Image: A sukkah in New England, in the USA. Public Domain via wikimedia.
After the intensity of the High Holy Days, Jews celebrate a completely different kind of holiday. (What, more holidays? Yes!)
Beginning on the fifth day after Yom Kippur, we celebrate Sukkot, the “Feast of Booths.” It’s a holiday of celebration, rest, and hospitality, when we build little shacks in the back yard or on the roof of the apartment building and have friends over to eat for seven days. The first and last days are solemn days of rest.
It began as a harvest celebration, held at that nervous moment in the Middle East when the summer crops were in and the rain had not yet begun to fall. Winter rains are crucial not only for crops, but also for the survival of animals and people when the cisterns have run dry. In the climate of Israel, summer rains are rare; the year’s moisture falls in autumn and winter. Without water, everyone and everything dies.
So there they were, desperate for rain, with the last of the harvest in their hands. No surprise that the people prayed. The interesting thing is that our own story, the Exodus, is woven into the holiday as well. This is a holiday with a double meaning, and a doubled set of commandments:
You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. – Exodus 34:22
You shall live in booths for seven days; all that are citizens in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God. – Leviticus 23:42-43
So Jews all over the world take the days right after Yom Kippur to build a sukkah, a little booth, in their yard. on their balcony or on a roof, to “dwell” (eat and sleep) in to remember our tenuous existence in the wilderness. For those in a cold climate, that means building a sturdy little sukkah and bundling up to sit there. For those in warmer climes, it’s a laid-back time of outdoor living. For all of us, it is a reminder of the fragility of life, of our vulnerability, a time of closeness and friendship, appreciation and joy.
For the tachlis [practical information] about the holiday and how to celebrate, see 7 Questions about Sukkot and Sukkot Hospitality.
9 thoughts on “What is Sukkot?”
Yesterday would have been a delightful day to be in a sukkah. Today, not so much, but at least we’ve got the winter rain as asked for! Coincidence, or God’s plan?
There was a series of books I fell in love with as a child, about the “All of a Kind Family,” which detailed the adventures of a Jewish family in the late 1800s in New York City. I read and reread those books until they fell to tatters. Just loved them and found the Jewish culture so fascinating. One of the chapters I remember vividly was when the family built their Sukkot shack in their backyard and had a holiday meal inside it. It sounded so marvelous and totally different from my own Hispanic Catholic upbringing in New Mexico. Your post brought it back to me. Thank you!
Those books are still very popular and I think they are still available. Lovely stories! Thank you for reminding me of them.