Sukkot (Feast of Booths or Tabernacles) is a Jewish biblical holiday, celebrated in 2023 from the evening of Fri 29 Sept 2023 – Fri 6 Oct 2023. Its history spans at least three millennia, and is replete with mystery, myth, ritual and drama.
It is celebrated soon after Yom Kippur – a time of repentance and atonement. The Festival of Sukkot is a ‘time of rejoicing’.
The seminal event in Israel’s history was the Exodus from Egypt, a journey which should have taken maybe a few weeks, but lasted an entire generation – forty years. The Israelites were commanded to dwell in these booth constructions for one week during the year.
The Torah refers to ḥag ha-sukkot (“Feast of Booths,” Leviticus 23:34), recalling the days when the Israelites lived in huts (sukkot) made of boughs and palms leaves during their years of wandering in the wilderness.
“You shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree, the branches of date palms, twigs of plaited tree and brook willows; and you shall rejoice before G‑d your L-rd, for a seven day period”. (Lev.23:40)
The Festival of Sukkot is still practiced today. The timing is autumn in the Holy Land (but spring in Australia), when the last of the harvest is gathered in.
The Festival of Sukkot is celebrated as a joyous occasion to commemorate the faithfulness of God. During the Festival, faithful Jews will build a sukkah, where they will spend a great deal of time – to eat, to pray, to read the Torah and Psalms, and enjoy time together. Many will sleep in them as well.
Historically, sukkahs were fabricated out of organic materials such as twigs, grasses, cornstalks, tree branches, leaves or palms, and other natural materials, assembled to make the temporal structure. The rules of sukkah design found in the Talmud specify that it must be a temporary structure, moveable and not permanently connected to the earth, thereby acknowledging the impermanence of life and the wandering of the Israelites. It must be made of gathered, natural materials: and the roof must also he natural and temporary, providing more shade than sun but allowing one to see the stars at night. Atter the testival, the shelters are disassembled.
It is customary to decorate the interior with hanging decorations of the four species (plants mentioned in Leviticus – palm branch, willow branch, citrus and myrtle) as well as with attractive artwork.
Sukkot is also an agricultural holiday because it is a harvest festival, where people celebrate and feast on the bounty of the Earth.
Kirsten J. (Kristen Janelle) Korthuis in ‘The Forgotten Feast: A History of Tabernacles and Its Importance Today‘ says:
“Whatever its origin, this feast has seen many changes over the centuries as the politics and religion of its adherents have changed. For example, when the Jews returned to their homeland after the Babylonian exile, their leadership emphasized this feast’s historical aspects in order to give the people a sense that they were a unified nation. A few centuries later, when the Romans had captured Jerusalem, the Sadducees and Pharisees argued bitterly about this festival’s meaning – it, among other things, was a political “hot topic”. While these two Jewish groups fought, at this pivotal point in Western religious history, Jesus used the symbolism ofthis holy week in his final entry into Jerusalem and created the main reasons used for his crucifixion.
After the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, this festival gradually fell from being the most important to being the least. However, there are three reasons why I believe this least may rise in popularity among Jews again.
The first has to do with the fact that, as we will see, this festival has had messianic connections for millennia; with the modem reestablishment of the state of Israel and the desire of Zionists for a third Temple to be built, these connections may be renewed.
The second is that this particular feast has always been the celebration most connected with nature, and with the rise of environmentalism and the growing desire of urbanites to “rediscover” Mother Earth, it is possible that it will increase in significance.
The third reason comes from Rabbi Greenberg (1), who believes the feast’s importance might have declined because it is full of symbolism, and people have lost their ability to understand this type of language. If this is true, as people become more disillusioned with television, capitalism, and the religion science has become, perhaps they will become more interested in returning to their religious roots and in learning and speaking the language of symbolism again.
In our present world, where so many are disconnected from nature, some Jews find significance in the festival by attempting to reconnect with God’s natural world. It is difiicult to appreciate the joy of nature in this world, when people do all they can to avoid or control it.
“That’s the beauty of the Jewish holiday Sukkot. It reminds us of our dependence on God’s gift of Creation. Of the earth. The land and the seas. The light bearers of the sky we know as the sun and moon. The birds and animals and insects. And us: the humans God invited to share this planet and God’s universe”.
(Nancy Reuben Greenfield, 2)
Living in booths puts people outside, at the mercy of the elements, in a structure made completely from the materials of nature.
Despite the technology of our time and the progress which has been made, Sukkot is an annual reminder of the fragility of life and the vulnerability of human life.
“In a world that is increasingly removed from nature, celebrating festivals like Sukkot gives us a grounding in the natural world, in God’s world” (Abramowitz, 3)
Ellen Bernstein (4), in a very contemporary interpretation, focuses on the “natural” aspect of Sukkot more than on any other of its characteristics. “Sukkot is undeniably the earth’s holiday and the time to remember that the true meaning of home is ‘earth.’ Sukkot – as harvest holiday – first teaches that life is intimately tied to the cycle of nature. The holiday assumes that we are ecologists, that we know the species and habitat of our home, and that we participate in the life of our ecosystem”.
She adds that the sukka could even be used as a symbol for an environmental organization, as the booth teaches those who live in it that earth is their true home, and that only God above can give them true protection. The sukka teaches also that the simple pleasures in life are those which bring the most joy.
Happy Sukkot/’Chat Sameach!’
(1) Greenberg, Rabbi Irving. Ihe Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. New York: Summit Books, 1988.
(2) Greenfield, Nancy Reuben. “Sukkot: Time to Give I’hanks for Nature’s Bounty.”http://shamash.org/Jll/article/givethanks.html, 1997.
(3) Abramowitz, Yosef I. and Rabbi Susan Silverman. “Dwelling in Huts for Sukkot.” http://shamash.org/jfl/article/dwellhuts.html, 1997.
(4) Bernstein, Ellen. Ecology & the Jewish Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet. Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998.