My dear parents shelled out thousands of dollars for my Jewish education and yet I still don’t know why we celebrate Sukkot (well, after researching for this article, now I do). So if I — a Hebrew school educated Jewess — can’t explain the holiday, then I’m betting most of you lot are in the same boat.
As a public service (and because I really should know this stuff), I took a deep dive into Sukkot so I can fully explain why the heck Jews wine and dine in huts for seven days in the middle of fall.
Ready or not, let’s jump in!
When is Sukkot?
This year, the first day of Sukkot begins on October 14 — five days after Yom Kippur — and ends seven days later on the 20th. The agricultural holiday has a ton of nicknames, like “Festival of Tabernacles” and the “Feast of Booths,” and it’s one of the three pilgrimage festivals we celebrate during the Jewish year.
What the heck is a pilgrimage festival? Technically it’s a major holiday mentioned in the Torah, but basically it’s God’s birthday party. In Deuteronomy 16:16, God commands the Israelites to return to the Temple in Jerusalem (re: “pilgrimage”), and they all have to bring a gift. It’s a BYOS situation — bring your own sacrifice.
Why do still we celebrate it?
Okay, but why do we celebrate Sukkot now? What does it actually commemorate??
It serves as yet another reminder that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, but mostly that God made them (us) live in huts for 40 years while they (we) wandered in the desert. I swear, it really says that in the Torah — Leviticus 23:43, to be exact. Side note: Before the torah reinterpreted Sukkot as a pilgrimage festival, it was actually a harvest festival, sort of like Thanksgiving.
And so, to remember those 40 years that our ancestors lived in “booths,” we get to build our own sukkah and spend time in it for a week! It’s kind of like an adult fort, except instead of pillows we use (at least) three walls and a roof made out of branches or thatch with just enough room to gaze at the stars at night, just like our ancestors did! For the week of Sukkot we’re supposed to spend as much time in the DIY hut as possible: eat all your meals, snacks, and even sleep in the sukkah if you want!
What about those weird things we shake?
But what about those leaves and lemon-looking things, you ask? Great question! Throughout the holiday synagogue services, we shake four species of plants that represent parts of the user’s body: the etrog, a citron fruit, and the lulav, a palm branch, with myrtle and willow branches. The etrog represents the heart, the lulav is the spine, the myrtle is the eyes, and the willow is the lips. Cute!
How does it relate to the other High Holidays?
Here comes the most interesting thing I learned during my Sukkot investigation: Most people think Yom Kippur is the final day to atone for our sins from the past year, but apparently there’s a little leeway. On the last day of Sukkot, AKA Hoshana Rabbah, God judges the Jewish community on whether they deserve seasonal rain (remember, this is partly a harvest festival). Rabbis considered this to be like a mini Yom Kippur, because even though as individuals, our fates are sealed in the Book of Life/Death on Yom Kippur, there’s still room to prove to God as a society that we’re worthy of flourishing. In synagogue, congregants walk around the room shaking the lulav and etrog seven times as opposed to just once on the other days of the holiday.
So, there you have it! In sum: Sukkot is a joyous harvest festival holiday that serves as a reminder of that time our ancestors wandered in the desert for 40 years and lived in temporary huts. Enjoy!