|Understanding the symbols and experiencing the joy|
Five days after Yom Kippur, begins the holiday of Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, falling on the 15th of Tishrei. Historically, families would go to the Temple to offer thanks for their fall harvests. They would build sukkot, or booths, to recall how our ancestors lived in the desert. There they would live and celebrate for seven days.
The festival is referenced in Levitucus 23:34, Exodus 23:16 (Feast of Ingathering) and I Kings 8:2. In rabbinic times, the holiday was also referred to as Zeman Simchatenu, Season of our Rejoicing.
While the sukkot is meant to symbolise the temporary huts that our people lived in during the forty years they wandered in the desert, Jewish law is somewhat specific in terms of the actual design of this symbolic dwelling. The structure must have at least three walls- only two full walls and a part of a third are actually required. The fourth side may be open or be an adjoining part of the house. The materials to be used are not specified but typically are wood, metal or canvas. The roof must be a temporary structure and be covered with anything that grows from the ground and has been cut. Traditionally, roofs are meant to allow for shade from the sun but not restrict access to a starry view at night. It must accommodate at least one person, exact size is not specified.
Purposefully creating a non-permanent structure that is somewhat flimsy, symbolises the power of a spiritual structure to provide protection. The openness of the sukkah, likewise serves as a reminder to us to have an open heart to spirituality and humanity.
Furthering the reenactment of the drama of the Jews in the desert, one is made to experience a bit of the feeling of uprootedness and sense of temporary suspension between two spheres that Jews have felt throughout history. By the same token, the sukkah can be seen as a reminder of the limited worth of material possessions when compared to spiritual well-being and connectedness to our people, history and God.
The first two days are Yom Tov- and work may not be done. The following five days are Hol Hamoed and are therefore restriction free but still draws people to the sukkah to experience the joy. As joy is a major theme of Sukkot, one is not meant to feel discomfort as a result of the requirement of dwelling in the sukkah.
While some people make an effort to eat every meal in the sukkah, rabbis remind that in rain one is not required to eat in the sukkah, lest there should be discomfort to destroy the joy. Traditionally, even in rain people will at least make kiddush and hamotzi in the sukkah on the first night of the holiday. Some will sleep and study in their sukkah providing they live in a climate that permits this.
There is a great tradition of hospitality in this season. In addition to inviting friends and family, and celebrating on a communal level is common. Additionally, a number of spiritual Ushpizin are included on the honoured guest list including: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Modern practice has also opened the inclusion of including Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Deborah and Hannah to that list of honourary Ushpizin. This practice further strengthens the bond we have with our ancestors and serves as a reminder of our continuity as a people.
The Four Species (the citron /etrog, the myrtle branch/haddas, the willow/arava, the date palm/lulav), is yet another ritual connected to this holiday.
The requirement of the Four Species is taken from Leviticus 23:40. All people are required to take this requirement to heart and not only experience the mitzvah, but take ownership of it, and acquire their own set of lulav and etrog. Participants search for and aim to obtain the finest specimens available and take great pride in this hiddur mitzvah (enhancing of the mitzvah).
Tradition also, accordingly brings people to take great pride in the creation of the sukkah itself. Sukkah’s are often admired for their elaborate and decorative themes. Beautiful and colorful fruits and vegetables are often hung. Rosh Hashanah cards displayed and elaborate personalised creations adorn the ceiling and walls. This activity immediately draws in children, who while they may be too young to fully understand the complex symbolism involved, experience the joy and beauty of this holiday.
The joy of the holiday invites us all to enhance the mitzvah, by going far beyond the mere requirements. The spirit of this holiday truly marks the beginning of our Season of Rejoicing.