The week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot, commemorating G-d's protection of the Jews during their 40-year sojourn prior to entering the Promised Land, begins Wednesday evening.
On this holiday, Jews build, eat, relax and many even sleep in temporary booth-type structures, sukkot, reminding them of their desert dwellings and of the Clouds of Glory that protected them during that time.
Beginning at sundown, Sukkot is one of the three major festivals (shlosha regalim) of the Jewish calendar in which the Jewish People were enjoined to "go up to Jerusalem." It is called the 'festival of rejoicing', and the entire Hallel prayer is said each day of the holiday.
"Sukkot", says Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, "is a complex set of variations on the theme of life, It is a festival of a people who have known more starkly than any other that the canopy of faith is the only shelter we have". For the Rabbi's full message and video, click here.
While the holiday lasts for seven days in Israel, only the first day is regarded as a Sabbath-like "Holy Day" on which most Sabbath restrictions, except for preparing food for that day, apply.
The second through seventh days are known as “Chol HaMoed," literally meaning a combination of holiday (moed) and weekday (chol).
On these days, most ordinary activities are permitted. In Israel, it is customary to see mass outings of families and friends throughout the country as domestic tourism floods a myriad of sites throughout Israel. For observant Jews, Chol HaMoed Sukkot and Passover are the only days besides Yom Hatzmaut where everyone is on vacation and driving a car is allowed, so they take full advantage of it.
Outside Israel, Sukkot begins with a two-day Sabbath-like holiday, with the third through seventh days serving as Chol HaMoed.
Sukkot is followed by the holiday of Shmini Atzeret - the Assembly of the Eighth Day - which is considered a separate holiday on which Yomtov restrictions apply and on which the solemn prayer for rain is said.
In the Diaspora, Shmini Atzeret, on which Yizkor is said, is followed by Simchat Torah, the celebration of Torah, during which communities feast, dance with the Torah scrolls, and celebrate the annual conclusion of the Torah-reading cycle.
In Israel, Simchat Torah is observed on Shmini Atzeret, making for a long and festive day in the synagogue, with the prayer for rain and Yizkor, but hours of dancing with the Torahs, the calling up of every man present to say the blessings on the Torah by having multiple readings, having a special prayer for the younger children under a prayer shawl held as a canopy over their heads, and more, in addition to the regular holiday prayers.
Sukkot: 'Clouds of Glory'
In the days running up to Sukkot, Jewish communities are filled with the sounds of hammers and saws, and the labor of those constructing the booths. Sukkot is called 'The Feast of Tabernacles" in English, referring to the temporary booth of the Holy Ark during the desert sojourn.
For basic information on building a kosher sukkah, click here.
On the nights of Chol Hamoed, “Water-Drawing Celebrations,” called Simchat Beit HaShoeva (Celebration of the House of Water-Drawing), are held to commemorate the ceremonies and celebrations that took place at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in preparation for drawing water for use during the festival services.
These celebrations, held in Jewish communities around the world, are a highlight in Hassidic communities and Israeli yeshivas, where the students return from vacation for the night on which their yeshiva celebrates, often featuring all-night music and singing by live bands.
Lulav and Etrog: Unity of the Jewish People
One of the most important customs of Sukkot is the recitation of the blessings over the Four Species: an etrog (citron), a lulav (palm frond), three sprigs of hadassim (myrtle) and two branches of aravot (red willow). These have to meet halakhic specifications, so it is recommended to purchase them from a reliable source or buy a ready made set with rabbinic certification.
The lulav and etrog are blessed each morning - women and children usually do this at home while men wait for morning synagogue services, the lulav held in the right hand and the etrog in the left with the stem end (oketz) facing upward until the blessing is said, after which the etrog is turned so that the tip (pitom) faces upward.
The Four Species are waved in six directions: east, west, north, south, up and down during the Hallel prayer and then carried in a march around the synagogue for the Hoshana ("Save us") prayer each morning of the holiday excepting the Sabbath.
To preserve your Four Species for the week, keep the etrog in a box. One can put the lulav in a vase with water, but the most important thing is to separate the hadassim and aravot from the palm frond and put them, along with the kusheklach (woven basketry holder) in a damp, not dripping towel. Cover with the towel and wrap the towel in aluminum foil. Fold foil over, crimp the edges to make it airtight and put in the refrigerator, removing it to set up the lulav set for prayers.
The lulav is only considered kosher if all four species are taken together – if one is missing, the entire lulav is invalid. From this, we learn that all Jews must work together and remain united, as one People, regardless of our differences.
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Yoni Kepinski and Chana Yaar contributed to this report.