Contributed by Rabbi Mendy Greenberg
Sukkot is a weeklong Jewish holiday that comes five days after Yom Kippur. Sukkot celebrates the gathering of the harvest and commemorates the miraculous protection G-d provided for the children of Israel when they left Egypt. We celebrate Sukkot by dwelling in a foliage-covered booth (known as a sukkah) and by taking the “Four Kinds” (arba minim), four special species of vegetation.
The first two days (sundown on September 23rd until nightfall on September 25th in 2018) of the holiday are yom tov. The intermediate days (nightfall on September 25th until sundown on September 29th in 2018) are quasi holidays, known as Chol Hamoed. We dwell in the sukkah and take the Four Kinds every day of Sukkot (except for Shabbat, when we do not take the Four Kinds). The final two days (sundown on September 30th until nightfall on October 2nd in 2018) are a separate holiday: Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah.
The Significance of Sukkot:
Of all the Jewish holidays, Sukkot is the only one whose date does not seem to commemorate a historic event. The Torah refers to it by two names: Chag HaAsif (“the Festival of Ingathering” or “Harvest Festival”) and Chag HaSukkot (“Festival of Booths”), each expressing a reason for the holiday.
In Israel, crops grow in the winter and are ready for harvest in the late spring. Some of them remain out in the field to dry for a few months and are only ready for harvest in the early fall. Chag HaAsif is a time to express appreciation for this bounty.
The name, Chag HaSukkot, commemorates the temporary dwellings G d made to shelter our ancestors on their way out of Egypt (some say this refers to the miraculous clouds of glory that shielded us from the desert sun, while others say it refers to the tents in which they dwelled for their 40-year trek through the Sinai desert).
For seven days and nights, we eat all our meals in the sukkah and otherwise regard it as our home. Located under the open sky, the sukkah is made up of at least three walls and a roof of unprocessed natural vegetation—typically bamboo, pine boughs or palm branches.
Another Sukkot observance is the taking of the Four Kinds: an etrog (citron), a lulav (palm frond), three hadassim (myrtle twigs) and two aravot (willow twigs).
On each day of the festival (except Shabbat), we take the Four Kinds, recite a blessing over them, bring them together and wave them in all six directions: right, left, forward, up, down and backward. The sages of the Midrash tell us that the Four Kinds represent the various personalities that comprise the community of Israel, whose intrinsic unity we emphasize on Sukkot.
Sukkot in the Temple Era:
In the days of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, there was a special regimen of sacrifices that were to be brought on the altar. On the first day, no less than 13 bulls, two rams, and 14 lambs were to be sacrificed. Every day, the number of bulls was depleted by one. All in all, 70 bulls were brought, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world, to evoke G-d’s blessing to all humanity in the coming year.
On Sukkot, G-d determines how much rain will fall that winter. Thus, while every sacrifice in the Temple included wine libations poured over the altar, on Sukkot, water was also poured over the altar in a special ceremony. This ritual engendered such joy that it was celebrated with music, dancing and singing all night long. This celebration was called, “Simchat Beit Hasho’evah.”
Even today, when there is no Temple, it is customary to hold nightly celebrations that include singing and dancing (and even live music during the intermediate days of the holiday).
Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah: Even More Joy:
The Torah tells us that after the seven days of Sukkot, we should celebrate an eighth day. Outside Israel, this eighth day is doubled, making two days of yom tov. On the final day, it is customary to conclude and then immediately begin the annual cycle of Torah reading, making this day Simchat Torah (“Torah Celebration”).
Although the eighth day follows Sukkot, it is an independent holiday in many respects (we no longer take the Four Kinds or dwell in the sukkah). We eat in the sukkah, but without saying the accompanying blessing.
The highlight of this holiday is the boisterous singing and dancing in the synagogue, as the Torah scrolls are paraded in circles around the bimah.
Candle Lighting for Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah- 9/23, 9/24, 9/30, 10/1:
The first two days and the last two days are classified as yom tov. Like Shabbat, no work is done, with the notable exception that certain types of food prep and carrying in the public domain are permitted.
On these days, the night meals are preceded by holiday candle-lighting. For the proper times, please see adjacent ad. Before lighting the candles (on the second night, this is done from a pre-existing flame), say:
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-he-nu Me-lech ha-olam a-sher ki-de-sha-nu be-mitz-vo-tav ve-tzi-va-nu le-had-lik ner shel yom tov.
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-he-nu Me-lech ha-olam she-heche-ya-nu ve-ki-yi-ma-nu ve-higi-a-nu liz-man ha-zeh.
Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to kindle the light of the Festival Day.
Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.
By the time Simchat Torah is over, we have experienced a spiritual roller coaster, from the solemn introspection of the High Holidays to the giddy joy of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Now it is time to convert the roller coaster into a locomotive, making sure that the inspiration of the holiday season propels us to greater growth, learning and devotion in the year ahead.