Judaism: Sukkot: a Guide to the Perplexed

In Israel, a retired ambassador can write an erudite article on understanding Jewish holidays, their symbolism and observance.
Published: Tuesday, September 17, 2013 5:39 AM


Based on various Jewish Sages,  sent to Arutz Sheva by Amb. Ettinger

1. The US covenant with the Jewish State dates back to Columbus Day, which is always celebrated around Sukkot.  According to "Columbus Then and Now" (Miles Davidson, 1997, p. 268), Columbus arrived in America on Friday afternoon, October 12, 1492, the 21st day of the Jewish month of Tishrei, the Jewish year 5235, the 7th day of Sukkot, Hoshaa'na' Rabbah, which is a day of universal deliverance and miracles.

Hosha' (הושע) is the Hebrew word for "deliverance” and Na' (נא) is the Hebrew word for "please."  The numerical value of Na' is 51, which corresponds to the celebration of Hoshaa'na' Rabbah on the 51st day following Moses' ascension to Mt. Sinai.

2. The first recorded 7 day Sukkot celebration was – following the Cyrus Edict - in Nehemiah 8:17: "And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.”

3.  Sukkot is the 3rd Jewish holiday – following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - in the month of Tishrei, the most significant Jewish month. According to Judaism, the number 3 represents divine wisdom, stability, permanence, integration and peace. Three is the total sum of the basic odd (1) and even (2) numbers. The 3rd day of the Creation was blessed twice; God appeared on Mt. Sinai 3 days following Moses' ascension to the mountain; there are 3 parts to the Bible, 3 Patriarchs, 3 pilgrimages to Jerusalem, etc.

4.  The Book of Ecclesiastes, written by King Solomon – one of the greatest philosophical documents - is read during Sukkot.  It amplifies Solomon's philosophy of the centrality of God and the importance of morality, humility, family, friendship, historical memory and perspective, patience, long-term thinking, proper timing, realism and knowledge.  Ecclesiastes 4:12: "A 3-ply cord is not easily severed." The Hebrew name of Ecclesiastes is Kohelet (קהלת), which is similar to the commandment kept on Sukkot - Hakhel (הקהל), to assemble.

5.  Sukkot starts on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Tishrei, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt and the beginning of the construction of the Holy Tabernacle in Sinai. Sukkah (סכה) and Sukkot (סכות) are named after the first stop of The Exodus – Sukkota  (סכותה).  The Hebrew root of Sukkah (סכה) is "wholesomeness” and "totality” (סך), the "shelter” of the tabernacle (סכך), "to anoint” (סוך), "divine curtain/shelter” (מסך) and "attentiveness” (סכת).

6.  The Sukkah symbolizes the Chuppah – the Jewish wedding canopy – and the renewed vows between God and the Jewish People. While Yom Kippur represents God's forgiveness of the Golden Calf Sin, Sukkot represents the reinstatement of Divine Providence over the Jewish People.

Sukkot is called Zman Simchatenou – time of our joy - and mandates Jews to rejoice (והיית אך שמח).  The numerical value of the Hebrew word for "mandates” - "ach” אך – is 21, which is the number of days between Rosh Hashanah and the end of Sukkot.

It is the first of the three Pilgrimages to Jerusalem: Passover - the holiday of Liberty, Shavuot (Pentecost) - the holiday of the Torah and Sukkot - the holiday of Joy.

7.  The House of David is compared to a Sukkah/tabernacle (Amos 9:11), representing the permanent vision of the ingathering of Jews to the Land of Israel, Zion.  Sukkot is the holiday of harvesting – Assif ( (אסיף- which also means "ingathering” (אסוף) in Hebrew.

The four sides of the Sukkah represent the global Jewish community, which ingathers under the same roof/shelter.  The construction of the Sukkah and Zion are two of the 248 Jewish Do's (next to the 365 Don'ts).  Sukkot – just like Passover – commemorates Jewish sovereignty and liberty.

Sukkot highlights the collective responsibility of the Jewish people, complementing Yom Kippur's and Rosh Hashanah's individual responsibility.  Humility – as a national and personal prerequisite - is accentuated by the humble Sukkah.

Sukkot provides the last opportunity for repentance.

8.  Sukkot honors the Torah, as the foundation of Judaism and the Jewish people. Sukkot reflects the 3 inter-related and mutually-inclusive pillars of Judaism: The Torah of Israel, the People of Israel and the Land of Israel. The day following Sukkot (Simchat Torah – Torah-joy in Hebrew) is dedicated to the conclusion of the annual Torah reading and the beginning of next year's Torah reading.  On Simchat Torah, the People of the Book are dancing with the Book/Torah scroll.

9.  The seven days of Sukkot are dedicated to the 7 Ushpizin, distinguished guests (origin of the words Hospes and hospitality): Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. They defied immense odds in their determined pursuit of ground- breaking faith and principle-driven initiatives. The Ushpizin should constitute role models for contemporary leadership.

10. The seven day duration of Sukkot – celebrated during the 7th Jewish month, Tishrei – highlights the appreciation of God for blessing the Promised Land with the 7 species (Deuteronomy 8:8): wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and date – 3 fruits of the tree, 2 kinds of bread, 1 product of olives, 1 product of dates – totaling 7.

The duration of Sukkot corresponds, also, to the 7 day week (the Creation), the 7 divine clouds which sheltered the Jewish People in the desert, the 7 blessings which are read during a Jewish wedding, the 7 rounds of dancing with the Torah scroll during Simchat Torah, the 7 readings of the Torah on the Sabbath, etc.

11.  "On the first day, you will take for yourselves a fruit of a beautiful tree, palm branches, twigs of a braided tree and brook willows, and you will rejoice before the Lord, your God, for seven days (Leviticus 23:40).” Sukkot's four Species (1 citron, 1 palm branch, 3 myrtle branches and 2 willow branches - 7 items) – which are bonded together – represent four types of human-beings: people who possess positive odor and taste (values and action - citron); positive taste but no odor (action but no values - palm); positive odor but no taste (values but no action - myrtle); and those who are devoid of taste and odor (no values and no action - willow).

However, all are bonded (and dependent upon each other) by a shared roots/history. The Four Species reflect – and are shaped like - prerequisites for genuine leadership: the palm branch (Lulav in Hebrew) symbolizes the backbone, the willow (Arava in Hebrew) reflects humility, the citron (Etrog in Hebrew) represents the heart and the myrtle (Hadas in Hebrew) stands for the eyes.

The four species represent the centrality of water: willow – stream water, palm – spring water, myrtle – rain, and citron – irrigation.  Sukkot in general, and a day following Sukkot – Shmini Atzeret – in particular, are dedicated to thanking God for water and praying for rain.

The four species symbolize the roadmap of the Exodus: palm – the Sinai Desert, willow – the Jordan Valley, myrtle – the mountains of the Land of Israel and the citron – the coastal plain of the Land of Israel.

12.  The Sukkah must remain unlocked, and owners are urged to invite (especially underprivileged) strangers in the best tradition of Abraham, who royally welcomed to his tent three miserable-looking strangers/angels.

13.  Sukkot is a universal holiday, inviting all peoples to come on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as expressed in the reading (Haftarah) of Zechariah 14: 16-19 on Sukkot's first day.

It is a holiday of peace - the Sukkah of Shalom (שלום). Shalom is one of the names of God.  Shalem (שלם) – wholesome and complete in Hebrew - is one of the names of Jerusalem (Salem).

Enjoy it,