"Rejoice…Be Wholly Happy", Says the Bible on Sukkot

September 30, 2012  

Sunday evening at sundown is the start of the holiday of Sukkot (Tabernacles), one of the three major festivals (shlosha regalim) of the Jewish calendar in which, in Temple days,  the Jewish People were enjoined to “go up to Jerusalem.” 

Sukkot, coming immediately after the solemn month of Elul and the High Holydays, is the holiday on which the Bible encourages all of us to “be wholly happy”.

In recognition of that joy, the entire Halled -praise – prayer is said each day of the holiday.

In Biblical times as today, it was a harvest holiday for summer crops and grapes, a water holiday that included prayers for winter rains, gratitude for the land of milk and honey, and as always in Judaism, remembrance: reenacting the years in the desert when the Israelites dwelled in sukkot (booths), protected by G-d’s clouds of glory by day and a column of fire at night. That is done by eating and spending time, entertaining, lighting holiday candles  – and even sleeping – in a sukkah.

Israel was in the throes of a bulding boom for the past week, as everyone – observant and less observant – prepared for the holiday by building and decorating Sukkot and choosing the “four species.” Large market areas were set up for buying wood, schach (the “roof” of the sukkah which must be of plant origin and not be attached so that its temporary nature is clear), the four species – and masses of people could be observed spending hours there checking for halakhically problematic imperfections. Of course, complete sets that have been checked are available, but the mitzva – and fun –  is in the personal checking, say those who have the know-how.

The entire congregation will circle the synagogue carrying those four species each day of the holiday, saying the “Hoshanna” prayer, a daily supplication for salvation. On the last day, Hoshanna Rabba, during the eve of which Torah learning and lectures go on all night in most synagogues, the synagogue is circled seven times and a set of five willow branches are beaten on the floor near the close of the service.

“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”.

While the holiday lasts for seven days in Israel, only the first day and eighth day (actually a separate holiday called Shemini Atzeret) are regarded as Sabbath-like “Holy Days” 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. Day trips, festivals and other programs abound, whether in the major cities, Hevron, Judea and Samaria.

Outside Israel, Sukkot begins with a two-day Sabbath-like holiday, with the third through seventh days serving as Chol HaMoed. The last day is called Hoshanna Rabba, on which Torah learning and lectures go on all night in most synagogues and the morning praying for salvation.

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.

The Water Drawing Celebration

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, and most attended in Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim, 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.

“Chag Sameach” and Happy Holiday.

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