The holiday of Sukkot occurs just five days after Yom Kippur. It is – both – an agricultural celebration and a historical observance. Sukkot is one of the three harvest festivals on the Jewish calendar. It also serves as a reminder of our forty years in the desert. For these reasons, the holiday of Sukkot is also known as Chag Ha’Asif, the Holiday of Gathering and Z’man Simchateinu, the Holiday of Rejoicing. The origins of Sukkot are found in Leviticus, chapter 23, verse 39. It states “…on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you shall keep the feast of the Lord seven days…” In verse 42, it continues, “You shall dwell in booths seven days…”
The Sukkot to-do (mitzvah) list consists of three things: rejoicing, gathering of the four species, and dwelling in the sukkah.
We are told, specifically, to rejoice before G-d for seven days. It is easy to rejoice with the memories of the Yom Kippur fast and its intense emotions still lingering in our minds. We invite guests into our sukkah to share festive meals. We all – adults and children alike – enjoy decorating the sukkah and creating a warm, uplifting atmosphere. It is always a delight to open the boxes of sukkah decorations and to create menus with recipes you look forward to making all year.
Like the holiday itself, the dwelling that takes place has multiple meanings. While in the desert for forty years, we lived in booths. These dwelling spaces were set up, lived in, taken down, and carried on to the next stopping place. We enter this same simplicity when we dwell in our sukkah. We eat in it, learn in it, and sleep in it. We leave the TV, the cell phone, and other luxuries behind.
The booths are also reminiscent of the Clouds of Glory – or G-d’s protection – that covered us while we were in the desert. When we come into the sukkah, we are under G-d and more deeply connected to G-d’s world. We are focused on the simple and more meaningful aspects of life. We remember that G-d is always present, provides us with protection, and guides us toward a more meaningful life.
Gather the Four Species
Also in Leviticus, chapter 23, we are told to “take on the first day the fruit of the hadar tree (etrog), branches of palm trees (lulav), braided branches from leafy trees (myrtle), and willows of the brook…” (verse 40). The mitzvah of the lulav and etrog involves binding the three different types of branches – known collectively as the lulav - together. The etrog is held separately but with the lulav and is shaken in six directions.
There are many explanations about the components of the lulav and the process of shaking it. The most simple is connected to the shaking. We shake in every direction, signifying that G-d is everywhere.
Midrashim tell us that the combination of fragrance and/or taste of each of the branches is a metaphorical reference to the different types of Jews that exist in the world. Despite our differences, we belong together and we stand more strongly when we are together.
Still another explanation likens each species to a different body part (etrog: heart, palm: spine, myrtle: eyes, willow: mouth) emphasizing the importance of using our whole self to connect with and to serve G-d.
The holiday of Sukkot is seven days of rejoicing – of time with friends and family – of eating – of learning – and of tradition. The joy comes from the rituals that tie us deeply to our roots and the Jewish journey.