The Jews are a people who are very much aware of their cultural heritage. Our customs and traditions are what defines us and what brings us together, and we like to celebrate or commemorate these by observing holidays throughout the year.
There are quite a lot of holidays in a Jewish year, but all can be divided into 2 general categories: Major holidays and Minor holidays. In most Hebrew calendars, it is divided into 6 categories, more specifically: Major holidays, Minor holidays, Public fasts, Modern holidays, Special Shabbatot and Rosh Chodesh. On some holidays, usually a major one, an observant Jew is expected not to do any work. Work is allowed on all other holidays.
Sukkot, or The Feast Of The Tabernacles, is considered a major holiday. Here are some enlightening facts about Sukkot and the Sukkah.
Sukkot is also called The Feast Of Booths and is celebrated every 15th of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which falls around late September to late October. It is one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (Shalosh Regalim) which were required of the Jews, but the actual pilgrimage is no longer obligatory as of modern times.
Sukkah is the singular form of the word Sukkot. It is a kind of hut or tent which is built to honor the commandment in Leviticus 23:42 which says
“You will dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths.”
The sukkah must be constructed with at least two and a half walls and a roof called s’chach, which should be put on last. Jews eat meals and stay for as long as possible in sukkahs in observance of Sukkot, which lasts for seven days. No work is allowed on the first and second days.
S’chach is the material used to build a roof on the sukkah. It has to be made from something that was grown and cut off from the ground, which is why organic materials such as palm leaves, pine tree branches or bamboo reeds are often used. The s’chach is loosely built that the people inside can see through it, but should not be loose enough that light from the outside overcomes shade.
People cannot stay in the sukkah if the s’chach needs to be covered to protect the inside from the elements (ex. rain or snow).
Since Sukkot has been transformed into a joyous holiday and is also known as a harvest festival, observance involving agricultural produce is also carried out, specifically the Arba Minim or Four Species. The commandment where this is taken can be found in Leviticus 23:40, which states
“On the first day, you will take for yourselves a fruit of a beautiful tree, palm branches, twigs of a braided tree and brook willows, and you will rejoice before the L-RD your G-d for seven days.”
The Days of Sukkot
Sukkot is a biblical holiday which lasts for seven days, and eight in the diaspora, or Jewish communities outside Israel. Following the solemn observance of Yom Kippur, the festivities of Sukkot provide a nice change of mood which encourages Jews to go out, relax, be with friends and family, and just be happy.
The days of Sukkot, however, are not to be passed idly by, nor selfishly on one’s whim. It is largely spent by doing activities such as prayer services and rituals, but there are also days set aside for rest, preparation and jubilation, which then culminates in a final day of worship in order to fulfill the mitzvot. This progression is akin to the agrarian cycle of planting to harvesting, and is rightfully so since Sukkot is considered to be a harvest festival.
Because of it’s adherence to the natural order of things, it is easy to see why the prophet Zechariah thought Sukkot to be a universal festival for which all nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem to celebrate. (Zech. 14:16-19)
The First Day
A full festival celebrated with meals and prayer services marks the first day of Sukkot. It is also yom tov where melacha is forbidden. What constitutes melacha can be the subject of lengthy discussion but broadly speaking, one should not do work on this day. The festivities are continued until the second day in the diaspora.
The remaining days of Sukkot are considered Chol HaMoed, which literally translates to “festival weekdays”. It is not yom tov but any work that can interfere with relaxation is prohibited. Most Jews take this opportunity to go on vacation, prepare special meals and do permitted holiday activities, all without neglecting mitzvot. In the diaspora, Chol HaMoed starts on the third day instead of the second.
Simchat Beit Hashoeivah is a celebration which commemorates the Water Libation Ceremony and is held in synagogues on most nights of Sukkot. It is a joyous event filled with music, dancing and refreshments.
The “Great Supplication”, “Great Hoshana” or Hoshana Rabbah, is held on the seventh day of Sukkot. While it is still part of Chol HaMoed, it is also yom tov. The day is highlighted by a special synagogue service of the same name, where Hoshanot is recited while worshippers make seven circuits with their Arba Minim, also known as the Four Species. The branches are then beaten against the ground until the leaves come off. This is said to symbolize the elimination of sin.
The customs and rituals of Sukkot
Customs and rituals are inextricably intertwined with Jewish life, and Sukkot is no different. Here are the mitzvot or commandments that Jews observe within the duration of the holiday.
- Eating meals, staying and sleeping in the sukkah
- Blessing of the lulav and etrog.
- Reading of the Tehilim or Psalms on the night before Hoshana Rabbah
- Reciting the hoshanot and taking the Arba Minim in a circuit around the synagogue once daily, and seven times on Hoshana Rabbah
What are the Four Species?
lulav - A palm branch. It is said to symbolize the Jew who reads the Torah but does not carry out good deeds, since the lulav has a taste but no smell.
hadassim - Three myrtle branches which symbolizes a Jew who does good deeds but doesn’t bother to read the Torah, because it is fragrant, but does not have taste.
aravot - Two willow branches that is said to have no taste and smell. This symbolizes the Jew who does not read the Torah, nor does good deeds.
etrog - A type of citron native to Israel. The etrog, both fragrant and tasteful, symbolizing the Jew who studies the Torah and does good deeds.
The six branches are tied together and is collectively called “the lulav”. Together with with the etrog, the two are waved or shaken during prayer in services which are done daily throughout the holiday. An etrog that is to be used in the ritual should be perfect and flawless.
It is interesting to know that there is also an interpretation in which the Four Species are thought to represent parts of the human body, where the lulav represents the spine, the hadass the eyes, the aravah the mouth and the etrog, the heart. The interpretation says that the parts of our bodies should be joined together and used to fulfill the mitzvot or commandments, to avoid being used for sin.
Getting Intimate With Your Arba Minim
But before we do, let us ask:
“What exactly is Arba Minim?”
Well, Arba Minim literally translates to “Four Species” or the four plants central to the celebration of Sukkot. It is a mitzvah which can be found in Leviticus 23:40.
The “Do’s” and “Don’t” of mitzvot can be quite complex, but good Jews need to be able to follow this down to the smallest detail.
What are the Four Species?
Although this is practically common knowledge to almost all Jews, it is interesting to know that Leviticus 23:40 mentions:
- the fruit of splendid trees - ets hadar
- the branches of palm trees - tamar
- the boughs of (thick) leafy trees - ets avoth
- … and willows of the brook - aravah
...which tradition has narrowed down. Today, these four correspond to the etrog, lulav, hadass, and aravah.
Why you should know the Four Species inside and out
It is often thought that the Four Species symbolize the four kinds of Jews:
- aravah - the Jew who does not learn the Torah and does not do good deeds.
- lulav - the Jew who learns the Torah, but does not do good deeds.
- hadass - the Jew who does good deeds, but does not learn the Torah.
- etrog - the good Jew who learns the Torah and does good deeds.
Aside from this, it is also said that each one represents a part of the body, partly because of the similarity in form: lulav - the spine, hadass - the eye, aravah - the mouth, and etrog - the heart. The branches have to be bound together and held with the etrog during the ceremony.
Based on these interpretations, it is easy to look at the Four Species as one’s self. If this is so, then isn’t it of great importance to truly know one’s self inside and out?:
The etrog, or esrog is a kind of citron which resembles a lemon with thick and often bumpy skin. There are quite a number of etrog varieties, but the ones that are to be used on Sukkot should be exceptionally beautiful. More specifically, the esrog should fulfill the following criteria:
- It has to be at least the size of a hen’s egg. Ideally, one should be able to hold it in one hand; anything larger is often less desirable but still kosher.
- It must not be completely round. Bent or slanted ones are still kosher but those symmetrically proportioned along the length are more desirable. Popular shapes are the pyramid, the barrel and the ones with a gartel, which is a narrowing of the circumference at the middle, making for a nice hourglass shape.
- It must not be blemished, or must have very minimal marks or blemishes.
- The pitam, pitom or the style and the stigma found at one end of the fruit must not be completely broken off. If only the stigma has been broken off, it is still kosher, but the most desirable ones have the whole pitam preserved.
- The etrog must be rabbinically certified. This ensures that the tree from which the fruit came is a purebred.
- The skin of the etrog must not be pierced or damaged in any way.
- The stem must not be completely removed.
The hadass or hadassim is a branch from the myrtle tree whose leaves grow in tiers of three. This tripled pattern of leaves is called meshulash, and the branches which are to be used in the lulav should ideally follow this pattern from top to bottom. If the top 4¼ inches of the branch is perfectly meshulash, it is still kosher.
It might be confusing to know that the frond of the date palm tree and the bound branches of the Four Species used in the ceremony are both called lulav, but this branch is pretty easy to recognize from the others since it barely resembles a leaf at all.
In order to be kosher, a lulav must be straight and not bent at the top. The whole leaves should be close together and the t’yomet - the central leaf extending from the spine, should not be divided “more than a handbreadth”, which is around 3 - 4 inches.
The aravah is a branch from the willow tree which can be found near rivers, since it requires a lot of water, but can commonly be found almost anywhere in Israel. It also has a special role in Hoshana Rabbah, where five of these branches are beaten on the ground until the leaves come off.This is said to symbolize the casting off of sin from oneself.
Since these branches are quite long, they are often trimmed to fit the lulav. However, the branches have to be cut from the bottom and not from the top, and the leaves must not be allowed to fall off or dry up.
A couple more things to keep in mind...
- Make sure to purchase your Four Species or lulav set from a reputable source, preferably your rabbi. This is to ensure that everything is untainted and rabbinically certified.
- Not only the etrog, but the whole lulav set should be aesthetically pleasing. The more beautiful it is, the better.
How to use the lulav and etrog
The lulav and etrog are “waved” in rejoicing and is pointed in several directions to symbolize that G-d is everywhere. To properly wave and shake the two, take the lulav in your right hand and the etrog in your left. The green stem of the etrog should point upwards while reciting the blessing, and downwards after reciting the blessing. The lulav and etrog should be shaken in the following directions:
- East, pointing forward
- South, to the right
- West, to the back
- North, to the left
The Venerated 7 Ushpizin of Sukkot
You have your sukkah built properly for Sukkot. It’s well-decorated, cozy and looks great. You’re ready to stay in it, eat meals, sleep, relax and whatnot, but is that all there is to do in a sukkah?
Sukkot is a very festive and celebratory holiday, and while the sukkah can symbolize a great number of things, we like to think of it primarily as a temporary shelter where we can welcome guests to rejoice with us, and in Sukkot, there are no guests more anticipated than the 7 Ushpizin.
Ushpizin is Aramaic for “guests” and during Sukkot, it is customary, and in fact, a mitzvah to practice hospitality (hakhnasat orekhim). Not only do we receive people around us, but also people from the past. So from this, we should understand that the sukkah is a place where we invite “7 exalted guests”, with each one leading the other six for each day of Sukkot.
Traditionally, the 7 guests or 7 Ushpizin are the Seven Holy Leaders of Judaism. Each of them is thought to correspond to a particular spiritual attribute we should seek to manifest. They are:
- Abraham - love and kindness
- Isaac - restraint and personal strength
- Jacob - beauty and truth
- Moses - eternality and dominance through Torah
- Aaron - empathy and receptivity to divine splendor
- Joseph - holiness and the spiritual foundation
- David - the establishment of the kingdom of Heaven on Earth
The dwellers should recite the Seder Ushpizin/Ushpizata to fulfill the mitzvah of welcoming the ushpizin into the sukkah. A more modern version of the 7 Ushpizin replaces the seven “shepherds of Israel” with seven great women of the Bible, namely Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Ruth and Tamar, although the list can vary.
Showing the spirit of goodwill of Sukkot, some people even invite seven guests from other faiths.
Symbolism and meanings
It can be said that there are varying depths of understanding of the 7 Ushpizin, with some taking it figuratively, others a bit more literally. Here are a couple of interesting things to help us understand more about it.
From the way the sukkah is constructed according to the mitzvah, we can see that it is meant to be a temporary shelter, perhaps to remind us of uprootedness; that the Jews were once a wandering people, and perhaps are even up to today.
The “Seven Shepherds” also had their fair share of “uprootedness” as seen in the Bible.
- Abraham left his father’s home for the land God promised to show him - Genesis 12:1
- Isaac went to Gerar during a famine - Genesis 26:1;
- Jacob fled from his brother Esau to the habitat of Laban - Genesis 28:2
- Joseph was sold to merchants and taken to Egypt - Genesis 37:23-36
- Moses fled to Midian after inadvertently killing an Egyptian - Exodus 2:11-15
- Aaron (along with Moses) wandered the Sinai for 40 years - [beginning with
Exodus 13]; and
- David hid from Saul in the wilderness - Samuel 20, 21
The sukkah is so intensely symbolic that it is even believed to possess spiritual energy so great that it actually channels the divine presence of the Seven Great Leaders from the Garden Of Eden itself, according to the Zohar. Because of this, it is customary for some Jews to recite a prayer inviting the souls of the 7 Ushpizin when entering the sukkah for the first time.
The Generosity of Sukkot
Mystical as the symbolisms may be, the clear message that the sukkah, Sukkot and Judaism in general wishes to impart with us is that doing good deeds matter, as is beautifully summed up in this quote:
"when he eats and drinks, he has to feed the stranger, the orphan, and widow together with the other poor and unfortunate people. However he who locks the gates of his courtyard and sits down to feast with his wife and children but does not provide food for the poor and embittered of spirit -- such is not the rejoicing of Mitzvah; it is the rejoicing of one's own stomach!" - Laws of Yom Tov [6:18]
Welcoming people into your “sukkah” can be as simple as taking time out to feed the poor and homeless, teaching young ones good values, even making new friends or mending relationships by inviting them over to celebrate Sukkot with you.
Is Your Sukkah Kosher?
There’s practically no pause in between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and in this uninterrupted transition, we may sometimes find it difficult to build ourselves a sukkah.
Nowadays, ready-to-build sukkahs can conveniently be purchased online. These are usually delivered and can easily be erected right after the departure of Yom Kippur, just in time for Sukkot, but if you are feeling rather confident and are well aware of the laws that make a sukkah ‘kosher’, then you can certainly build your very own from scratch. After all, it is said that “one who toils and sweats in building a sukkah shall receive atonement for his sins”.
When exactly can you build the sukkah?
Ideally, you would want to build it right before Yom Kippur, since there isn’t a lot of time right before Sukkot, but the schach should be placed only after Yom Kippur.
If the sukkah has not yet been built, or was torn down, it can be rebuilt on Chol HaMoed in order to fulfill the mitzvah, but the work should not be laborious. One can also build on erev Shabbat or erev Yom Tov, but only until mincha ketanah, or two and a half hours before sunset. These practices, however, should generally be avoided since one should take time in building a sukkah, and itshould not only be sturdy, but also beautiful.
Where to build the sukkah
The sukkah is often looked at as a temporary dwelling place much like the ones the Jews used while wandering the desert as mentioned in the Bible. Therefore, is only fitting that they be constructed under the sky with very little to no obstructions in between. Even the schach should be loose enough that the dweller sees a bit of the sky. A sukkah does not require a mezuzah.
In some special cases where obstructions cannot be avoided, the minimum dimensions and walls which make the sukkah ‘kosher’ should be under the sky. Those in it should only eat under these areas, but it is always advisable to consult with a rabbi whenever you are unsure. The obstruction should also not touch or get entangled with the schach.
Given these conditions, you can build the sukkah just about anywhere under the open sky, but it is best to build it on a lot that you own, or one that you have permission to use. Anything stolen, or used without the permission of the owner is never ‘kosher’.
You can build your sukkah on grass, but since activities will be held inside it- meals in particular- make sure to cover the ground with suitable flooring, since it is forbidden to clean the floor on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
How big should the sukkah be
The sukkah should be at least seven by seven by eight tefachim (handbreadths), although Biblical and Talmudic values do not correspond exactly to modern units of measurement. A tefach is around 8 to 9.6 cm, which makes our measurement approximately 70x70x80 cm.
The sukkah can be much larger than this, but the schach must not be placed higher than 20 amot. An “amah” or a cubit is around 48 to 57.5 cm.
How should the sukkah be constructed
The more beautiful and unique the sukkah is, the better, but it must satisfy several requirements for it to qualify as kosher.
Walls - Nowadays, a sukkah is typically made with four complete walls. This is most preferable, but a sukkah with two or three complete walls, or three or four incomplete walls is still acceptable. It goes without saying that if your sukkah is missing one wall more than prescribed, it is immediately considered non-kosher.
Any sturdy material will do including an adjoining wall, as long as it is not higher than 30 ft. or lower than 38 in. The walls also need not reach the schach nor the floor, but should be raised more than 24 cm.
If, in unavoidable circumstances, sheets or other similar materials have to be used and need to be tied down, the strings that are to be used should be tied in intervals of less than 24 cm, up to a height of 80 cm.
Schach - Great care should be taken when constructing the schach, which is the roof of the sukkah. After satisfying the requirements of the walls, you are now ready to place the schach on top of it.
To see whether a material is fit to be used as schach for your sukkah, take a look at this checklist:
- Use materials from vegetation, or those which have been grown from the ground.
- Use branches that have been cut from the tree or ground where it had grown.
- Use ones that will not rot or wilt easily, and those with leaves that will not shed excessively into the sukkah.
- Do not use branches which are foul-smelling, or anything that might discourage people from entering the sukkah.
- Use planks of wood and similar materials, provided that they are not wider than 5 cm.
The schach should evenly cover the sukkah in such a way that it provides ample shade, but dwellers can still see a bit of the outside sky. The material should be heavy enough to withstand winds. If it has to be weighed down or tied down, this must be done with material which also qualifies to be used as schach.
It is suggested that wooden beams be used as the primary support for your sukkah. Metal or anything similar can only be used to support the wooden beams, but must not touch the schach.
The Sukkah: Your Home During Sukkot
"Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters." (Leviticus 23:42)
The sukkah is a reminder of a great number of things for us, one of which- possibly the most important- is the miracles and wonders that God performed for the Jews while they were wandering the desert for 40 years. Isn’t it only fitting that we honor this by spending most of our time in our sukkah during Sukkot?
The sukkah is to be treated as one’s home. In most, if not all homes, there are set rules which need to be followed, and the same goes for the sukkah, where there are certain mitzvot which should be observed.
One should also treat his sukkah with the utmost respect, and should make it as beautiful and comfortable as possible so that people, including himself, will be encouraged to stay longer inside it. Mundane and especially unwholesome talk and activities should not be carried out in the sukkah, and while it is praiseworthy to spend a lot of time in the sukkah,there are really only 3 instances where one is obligated to stay in it: on the first night of Sukkot, when taking meals, and when sleeping.
Eating in the sukkah
One should always eat meals in the sukkah, but we will have to define what exactly constitutes “a meal”.
Technically speaking, a piece of bread that is larger than a kebeitza (approximately 58 cc), or one the size of a kezayit (29 cc) which is accompanied by other foods is considered a meal. On the first night of Sukkot however, the bread should preferably be 100 cc large. All four blessings - Kiddush, Shehechiyanu, HaMotzei, and Layshev, should be recited. Silence should be observed until the piece of bread has been eaten.
It is okay to eat snacks in the sukkah, but it is not always an obligation. Since there are different opinions regarding other foods like grain foods, it is best to just consume one’s food in the sukkah.
Meals should be prepared outside the sukkah and taken in only when they are ready to be eaten. Pots, pans and other similar cookware should not be taken in at all. The meal, or any part of the meal, should not be taken outside and then eaten.
After eating, do not leave or wash your dirty dishes in the sukkah.
Sleeping in the sukkah
Sleep, and even short naps, should be always be taken in the sukkah during Sukkot, although one can be exempted if staying in the sukkah causes great discomfort or distress.
Some instances that may cause both can be any of the following:
- Preoccupation with other mitzvot
- Unfavorable or extreme weather
Because of this, we should strive to make the sukkah an adequate place to stay in. If it is cold outside, then we should make the inside of the sukkah warm enough. We should choose the right branches or material for the schach so that the leaves don’t fall on our food, or bring insects into the sukkah. Similarly, we should always take the whole of Sukkot into consideration. If one is traveling for purposes of utmost importance, like work or family, and strictly not for the sake of leisure, then one is exempted from staying and taking meals in a sukkah, although the traveller should also make sure to seek out sukkahs he can go to during his travel.
It should also be noted that one is obligated to stay in the sukkah if the discomfort or distress does not come from the sukkah itself, or won’t be alleviated by leaving the sukkah.
Respecting the sukkah
After all, it is where you receive the 7 Ushpizin, which is why it should rightfully be well-constructed, well-decorated and comfortable.
The sukkah is to be regarded as a holy place, so each and every part of it is to be treated with respect, including the decorations. No part of the sukkah is to be removed for it will violate the sanctity of the sukkah, and the decorations should not be taken out until Sukkot is over, unless they will be spoiled by the elements. Once taken out, they cannot be used in the house or for personal consumption until Sukkot is over.
Furniture, however, can be moved back into the house in preparation for Hoshana Rabbah (Shemini Atzeret in the diaspora) but only from mincha ketana and not earlier.
The sukkah loses its sanctity after Sukkot, but it should be disassembled or disposed of in a respectful manner. It should not be used as a shed for storage anytime before, during or after Sukkot. One must burn it properly if it has to be discarded.