Succot, known in Israel as the festival of Tabernacles, is a Jewish festival which takes place after Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in the Jewish calendar.
The word “Succot” is the plural of succah, a booth or tabernacle, a reference both to the temporary structures the Jewish people lived in in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt, as well as the huts that Jews used to live in during the harvesting season.
It is the third of the Jewish holidays known as the “Shalosh Regalim” – “three festivals” – the other two being Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost). Starting on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Tishrei (usually around late September/early October) it lasts for seven days in Israel and eight in the diaspora.
Succot is made up of three distinct sections.
The first two days (or one day, if one lives in Israel) are Yom Tov – full festival days – with most of the restrictions in place that would be observed on a normal Shabbat.
Similarly, the festival ends with a Yom Tov. Shmini Atzeret (literally, the eighth day of assembly) falls on the eighth day of Succot in the diaspora, while in Israel, although it is a Yom Tov, it is not considered part of Succot. In the diaspora, the day after Shmini Atzeret is called Simchat Torah (the celebration of the Torah), but in Israel Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated on the same day.
The in between days are known as Chol Hamoed (literally, the weekdays of the festival) – and although some of the commandments of Succot are still in effect, most of the actions forbidden on Yom Tov would be permitted.
Commandments and Customs
In Leviticus, God commands the Jewish people - “You shall dwell in Succot for seven days, so that future generations will know that I commanded the children of Israel to live in Succot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt”.
The command to dwell in the succah means that observant Jews will eat all their meals in the succah over the seven day period (the eighth day meals are eaten inside, as regularly). Many strictly orthodox Jews will also sleep in the succah, although both these requirements are waived in cases of extreme bad weather. However, at the very least, the Kiddush (blessing over the wine) on the first night of the festival should be recited in the succah.
A sukkah is supposed to be a temporary structure. Ideally, it is made up of four walls (usually made of wood or cloth fabric). It is also roofed with material known as s’chach, which has to be made of things grown from the ground, such as tree branches or palm leaves. However, the s’chach cannot still be attached to the ground, meaning that a living tree cannot have its still connected branches used as a roof for the temporary dwelling.
There is no command to do so, but Succot are often decorated, for example, with posters showing religious themes, as well as flashing light displays or hanging fruit.
The Four Species
“And you shall take for yourselves beautiful fruits, date palms, branches of myrtle and willows of the brook” (Leviticus 23:40)
Every year, prior to the festival of Succot, thousands of Jews around the world purchase their Arba Minim – Four Species – which are used in conjunction with the prayers over the course of the festival.
The myrtle and willow branches do not normally cost more than a few pounds, but the prices of citron fruits and date palms can vary according to quality and provenance.
Lulav – A closed frond of a date palm tree. Ideally, the tiyomet – the twin middle leaf - should not be split at all, although the lulav is still Kosher if it is not split more than a handbreadth. The branch should also not be bent or broken off at its tip.
Etrog – The Citron Fruit – Usually the most expensive element of the four species, the fruit is grown most widely in Mediterranean countries. Some strictly Orthodox Jews spend a great deal of time and money searching for an Etrog which is as close to flawless as possible.
Hadassim – Myrtle Branches – Three myrtle branches are required to be held together with the Lulav (often through the use of a holder woven out of date palm leaves). If the Hadassim are fresh, they are unlikely to need changing during the course of the festival.
Aravot – Willow branches – Two willow branches are required to be held together with the Lulav (often through the use of the same holder, which has pouches for both Hadassim and Aravot). Aravot dry out very quickly, so unless the Lulav is well tended to during Succot, it may be necessary to replace the dead or dying willow branches with fresh ones at some point during the holiday.
A widespread kabbalistic tradition holds that seven days of Succot correspond to seven key figures in Biblical history – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David.
According to the Kabbalistic tradition, each night of Succot, a different one of these people is “invited” into the succah, with each of the Ushpizin (the Aramaic for “guests”), embodying a different spiritual attribute (eg. Kindness, Harmony, Discipline).
Some people invite the ushpizin in the above order, but others invite one per night in the following order – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, David.
As mentioned in the introduction, chol hamoed is the period between the two sets of Yom Tov festival days at both ends of Succot.
Many religious Jews will attempt not to work during chol hamoed, as the days are still considered to have a higher spiritual significance than ordinary weekdays. However, the days do not have the same restrictions as festival days. Strictly Orthodox Jews will often try and avoid writing anything during chol hamoed, and if writing is absolutely necessary, they will try and write with a “shinui” – a change – writing with their weaker hand, for example.
Often outings will be arranged for children during this period, as it is considered to be a time of heightened joy.
There are five Megillot (scrolls) in Jewish literature, all of which are considered to be a part of the Old Testament. The scroll of Ecclesiastes is traditionally read on the Shabbat of Chol Hamoed - although if the calendar means that there is no Shabbat of Chol Hamoed, it is read on Shmini Atzeret.
Ecclesiastes is written from the viewpoint of a king of Israel with the same given name (widely considered to actually be King Solomon). It discusses life lessons the King has learned, before ending with the command to “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.”
Simchat Beit Hashoevah
During the chol hamoed days of Succot, many synagogues and religious institutions, particularly in Israel, will hold a celebration known as Simchat Beit Ha’Shoevah (celebration of the place of the water drawing), a reference to a festival of the same name which was held at the time of Temple.
“He who never saw a Simchat Beit Hashoevah never saw joy in his life”, it says in the Talmud, discussing the different ways the sages used to demonstrate their happiness.
As part of the morning prayers on each day of Succot, the four species are taken while those praying circle the synagogue, asking for God to save his people.
The seventh day of Succot, however, is known as Hoshana Rabbah (great supplication). It is seen as an auspicious day, particularly among Chassidic Jews, who see it as another opportunity, just a short time after the Day of Atonement, to beg forgiveness for any transgressions.
There are extra prayers on Hoshana Rabbah, with the congregation circling the synagogue seven times. Towards the end of the Hoshana Rabbah services, people beat bundles of aravot – willow branches – on the floor of the synagogue, to symbolise getting rid of their sins.
The festival of Succot ends with the festivals of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, which will be discussed in further detail in another JC piece: “What is Shemini Atzeret?”