Sukkot Customs and Rituals
Sukkot, a Hebrew word meaning "booths" or "huts," refers to the Jewish festival of giving thanks for the fall harvest. It also commemorates the 40 years of Jewish wandering in the desert after the giving of the Torah atop Mt. Sinai. Sukkot is celebrated five days after Yom Kippur on the 15th of the month of Tishrei, and is marked by several distinct traditions. One, which takes the commandment to dwell in booths literally, is to erect a sukkah, a small, temporary booth or hut. Sukkot (in this case, the plural of sukkah) are commonly used during the seven-day festival for eating, entertaining and even for sleeping.
Sukkot also called Z’man Simchateinu (Season of Our Rejoicing), is the only festival associated with an explicit commandment to rejoice. A final name for Sukkot is Chag HaAsif, (Festival of the Ingathering), representing a time to give thanks for the bounty of the earth during the fall harvest.
Hallel (praise) refers to a specific selection from the Book of Psalms. These psalms—113 to 118—are sung or recited in the synagogue on all festivals, as well as on Rosh Chodesh (the first day of each month), on each day of Hanukkah, and, in recent years, on Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). Hallel also is recited on the eve of Passover during the seder. According to early rabbinic tradition (M. Pesahim 5:7), the Levites chanted these Hallel psalms in the Temple courtyard while the Passover lambs were being slaughtered; they are also associated with the waving of the lulav during Sukkot (M. Sukkah 3:9) .
In the synagogue, Hallel is recited immediately following the Amidah and before the Torah reading (or the reading from the Festival Megillah, which precedes the Torah reading). Hallel is one of the musical highlights of festival services; there are many melodies for each of the Hallel psalms.
Sukkah: The sukkah symbolizes the frail huts in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. It also serves to remind Jews of the biblical account of how God protected them, provided for their needs in the wilderness, and by implication, still watches over us today.
Sukkot come in many variations, but there are some guidelines to follow when building them. Two important ones are:
- A sukkah has to have at least three walls. Only one can be an existing wall, like the side of a house. The walls may be constructed of any material, generally canvas, wood or metal. Today, it is possible to buy ready-to-assemble sukkah kits.
- The roof is to be temporary, covered with loose branches from trees or anything that grows out of the ground, and has been cut off from the ground. According to tradition, this roof covering, s’chach, should give shade and yet allow those in the sukkah to see the stars through the roof at night.
Once the sukkah is built, it is common to decorate it by hanging fruit and other items from the s’chach, putting posters on the walls, and even laying carpet on the floor.
Lulav and Etrog: Sukkot celebrates the fall harvest, expressed by blessing and waving the lulav and the etrog, symbols of the harvest; by building and decorating a sukkah; and by extending hospitality to friends and family.
The lulav is a combination of date palm, willow and myrtle branches, held together by a woven palm branch. The etrog, or citron, is a lemon-like fruit with a wonderful citrus smell. When reciting the blessing over the lulav and etrog, one should wave them in six directions—north, south, east, west, up, and down. This action symbolizes that God can be found in all directions, not only in one particular place.
The traditional ritual for the lulav and etrog is as follows:
- Stand facing east. Place the lulav (with the spine facing you, myrtle on the right and the willows on the left) in your right hand and the etrog in your left hand. Bring your hands together so that the lulav and etrog are side by side.
- Next, recite this special blessing: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al n'tilat lulav. "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who has sanctified us through Your mitzvot and ordained the taking of the lulav."
- On the first day of the festival, add the Shehecheyanu prayer.
- Shake the lulav in all directions – east, south, west, north, up, and down – while reciting or chanting the words Hodu l'Adonai ki tov ki l'olam chasdo. "Give thanks to God, for God is good, for God's loving-kindness endures forever."
In the Congregation
Many synagogues build sukkot that are used for communal meals and celebration. Festival services also are held on the first day of Sukkot, with special prayers included to commemorate the holiday as Z’man Simchateinu (Season of Our Rejoicing).
Following an ancient practice of Babylonian Jews that is now observed throughout the world, the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are divided into 54 sections called parashat hashavua, the weekly portion. A different section is read each Shabbat. Special sections of the Torah are designated to be read at each Jewish holiday. Often, these sections are thematically related to the holiday.
On the first day of Sukkot, the Torah portion Emor (Leviticus 23:33-44) is read, which includes the instructions to dwell in booths. The Haftarah, the special selection from the prophetic books that accompanies Torah readings on Shabbat and holidays, is from Zechariah 14:7-9, 16-21. The Torah is read on every day of the festival, including the Shabbat that falls during Sukkot. On this Shabbat, the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is read.
Many families build their own sukkah at home, or visit the sukkah of other families. Extending hospitality, especially to the needy is a Sukkot custom. Many Jews invite guests outside of their families to join them for a holiday meal in the sukkah.
It is a mitzvah to celebrate in the sukkah. This is done primarily by eating meals in the sukkah, especially on the first night of the Festival. Whenever one eats in the sukkah one, recites haMotzi, the prayer over bread, and then adds a special blessing: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu leisheiv basukah. “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who has sanctified us through your mitzvot and commanded us to dwell in the sukkah.”