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A Savory Sukkot

Known in the Torah as HaHag (the festival), Sukkot represents the last of the three harvest festivals in the Jewish calendar (Pesach and Shavuot are the others). The holiday occurs five days after Yom Kippur, the same time of year our ancestors made an annual pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem-after the grains had been harvested and the grapes made into wine, they offered up sacrifices of gratitude to God for a bountiful harvest. Those who made the journey camped in "booths" called sukkot (plural form), recalling the temporary dwellings used by their ancestors during the 40-year sojourn in the desert following the exodus from Egypt (Leviticus 23:42-43). Over time, constructing and living or eating in a sukkah for seven days became an established custom-the first of three Sukkot mitzvot (commandments).

The second mitzvah associated with Sukkot - reciting the blessings using a lulav and etrog (citron) - is also prescribed in Leviticus (23:40). Deemed a "goodly" fruit, the etrog represents God's promise of sustenance. The branches of date palm as well as the boughs of myrtle and willow woven together to form the lulav underscore the agricultural nature of the holiday.

The third mitzvah - "to rejoice in the bounties of the Lord" - is fulfilled by inviting friends to dine, converse, and study in the sukkah. The great 16th-century Tzfat (Safed) mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria established the custom of inviting a different "guest" (ushpizin) into the sukkah over the course of seven evenings. Each of these guests - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David - had experienced exile in their lives and, in spite of their travails, had demonstrated their trust in God-the underlying message of Sukkot. Three centuries later, the chasidic Rabbi Hayyim Halberstam of Sandz popularized among his followers the practice of inviting the poor to be dinner guests in his sukkah. "If the poor are not welcome," he said, "none of the ushpizin will come to the sukkah." This practice reminds those of us fortunate enough to be able to celebrate the mitzvot of Sukkot never to forget that just as God had provided for all the Israelites in the wilderness, so must we provide for all who are in need of food and shelter.

The Torah does not dictate what foods should be eaten in the sukkah, but over time, grains, fruits, and vegetables such as barley, lentils, dates, melons, cucumbers, and wild onions - all staples of the Mediterranean diet - came to figure prominently in the holiday celebration. Traditional Sukkot foods are often rolled or stuffed, symbolizing the abundance of the holiday harvest, and prepared as casseroles, which are easily transported from the kitchen to the sukkah. Other frequent holiday dishes include cooked fruit compotes, vegetable soups, rice, and couscous dishes flavored with seasonal fruits and vegetables.

May the festival of Sukkot bring you fulfillment. May all of us go to bed with full stomachs and light hearts, and may we fulfill the mitzvot of Sukkot under twinkling stars with loved ones and friends.

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