Sukkot & Simchat Torah
The Festival of Sukkot is described in Leviticus 23:33-36, 39-42:
The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: Say to the Israelite people: On the fifteenth day of the seventh month there shall be a Chag HaSukkot - "Festival of Booths" - to the Eternal for seven days. The first day shall be a sacred occasion; you shall do no work at your occupations. Seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to the Eternal. On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring offerings by fire to the Eternal; it is a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupations.
Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Eternal for seven days; a complete rest on the first day and a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day you shall take the product of the hadar trees, branches of palm trees, and willow of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Eternal your God for seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of the Eternal for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. You shall live in Sukkot - "booths" - for seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in Sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I, the Eternal, and your God.
From this we learn:
- The Festival (Chag) of Sukkot begins on Tishri 15, the fifth day after Yom Kippur.
- Sukkot lasts for seven days.
- The first day is a "Sabbath-like" day, a sacred occasion of complete rest.
- An extra eighth day is also added, also a "Sabbath-like" day, a sacred occasion of complete rest.
branches of the myrtle, palm, and willow trees are used to "rejoice before God".
- we are to live in Sukkot - "booths" - for the entire seven days.
Like other biblical festivals, Sukkot has both historical and agricultural roots. Historically, Sukkot commemorates the wanderings of the Israelites, which began with the exodus from Egypt (Passover) and continues with the giving of the Torah at Sinai (Shavuot) and ends with the wandering in the desert for the full 40 years. During this time the children of Israel lived in temporary shelters or Sukkot. There is a debate in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 110b) between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva over what the Sukkah actually represents. Rabbi Akiva accepts the explanation in Leviticus 23:43 at face value: the Sukkot are the temporary, portable dwellings that the Israelites lived in when they wandered in the wilderness. However, Rabbi Eliezer argues that the Sukkot represent the "Clouds of Glory" which surrounded the Israelites in their wanderings, guiding and protecting them. Either way, the Sukkah connects us to the wilderness experience, when we leave the safety and security of our permanent homes and put ourselves under the direct protection of God.
Sukkot is also a major agricultural festival, the third of the shalosh regalim, or three pilgrimage holidays (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) when, in ancient times, Jews went up to Jerusalem to celebrate and offer sacrifices. Sukkot has four names. The name Sukkot of course refers to the booths of the Israelites. It is also referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the "Festival of Ingathering". "You shall celebrate the festival of ingathering, at the end of the year, when you gather in your labors out of the field." (Exodus 23:16) This festival is also referred to as Zeman Simkhateinu, the "Season of our Rejoicing". In rejoicing on Sukkot, there is a universal theme. Ultimately, when God brings peace to the earth, it will be for all. In the days when the Temple stood, the Sukkot offerings included seventy oxen, corresponding to the seventy nations, accompanied by a prayer for peace and harmony among all the nations of the world. Lastly, Sukkot is also referred to as He-Chag - "the Festival" (Kings 12:32). When the farmers of Israel were done harvesting, their storehouses were full and they had the first opportunity in the year for a break. With that stability, they had a right to rejoice. Also, Sukkot is the beginning of the rainy season in the Land of Israel. For an agriculturally-based economy, proper rain in season was of ultimate importance. It was a sign of God's favour. Offering were made to invoke God's favour and so rain would be provided. Today, Sukkot is the time when the prayer for rain is introduced in to the liturgy.
The first day of Sukkot is a "sacred occasion" - a day observed like Shabbat. No work is permitted. Work is permitted on the remaining days. These intermediate days on which work is permitted are referred to as Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot. Outside of Israel, traditional communities extend the first day to two days, both observed like Shabbat.
There are three primary mitzvot for the observance of Sukkot:
1) Dwelling in the Sukkah (see below)
2) The Arbah Minim - the "Four Species"
3) Rejoicing (Hopefully, this part is self explanatory!)
Dwelling in the Sukkah
You shall live in booths seven days in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 23:42-43)
In honour of the holiday's historical significance, we are commanded to dwell in temporary shelters - Sukkot - as our ancestors did in the wilderness. The commandment to "dwell" in a Sukkah can be fulfilled by simply eating all of one's meals there. However, if the weather, climate, and one's health permit, one should live in the Sukkah as much as possible, including sleeping in it.
It is a general principle that "One who is suffering is not obligated to eat in the Sukkah." Therefore, if extreme or inclement weather, health, or circumstances make dwelling in the Sukkah uncomfortable or difficult, then one is exempt from the obligation. However, on the first and last days, one should make an effort to say Kiddish and Motzi in the Sukkah.
The Sukkah is the only Mitzvah in which we are completely surrounded by the Mitzvah itself. The Ba'al Shem Tov thought the ritual of dwelling in the Sukkah special because one could actually enter the ritual space, even with the mud sticking to one's boots.
As a mitzvah, we recite a blessing when entering the Sukkah:
Baruch Attah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha-Olam asher kishanu b'mitzvotav, v'tzivanu le'shev ba-sukkah.
Blessed are You, Our Eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has sanctified us by the commandments, and Who has commanded us to dwell in the Sukkah.
When entering the Sukkah for the first time, the Shehekheyanu should also be said:
Baruch Attah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha-Olam, shehekheyanu, v'kiyamanu, v'higgiyanu lazman hazeh.
Blessed are You, Our Eternal God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this season.
The Hebrew letters of the word Sukkah itself give us the blueprint for the building of the Sukkah:
A Sukkah, then, can have four walls, three walls, or at least two and one half walls, covered with any material.
The roof of the Sukkah must be made of material referred to as Sekhakh -(one of the hardest Hebrew words to say-just try it) literally, "covering". To fulfill the commandment, sekhakh must be something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks, bamboo, sticks, or two-by-fours. Sekhakh must be left loose, not tied together or tied down. Sekhakh must be placed sparsely enough that rain can get in, and preferably sparsely enough that the stars can be seen, but not so sparsely that more than ten inches is open at any point or that there is more light than shade. The sekhakh must be put on last.
In fulfillment of the concept of Hiddur Mitzvah - "beautification of a mitzvah" - it is common practice to decorate the Sukkah. This can be a fun and meaningful way to get kids involved in the building of the Sukkah. Traditional decorations include harvest fruits and gourds, pictures, Ushpizin posters (see sidebar), recycled cards from Rosh HaShanah, and lights.