Five days after Yom Kippur Jews across the world begin the celebration of Sukkot. This year it begins at sundown Sunday 9/23. Sukkot is one of the three most important Jewish festivals (the other two are Passover and Shavuot). I know what some of you are thinking, and the answer is no, Chanukah is a very minor holiday. The three “biggie” festivals are the only holidays ordained by God in the Torah. During biblical times the Children of Israel would come to Jerusalem from all over the holy land to celebrate those three festivals. Sukkot must have been a rough one for the Jews who lived far from Jerusalem because they were required to be at the holy temple for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot for more than three weeks.
The other holidays we celebrated Chanukah, Purim, Yom HaShoah, and my birthday were either created by Rabbis, other great leaders or as in the case of my birthday by a blogger looking for attention.
Note: Thre is one man-made holiday does reach the level of the “biggies,” my wedding anniversary. It reaches that level so I won’t be killed in my sleep and because of a Jewish tradition called שלום הבית “Shalom HaBayit,” peace in the home.
The celebration of Sukkot is commanded in chapter 24, verse 34 in the third book of the Torah; Vayikra (known by Gentiles as Leviticus). Jews call each book of the Torah by the first words in the book. In the case of the third book, it’s Vayikra, which means ‘And He called.” The “He” is the big guy upstairs. Anyway that verse says
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Speak to the children of Israel, saying: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month, is the Festival of Sukkot, a seven day period to the Lord.
Oh wait, I forgot to tell you. Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year is the first day of Tishrei, the Seventh month in the Jewish calendar (when God created the universe). In the Jewish tradition, there are four New Years every year.
Along with Rosh HaShana are:
- The 15th of Shevat also known as Tu B’Shevat–it is the new year for trees. In the Torah, it says we are not to eat a tree’s fruit until it is three years or three Tu B’Shevat’s old
- The first of Nisan (which is the first month of the year). Passover is 15 days later. It is said seventy individuals went into Egypt to become slaves and we came out as one people. Nisan celebrates becoming one people, that unification earned our redemption from Egypt. The first of Nisan is also a reminder to start adding fiber to our diet because all that matzoh we are about to eat eight days of Matzoh two weeks later during Passover, which is the equivalent of pouring cement into our large intestines.
- The last new year, the first of Elul is the New Year for the tithing of cattle. The tithe for cattle had to be made from cattle born in the same fiscal year, between the first of Elul one year and the next.
Back to Sukkot– part of the holiday observance is to create a flimsy “structure” with a semi-see-through roof–the roof must be built from something that grows in the ground. The structure is called a Sukkah. My friend Eddie built his Sukkah from scratch using raw materials. He is what’s known in Hebrew as שוויצר which translates as “freaking show-off.” As for me, I put together a pre-fabricated Sukkah which doesn’t save my fingers from injury.
During Sukkot we eat, entertain, and some even sleep in this structure. Personally, my favorite part of the holiday is inviting over friends and hanging out in the Sukkah, It seems less pressured than when they come into the house and hang out because if we drop something, it doesn’t matter we are outside.
The holiday reminds us of the life of the ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years living in structures like this (and arguing over whether or not Moses should stop at a gas station to ask for directions). More importantly, existing in this kind of flimsy structure, reminds us of the frailty and transience of life and in the end, our necessary dependence on God to protect us.
Sukkot has a lot of great meanings, perhaps the best one for today’s world is the fact that it is the Holiday when we pray for the rest of the world. And whatever your religion or political affiliation, I am sure that you will agree that the world needs it!
In Biblical times, the High Priest used to make 70 sacrifices during Sukkot, representing a prayer for each of the nations of the world. (I would imagine that the five days before Sukkot was a period of prayer for the 70 cows about to be sacrificed).
By the way, do you want to know how many Jews light our Sukkahs? You ever go into Walmart in mid-January and see the store is selling Christmas lights for $1.99 a case? Well, the guy you see in the parking lot wheeling the extra-large shopping cart full of cases of Christmas lights is probably a Jew who bought them to light his Sukkah. So I guess some can say Sukkot is the Jewish holiday with the “Christmas Spirit.”
Sukkot is a happy holiday it is referred to in Hebrew as Yom Simchateinu (the day of our rejoicing) or Z’man Simchateinu (the time of our rejoicing). The reason for our happiness has nothing to do with the fact that we are allowed to eat (after Yom Kippur) or that we put down our hand tools without any significant damage to our bodies (possibly).
BTW some historians believe that initial Thanksgiving was modeled after Sukkot.
From building the Sukkah, “living in it’ for a week, to tearing it down, Sukkot is a fun and Joyous time which we share with family and friends both Jewish and Gentle. We also invite ancient Jewish figures into our Sukkah, one different every night. These figures are called Ushpizin (righteous guests) and include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Now if you are cooking for your own Sukkah, I wouldn’t worry, these guys don’t eat or drink that much. I suspect the prophet Elijah doesn’t show up because he is still tipsy from the wine he had on Passover.
Oh and the reason the five days after Yom Kippur is the most dangerous period in the Jewish calendar? It’s an interesting story. Jews do not start preparing for any holiday before the previous one has ended. It’s not a superstition thing, it’s that we need focus all of our attention on the holiday at hand before we can move on to the next. This is doubly important when the holiday before is Yom Kippur when we are praying extra hard to make a personal connection with God.
On the five days after Yom Kippur Jews all across the world, start building their Sukkahs. The problem is that most Jews aren’t great with tools. And for many of us (like yours truly), the last time we picked up a tool or stepped on a ladder was when we took down the Sukkah a year ago. So you can probably have a belly laugh if you peek out your window and observe your Jewish neighbor building their Sukkah–it is the construction equivalent of the Keystone Kops. Well except for my friend Eddie the Sukkah show-off.
The once-a-year use of tools, ladders, etc., is why the five day period is the most dangerous days on the Jewish calendar (it may also be the day where you hear a frustrated Jewish neighbor cursing in some ancient tongue that even they didn’t know they could speak). It is also the time when most young Jewish children learn their curse words.
There’s one more important part of the Sukkot celebration, the Lulav, and the Etrog, they also known as the four species. The lulav is a palm branch, joined with myrtle and willow branches, and the etrog is citron fruit, which looks like a lemon that suffers from boils. The four species are held and waved during various parts of the synagogue service on Sukkot.
Sukkot starts Sunday night at sundown. Maybe everyone can join me over the next few days, and pray for the safety of the people in each nation. May they all remain safe and prosperous, may the ones who fight terror remain vigilant, the ones that promote terror reform their ways, and the ones that are on the fence get a backbone.
BTW you don’t have to be Jewish to pray for the world—as Kinky Freedman, the Jewish country music star would say, “Pray to the God of your choice.”
And as we say in the momma loshen (mother tongue-Yiddish). Have a Gut Yuntif (a good holiday)