Just last week, from Friday evening through sundown on Saturday, Jews throughout the world observed the Holy Day of Yom Kippur with a 25-hour fast.
We ended our fast Saturday night, in the company of friends and family, in a Break-the-fast meal. But that wasn’t the end of Jewish Holidays for this season.
It is traditional to start building a Sukkah as soon as Yom Kippur ends, in order to celebrate the next holiday that comes five days later. “Sukkot,” the Festival of Booths, runs for seven days.
This year Sukkot started Wednesday evening. A “Sukkah” (plural is “Sukkot”) is a temporary dwelling in which we live and eat during this holiday. A Sukkah is a very flimsy building. It is generally just a structure made of wood, with sides made of cloth or a tarp, and a roof covered with corn stalks or branches of trees. It is decorated to make it pretty—with paper decorations, with fall gourds and flowers.
During the holiday of Sukkot, Jews will eat meals in the Sukkah; some will even sleep out in the Sukkah. You might see the Dickinson College Sukkah next to the Asbell Center on High Street as you go by.
But why do we do this? Sukkot is one of the three “Pilgrimage” festivals called for in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. It was traditional, during Biblical times, when there was a Temple in Jerusalem, for the Jews to make a trip up to Jerusalem three times a year, to participate in the Temple services.
The three Pilgrimage festivals are Passover (March –April), Shavuot (May-June) and Sukkot (September-October). For those who lived outside of Jerusalem in ancient Israel, this required a significant journey. Many people built themselves temporary “booths,” i.e. Sukkot, to stay in during the visit.
Also the Sukkot we build today are supposed to commemorate the flimsy dwellings that the Israelites lived in while wandering in the desert for 40 years after the Exodus. Sukkot is also a harvest festival. It comes as the harvest is being completed, and is an opportunity to give thanks for the bounty of the earth. It is kind of like a traditional Jewish “Thanksgiving” festival.
Many of the Jewish holidays have a special book of the Bible that is read on that day. For example, the book of Esther is read on Purim. The book of Ruth is read on Shavuot. For Sukkot, the Book of Ecclesiastes is read.
This is one of my favorite books in the Bible, perhaps because I studied it in Hebrew in college. I just loved the beautiful Hebrew poetry, and I also loved the message of the book. Ecclesiastes can seem very pessimistic, since it says that “all is vanity.” Yet, for me, this book is a realistic look at life, and it emphasizes the message that we must all live in the present, and enjoy the gifts God gives us each day.
During Sukkot, we have a lovely tradition called the 4 Species, or the Lulav and Etrog. The Lulav is a collection of three branches—Palm, Myrtle and Willow—that are combined in a palm-leaf “holder.” The Etrog is a beautiful smelling, bright yellow Citron. It looks like a large lemon, but smells much better.
These four species are a symbol of the bounty of the earth. It is traditional to say a blessing over the four species and to shake them. This is called “benching” the Lulav. One holds the Lulav and Etrog in one’s hands and says the blessing “Blessed are You Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us by Your Commandments and commanded us to wave the Lulav.” We then, while facing east, shake the Lulav in front of ourselves (to the east), then to the south, then to the north, then to the west then up and down.
At the end of Sukkot, on the seventh day, we celebrate Hoshanah Rabbah, this year on Oct. 11. Hoshanah Rabbah is the day on which God seals the Book of Judgment on how much water will be available on earth. This is a good time for us to think about our relationship to water, which is essential to all life.
As we have learned this summer, water can be a blessing and a curse. While the northern and western states have suffered from droughts and horrible wildfires this year, Texas and Florida, along with most of the Caribbean islands, have suffered from massive flooding from hurricanes. We hope and pray that we will take better care of the earth in the year to come, so that there will be fewer such disasters.
Shemini Atzeret, which means the Eighth Day of Assembly, comes the next day, Oct. 12 .This is when we start the yearly “Geshem” prayers for Rain in the Land of Israel. During our daily prayers, we include the prayer “Bring the wind and cause the rain to fall.” This prayer will be said until Passover.
Finally, comes Simchat Torah on Oct. 13. Simchat Torah means “Rejoicing in the Torah.” It is a fun holiday, in which we actually take out the Torah scrolls in the evening and dance around with them. Children will carry flags and wave them around. It is traditional to lead the congregation in dancing circuits, called “hakafot.”
One of the most important events on Simchat Torah is the end of the yearly cycle of the Torah readings and the beginning the cycle all over again. We will finish the last part of the book of Deuteronomy, and then immediately begin with the first part of Genesis.
We wish you all a very good New Year, a good harvest and a sweet change of seasons.