration of the journey to freedom.
Shavuot celebrates the God’s revelation to the Jewish people at Mount Siani, when he gave them the Torah and created a covenant with the Jewish people. This was the only time that the people heard the voice of God. Through the Torah, we received the commandments to follow to live a life of meaning and fulfillment, the prescription for a society built on honor and justice. Shavuot celebrates the journey to wisdom.
Sukkot celebrates the protection that God offered the people as they traveled through the wilderness. The people had food thanks to the mamma that God provided. God traveled with them as a pillar of fire or as a cloud above, providing constant protection and direction. The people learned they could trust that they would be cared for. Sukkot therefore celebrates the journey of faith.
The Second Approach: Celebrating a Current Miracle
Another view is that a sukkah is just a sukkah; it has no deep symbolism or meaning.
The biblical text that refers to the journey through the desert refers to the moveable shelters that the people created as tents, not as a sukkot (the plural of sukkah). The commandment to erect a sukkah therefore seems disconnected from the events in the desert.
This view creates difficulty for us in understanding the holiday of Sukkot. If the sukkah has no overt symbolism or meaning, why do we build it? What, exactly, are we celebrating during this week-long holiday?
One way we can view it is that Sukkot is a celebration of a continuing miracle: God’s continued presence and protection.
The Miracle of Nature
Sukkot is the holiday on which we come closer to nature than at any other time in the year.
One of the rules for the sukkah is that it’s roof must be composed of natural foliage that has not been processed, such as bamboo or palm fronds.
The roof must be open enough so that when you are inside it, you can looking up and see the sky through the top. It must be porous enough to allow the rain to come through — which hardly seems like a shelter at all.
This is the point.
In a house, you have a solid roof that keeps out the rain. Even a tent protects you from the elements. In a house, you don’t need to rely on miracles of God to keep you safe.
In a house, we are protected from the elements. We are surrounded by things made by humans. In that safety and security, it’s easy to forget that our safety and security doesn’t come solely through our efforts and work.
A sukkah is not a house or a tent. It’s not even a shelter. It’s a structure that is open and vulnerable to the elements.
In the sukkah, we are surrounded by nature and vulnerable to the elements. We look up and see the stars. We hear the sounds of birds and other animals around us. We feel the cold or heat. In every direction, we see, hear, and feel the miracles of things we had no part in creating.
The sukkah reminds us that we don’t create or control everything. We must rely also on the Divine Presence for our security.
The Harvest Celebration
At the end of his life, Moses warned the people that the biggest threat to their faith would be affluence, not poverty. When we achieve success, it’s easy to forget that it doesn’t come from our work alone.
The harvest celebration, like sitting in the sukkah, is a reminder that our success is not only a result of our efforts.
You can do the work to plant seeds and diligently tend to the soil, but without rain, crops won’t grow. Your success depends on the rain: an act of God.
Sukkot puts us back into nature to remind us that our safety and success are not only up to us. They are a product of co-creation with the Divine.