Wednesday, October 12, 2011


A Backyard Sukkah Readied for the Feast of Sukkoth
Hello My Fiend and Welcome.
In the Jewish calendar of Feasts and Festivals, we are currently celebrating Sukkoth. Since the Jewish year began just a short while ago with Rosh Hashanah, this seemed like an opportune time to begin our series on the major Feasts and Festivals of Judaism.
The Festival of Sukkoth begins on Tishri 15, the fifth day after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is quite a drastic transition, from one of the most solemn holidays of the year to one of the most joyous. Sukkoth is so unreservedly joyful that it is commonly referred to in Jewish prayer and literature as Z'man Simchateinu , the Season of our Rejoicing. There is a short chapter in my novel WITNESS, in which Shemu’el and Atticus celebrate in the Sukkah of some friends. If you are interested, you can read that chapter here.

Sukkoth is the last of the Shalosh R'galim (the three pilgrimage festivals). Like Pesach, or Passover, and Shavu'ot, Sukkoth has both historical and agricultural significance. Historically, Sukkoth commemorates the forty-year period which the children of Israel spent wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Agriculturally, Sukkoth is a harvest festival and is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering.

The word Sukkoth means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings that Jews are commanded to live in during this holiday in memory of their period of wandering. The name of the holiday is frequently translated “Feast of Tabernacles,” which, like many translations of Jewish terms, isn't very useful. This translation is particularly misleading, because the word “Tabernacle” in the Bible refers to the portable Sanctuary in the desert, a precursor to the Temple. The Hebrew word sukkah (plural: Sukkoth) refers to the temporary tent-like booths that people lived in, not to the Tabernacle.
Sukkahs on the Balconies of Apartments in Israel
Sukkoth lasts for seven days. The two days following the festival, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, are separate holidays but are related to Sukkoth and are commonly thought of as part of Sukkoth. The festival of Sukkoth is instituted in Leviticus 23:33. No work is permitted on the first and second days of the holiday. The intermediate days on which work is permitted are referred to as Chol HaMo'ed, as are the intermediate days of Passover.
In Leviticus 23:40, which comes directly after a discussion of Sukkoth, the Torah tells us: “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days.”
The Cirton or Etrog
From this text emerged the Four Species: a citron, a palm branch, three myrtle twigs and two willow branches. During Sukkoth the four species are brought together in the form of an etrog and the lulav. The etrog is a kind of citron, while the lulav is a composed of the three myrtle twigs (hadassim), two willow twigs (aravot) and a palm frond (lulav). Because the palm frond is the largest of these plants, the myrtle and willow are wrapped around it. The Four Species are waved together as part of the synagogue service during Sukkoth. They can also be waved at home or near the sukkah.

Leviticus 23:42 commands, “You will dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths.” Building the sukkah can be great fun for children. It satisfies the common childhood fantasy of building a fort, and dwelling in the sukkah fulfills a child's desire to camp out in the backyard. 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, many people sleep in them as well.  
The walls of the sukkah do not have to be solid; canvas covering tied or nailed down is quite common. A sukkah may be any size, so long as it is large enough to fulfill the commandment that a person dwell in it. They are intended to be rustic and the roof of the sukkah is made of material referred to as sekhakh (literally, covering). To fulfill the commandment, sekhakh must be something that grew from the ground and was cut down, such as tree branches, corn stalks, bamboo reeds, or sticks.

Sukkahs come as do-it-yourself kits, or they can be built from scratch. It is a common practice to decorate the sukkah. In the northeastern United States, Jews commonly hang dried squash and corn in the sukkah because these vegetables are readily available around the time of the American holidays of Halloween and Thanksgiving. Many families hang artwork drawn by the children on the walls. Building and decorating a sukkah is a fun family project, much like decorating the Christmas tree.

Many Americans, upon seeing a sukkah for the first time, remark on how much the sukkah (and the holiday generally) reminds them of Thanksgiving. This may not be entirely coincidental. There is a tradition that the American pilgrims who originated the Thanksgiving holiday borrowed the idea from Sukkoth. It goes something like this: The pilgrims were deeply religious people. When they were trying to find a way to express their thanks for their survival and for the harvest, they looked to the Bible for an appropriate way of celebrating and found Sukkoth.

This, of course, is not the standard story taught in schools today, but the Sukkoth explanation of Thanksgiving fits well with the meticulous research of Mayflower historian Caleb Johnson. He believes that the original Thanksgiving was a harvest festival (as is Sukkoth), that it was observed in October (as Sukkoth usually is), and that Pilgrims would not have celebrated a holiday that was not in the Bible. Although Mr. Johnson claims that the first Thanksgiving was “not a religious holiday or observance,” he apparently means this in a traditional Christian sense. He goes on to say that the first Thanksgiving was instead “a harvest festival that included feasts, sporting events, and other activities.” All of these concepts are very much in keeping with the Jewish observance of Sukkoth.

In modern Judaism, the Book of Qoheleth is read during the Feast of Sukkoth. It is known to most Christians as the Book of Ecclesistes...from its Greek name. The main speaker in the book, identified by the name or title, Qoheleth, (usually translated as teacher or preacher), introduces himself as "son of David, king in Jerusalem. Could it be Solomon, perhaps?

The four species are also held and waved during the Hallel prayer in religious services at the Synagogue, and are held during processions around the bimah, the pedestal from which the Torah is read. These processions commemorate similar processions around the altar of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. This part of the service is known as Hoshanot, because while the procession is made, a prayer is recited with the refrain, “Hoshanah!” (Please save us!). On the seventh day of Sukkoth, seven circuits are made. For this reason, the seventh day of Sukkoth is known as Hoshanah Rabbah or the great Hoshanah.
After the circuits on Hoshanah Rabbah, they beat the willow branches against the floor five times, shaking loose some or all of the remaining leaves. A number of explanations are offered for this unusual practice, but the primary reason seems to be agricultural. The rainy season in Israel begins in the fall, and the leaves falling from the willow branch symbolize the desire for beneficial rainfall.
Most Christians immediately recognize the phrase Hoshanah. How did it move from Jewish usage to Christian usage? Certainly part of the answer lies in Christianity’s Jewish roots. Hosanna was an exclamation of joy and triumph. Like all acclamations in frequent use, it lost its primary meaning and became a kind of hurrah of joy, triumph, and exultation. The Gospels seem to indicate that it was in this manner that it was uttered by the crowd on Palm Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donley. It was with this indefinite meaning that the word hosanna passed into the liturgies of the Early Church, a position it has retained ever since. Hosanna is found in some of the Church’s earliest documents such as the Didache and the Apostolic Constitutions.

Until the next time, We wish you Peace and Blessings.

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