What the heck is Sukkot?

In the Sukkah

There are three pilgrimage holidays in Jewish tradition. Pilgrimage holidays are the ones on which ancient Israelites traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday at the Temple. Sukkot is one of them.

Exodus 23:14 describes the three festivals – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. Sukkot is the third, the ingathering or harvest.

Exodus 23:14
14. Three times you shall slaughter sacrifices to Me during the year.
15. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread as I have commanded you, at the appointed time of the month of springtime, for then you left Egypt, and they shall not appear before Me empty handed.
16. And the festival of the harvest, the first fruits of your labors, which you will sow in the field, and the festival of the ingathering at the departure of the year, when you gather in [the products of] your labors from the field.
But Sukkot became more than a harvest festival. In Leviticus it is described as a way to remember that when the Israelites came out of Egypt we lived in booths or huts. So we emulate them – a very experiential way of learning and remembering.

Leviticus 23:39
39. But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of the Lord for a seven day period; the first day shall be a rest day, and the eighth day shall be a rest day.
40. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven day period.
41. And you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord for seven days in the year. [It is] an eternal statute throughout your generations [that] you celebrate it in the seventh month.
42. For a seven day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths,
43. in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.

(from Chabad.org)

We are commanded to build and live in our sukkah (our hut) for a week. Some people sleep in their sukkah. That may be more than you can manage. But do have one or more of your meals outside – it can be so lovely.

Living in a hut reminds us of how fragile life is. It is symbolizes our vulnerability and is supposed to make us realize that we must rely on God over transitory material things.

What to teach your children? Here are some ideas. Pick what works for you.

How lucky we are to have a home! And even a home with a floor made of wood (or other materials) but not just dirt. This is a good time to talk about homelessness and how to help others.
What are the things we rely? Friends, family? This is a great time to play the “who loves you?” game. Parent says to child, who loves you? The child thinks of all the people who love them – parents, siblings, aunts & uncles, teachers and rabbis, neighbors and friends, pets, etc.
Isn’t nature marvelous to provide the fall harvest of squash, tomatoes, wheat, apples, etc.? What foods do you love? How can we give food to hungry people? What foods can we plant and raise ourselves?
Tell the story of the Exodus. Tell your kids about the Israelis leaving Egypt to gain freedom. Who is seeking their freedom today?

Go picking! There are places like Brentwood where you can pick your own food.
Bake! Make pumpkin bread, zucchini bread, butternut squash soup. Let the kids help.
Have guests over. We are commanded to invite guests into our sukkah – traditionally we symbolically invite in the patriarchs and the matriarchs. But be inventive. Who are the teachers, friends, interesting people you want to invite? How about inviting your soccer coach or the kids from the carpool?
Decorate. Make paper chains. Cut out paper in the shape of fruits and vegetables to hang in the sukkah. Hang photos of loved ones that perhaps can’t make it.

What about the lulav and etrog; what are they?
An etrog is a citrus fruit from the middle east. We don’t have them much in America. You have to buy one special for this holiday. They are flown in. They look like big Eureka lemons.
The Lulav is made of three plants. One branch of willow tree, one branch palm and one of myrtle. They are put together in a woven handle.

What does the waving mean? What do these plants mean?
Well, what do you believe? There are mystical interpretations. Look here for more info. But do we have any historical document that tells us what the ancients believed? No. In ancient times did the date palm symbolize righteousness? We don’t know. Like the pronunciation of the name of God, this is lost to us. There is something sad in that but there is also great potential to create new ideas. What do you make of these items? Perhaps your truth is locked inside of you and you just need to let your imagination soar.