Today is the second day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, commonly known as the Feast of the Tabernacles. If you’ve never heard of it, or don’t know much about it, you’re not alone. After the big build-up of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Sukkot tends to get overlooked, even by many Jewish people.
But this holiday is significant for many reasons. The sages prophesied that, eventually, Sukkot will be celebrated by the whole world. Sukkot reminds us what it is like to be a nomad, teaches us some of the most profound lessons about how to live a meaningful and joyous life, and what it means to have faith.
Here’s a primer on this fall holiday.
(1) What Sukkot Celebrates
Sukkot literally translates to “huts.” A sukkah is a temporary, portable dwelling, a hut or a booth.
This is a reference to the little huts that Jewish people who observe the holiday build outside their homes for the holiday.
Sukkot is one of the three “pilgrimage holidays — holidays on which the ancient Jews would make pilgrimages to the holy temple in Jerusalem. The other two in that category are Passover and Shavuot.
Sukkot has both a universal, or natural theme — a theme that fits with the cycles of nature, and is applicable to all people — and a particular, or cultural theme specific to Jewish history.
It’s universal theme relates to the harvest. Sukkot is often referred to as a Harvest Festival, because it was a celebration of the end of the harvest season.
The particular theme is that it is a reminder of the 40 years that the Jews spent wandering the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. The sukkot are reminders of the tents that the Jewish people lived in during their time in the desert, their temporary dwellings before they established home in the land of Israel. During this time God protected them from harm.
(2) When Is Sukkot and How Long Does It Last
When It Is
Sukkot begins on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei, the 7th month of the Hebrew calendar. This is the month that begins with Rosh Hashana, the spiritual Jewish New Year.
Sukkot starts at the full moon of the lunar month that started with Rosh Hashana. It occurs five days after Yom Kippur.
How Long It Lasts
The core holiday of Sukkot itself is a 7-day holiday, similar to Passover. However, it is immediately followed by two other holidays — Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah — making it a 9-day holiday in total.
The first two days of Sukkot are religious observance days that function like a sabbath day, with similar restrictions on using electricity and travel. The last two days of the additional holidays also function as sabbath days. The days in-between are “regular” days with no restrictions on using electricity or travel.
(3) The Holiday Meals
If it’s a Jewish holiday, you know there’s going to be at least one, and likely multiple, signature holiday meals.
Many Jewish holidays have a signature food.
On Rosh Hashana it’s apples and honey for a sweet new year.
Passover’s signature is matzah, as well as the bitter herbs and charoset to recall slavery in Egypt, and eggs to symbolize the renewal of life.
Shavuot is celebrated with dairy dishes like blintzes.
Chanukah is all about the latkes, doughnuts, and other fried foods.
Even Yom Kippur has its traditional pre-fast and post-fast foods, like bagels and lox.
Sukkot is a standout in this regard, because there is not a “signature” food associated with the holiday. Most holiday meals include typical autumn harvest dishes and brisket or turkey.
On Sukkot, the signature of the meal shifts from what we eat to where we eat it: in the sukkah.
The biblical commandment is to live in the sukkah for seven days, but most people in modern times simply eat their holiday meals there. Ideally, this includes all meals during the holiday, including breakfast.
(4) Role of Nature
Although Passover and Shavuot are also tied to the agricultural cycles, Sukkot is the only Jewish holiday where we actively participate in nature and use nature in the holiday rituals.
Three requirements for the sukkah itself show the connection with nature:
- The roof of the sukkah must be made of nature — such as tree branches or bamboo — and have big enough spaces between the branches through which you can see the stars when sitting inside it. Indeed, the requirement is that you be conscious of the stars above you, and a sukkah with a roof that is too high is not “kosher.”
- The sukkah must be made of temporary materials
- The sukkah cannot have a lock on the door.
These requirements ensure that as we dwell in the sukkah, we are exposed to and reminded of our connection to nature and our place in the world.
The sukkah reminds us of our vulnerability to the elements. Sukkot takes us out of the warmth and comfort of homes at the time of year where the weather can be uncertain and variable.
Sitting outside, in a hut with a porous roof, we are exposed to the threat of rain, the chill of the autumn evening air, and the potential heat of the mid-day autumn sun. With the door open, any animal can roam inside. A strong wind can blow through you, or even take down the sukkah.
Not only does this put us directly into nature, but also it requires us to deepen our faith that we will be safe amidst this uncertainty of the elements.
Ironically, Sukkot is the holiday on which we begin to pray for rain. It takes a lot of faith to pray for rain when you’re planning to eat in a porous hut all week!
(5) Special Rituals
Many Jewish holidays have special rituals connected with them. On Rosh Hashana we throw bread into the water as a symbolic casting away of our sins. On Chanukkah we light the menorah. Passover has the seder.
Sukkot is unique in that the main holiday ritual involves using pieces of nature. On Sukkot, there is a special ritual that involves assembling the “four kinds”: palm fronds, myrtle branches, and willows to create a “Lulav,” and the fruit of the citron tree, which known as an “Etrog.”
A special prayer is said over the Lulav and Etrog, and then you shake it in 6 directions — up, down, in front of you, to the left, behind you, and to the right — to signify the omnipresence of God.
The lulav and etrog are also used during daily prayer services. During one part of the service, participants walk around the center podium saying special prayers and carrying these 4 kinds.
Typically in a Jewish prayer service no objects are used, so this is a unique feature of this holiday.
(6) Special Readings
Many Jewish holidays have special readings associated with them. On Sukkot, that reading is the Book of Ecclesiastes, also known as Kohelet, which comes from the category of “writings” in the Jewish liturgy.
Kohelet/Ecclesiastes is a source of deep wisdom that people still quote today.
Kohelet was written by a man who had reached the pinnacle of success, yet found everything in his life to be “meaningless.”
On the surface, it seems like an odd choice for a holiday that is a supremely joyous festival.
This, however, speaks to one of the core lessons of Sukkot: that true joy is not found in material wealth, or even in leaving a “legacy” to your heirs, but in living true to the values of faith and recognizing your place in nature.
The message of Ecclesiastes is that we have a limited time on this Earth, and should endeavor to make the most of it by focusing on what matters most rather than on superficial things like amassing material wealth and building our status.
(7) Core Lessons
Fitting for a holiday that begins on a full moon, one of the core lessons of Sukkot is about how to mediate an apparent polarity: between uncertainty and joy.
Sukkot is referenced in Hebrew as z’man simchateinu — the time of our joy.
It is a holiday that celebrates the abundance of harvest season, and it reminds us to have gratitude in our abundance.
It also is a holiday on which we are reminded of the precariousness of life. Sitting in the sukkah during the season where nature is beginning to die reminds us of our vulnerability and impermanence. The fragile sukkot remind us of life’s inherent uncertainties.
How can we be joyous in the face of so much uncertainty?
The answer to this is faith. Uncertainty breeds fear, and faith is the antidote to fear.
Sitting in the sukkah, we see all of nature and remember that we are a part of nature as well. We remember how God protected our ancestors in the wilderness of the desert, and how God protects us in our modern lives.
This holiday reminds us of what it feels like to be nomadic, and that even our “permanent” homes are temporary. To find our joy in this radical uncertainty requires cultivating an unshakeable faith that we will be protected.