Insights into the Sukkot holiday

Sukkot joy, hospitality, etrog compote, and even a Hebrew lesson.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple,

 Raymond Apple
Raymond Apple


Rabbinic works place Sukkot on a pedestal. They don’t call it a but the festival – he-chag, adopting a phrase from I Kings 8:2.

One reason is that whilst the Torah commands us to rejoice (Deut. 16:15) it was not until the extreme joy of Sukkot in Second Temple times that there arose a saying that whoever has never seen the Sukkot celebrations has never experienced real joy.

Perhaps the supreme joy of Sukkot derives from the fact that it falls just after the holiness of Yom Kippur, and the Kotzker Rebbe used to say, “Joyfulness is the outcome of holiness”.

Another possibility is that this festival stresses universal peace, in contrast to Pesach, which stands for freedom, and Shavu’ot, the symbol of moral law.

In time to come, the redemption of the whole of mankind will be symbolized by every nation and individual assembling under the sukkah of peace. This ultimate aspiration gives Sukkot a unique purpose and flavor.

From the psychological point of view, the sukkah represents the frailty of life but also the certainty of God’s protection, which is the greatest lesson of faith.


Each night of Sukkot we symbolically invite an ancient ancestor to sit in the sukkah with us.

The Aramaic phrase for the guests is Ushpizin, deriving from the same root as the word “hospitality”.

There is a Talmudic discussion (Sukkah 27b) about the status of a sukkah guest. Is it my sukkah in which the guest is sitting, or is he or she regarded as a partner so that in some sense it is his or her sukkah at that moment?

Rabbi Eliezer says, “Just as a person does not fulfil his obligation on the first day of the festival by using someone else’s lulav and etrog but must have his own (Lev. 23:40), so too one must have a sukkah of his own”.

The sages disagree and say that a sukkah belongs to all Jews and therefore whoever eats in my sukkah is regarded as being in his own sukkah, though a stolen sukkah is not permissible.

The moral is that not only should one look for a Biblical ancestor but any guest who sits and eats in your sukkah is regarded as at home there, and so if you give hospitality during the festival you are giving added joy to both yourself and the other person.


None of the arba’ah minim, the four species of plants used on Sukkot, is named in the Torah, except for the aravah, the willow.

The lulav is called “branches of palm trees”, the hadas (myrtle) is identified as “boughs of thick trees”, and the etrog is termed “fruit of a goodly tree”.

The rabbis worked out what trees the Torah had in mind, and Maimonides sees the age-old use of the etrog as evidence for the unbroken oral tradition in Jewish law.

The etrog is still expensive, especially outside of Israel. But even in Israel, etrogim are far from two-a-penny. The care that goes into purchasing the etrog is a colourful feature of Israeli life at this season.

In olden days, the etrog was a major symbol of Judaism; in Second Temple times it was used on coins and burial places and in symbols as a symbol rivaling the menorah.

It even became a weapon of war; on one occasion, the priest-king Alexander Yannai scandalized the congregation by pouring the water of libation not on the altar but on the ground, and the people pelted him with their etrogim!

In folklore, a person who dreamed of an etrog was thought to be precious to God. A pregnant woman who bit into the pitom of an etrog was sure of an easy birth.

All this is quaint, but it shows how much store we set on symbols in Judaism. A way of life without symbols lacks poetry, colour and inspiration.

Fortunately, today’s Jewish world has rediscovered symbolism as a powerful means of religious and ethnic expression.


Idiomatic language often takes no account of grammar.

An example is the Four Species on Sukkot, colloquially called Arba Minim even though correct grammar would require Arba’ah Minim.

Another example is Arba Kanfot (the fringed garment of four corners). Technically it should be Arba K’nafot (in Anglo-Jewish slang it used to be called Tzitzakanfos, a confused melee of several Biblical words).

Plurals are often mixed up, e.g. (in Ashkenazi Hebrew), Shabbosim for Shabbatot and Talleisim for Tallitot or Taliot.

Masculine and feminine are mixed up when referring to a deceased female (although not in Israel) as Alav HaShalom, “On him be peace” (in Ashkenazi Hebrew, Olov HaSholom) when it should be Aleha HaShalom or Oleho HaSholom.

And of course there is the renaming of every deceased person as Oliver (from the Ashkenazi phrase Olov HaSholom).

Many English speakers cannot say a ch (as in Loch) so the burial society (Chevra Kadisha) becomes Shevra Kadisha and Chanukah becomes Konica like the camera…

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