Sukkot is an seven-day harvest holiday that arrives during the Hebrew month of Tishrei. It starts four days after Yom Kippur and is followed by Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Sukkot is also known as the Festival of Booths and the Feast of Tabernacles.
The Origin of Sukkot
Sukkot hearkens back to times in ancient Israel when Jews would build huts near the edges of their fields during the harvest season. One of these dwellings was called a "sukkah" and "sukkot" is the plural form of this Hebrew word. These dwellings not only provided shade but allowed the workers to maximize the amount of time they spent in the fields, harvesting their food more quickly as a result.
Sukkot is also related to the way the Jewish people lived while wandering in the desert for 40 years (Leviticus 23:42-43). As they moved from one place to another they built tents or booths, called sukkot, that gave them temporary shelter in the desert.
Hence, the sukkot (booths) that Jews build during the holiday of Sukkot are reminders both of Israel's agricultural history and of the Israelite exodus from Egypt.
Traditions of Sukkot
There are three major traditions associated with Sukkot:
- Building a sukkah.
- Eating in the sukkah.
- Waving the lulav and etrog.
Few people live in the sukkah today but it is popular to eat at least one meal in it. At the beginning of the meal a special blessing is recited, which goes: "Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us to dwell in the sukkah." If it is raining then the commandment to eat in the sukkah is postponed until the weather is more accommodating.
Since Sukkot celebrates the harvest in the land of Israel, another custom on Sukkot involves waving the lulav and etrog. Together the lulav and etrog represent the Four Species. The etrog is a kind of citron (related to a lemon), while the lulav is made of three myrtle twigs (hadassim), two willow twigs (aravot) and a palm frond (lulav). Because the palm frond is the largest of these plants, the myrtle and willow are wrapped around it. During Sukkot, the lulav and etrog are waved together while reciting special blessings. They are waved in each of the four directions - sometimes six if "up" and "down" are included in the ritual - representing God's dominion over Creation. You can learn how to wave the lulav and etrog in this article.
The lulav and etrog are also part of the synagogue service. On each morning of Sukkot people will carry the lulav and etrog around the sanctuary while reciting prayers. On the seventh day of Sukkot, called Hoshana Rabba, the Torah is removed from the Ark and congregants march around the synagogue seven times while holding the lulav and etrog.
The eighth and last day of Sukkot is known as Shmeni Atzeret. On this day a prayer for rain is recited, demonstrating how the Jewish holidays are in tune with the seasons of Israel, which begins on this day.
The Quest for the Perfect Etrog
Among religious circles a unique aspect of Sukkot involves the quest for the perfect etrog. Some people will spend upwards of $100 for the perfect etrog and on the weekend before Sukkot outdoor markets selling etrogim (plural of etrog) and lulavim (plural of lulav) will spring up in religious neighborhoods, such as Manhattan's Lower East Side. Buyers are looking for unblemished skin and etrog proportions that are just right. A 2005 movie titled "Ushpizin" shows this quest for the perfect etrog. The movie is about a young Orthodox couple in Israel that is too poor to build a sukkah of their own, until a miraculous donation saves their holiday.