The Festival of Sukkot

If you’re currently visiting Israel or planning to visit there in the future, knowing all about the Jewish holidays and customs can be a rewarding experience. It allows you to understand how Israelite Jews cherish and value these enduring traditions, a big part of why Israel is such a unique and beautiful country.

The Jewish people in Israel celebrate their own holidays by upholding these age-old traditions that are meant to strengthen their faith and preserve their unique culture. One of these holidays is Sukkot, a biblical Jewish holiday that begins on the 15th day and ends on the 21st day (or 22nd day among the Jewish diaspora outside of Israel) of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. Or on the more familiar Gregorian calendar, Sukkot falls in September or October in varying dates. It is a week-long holiday that comes five days after Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

Sukkot is also one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals, alongside Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot. The Three Pilgrimage Festivals (shalosh regalim in Hebrew) are the three major festivals in Judaism. They were established when ancient Israelites living in the Kingdom of Judah would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, as commanded by the Torah. In Jerusalem, the pilgrims would join in the festivities and ritual worship, together with the services held by kohanim (priests) at the Temple.

The double significance of Sukkot

The Hebrew word sukkot is a plural form of sukka, which means “booth,” “hut,” “shelter,” or “tabernacle”. Thus, Sukkot is also called as the Feast of Tabernacle or Festival of Shelters (Hag HaSukot), which recalls the Israelites’ years of wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt (Leviticus 23:34). During this difficult sojourn, they constructed portable huts as dwellings.

Sukkot is also known as the Feast of Ingathering (Hag HaAsif), as it celebrates the gathering of the harvest and commemorates God’s miraculous protection that He provided for the Hebrews as they fled Egypt (Exodus 23:16).

sukkot decorations
Decorations on the ceiling inside a sukka

Observance of Sukkot

The first day of Sukkot (second day for the Jews outside Israel) is a Shabbat-like holiday where work is forbidden. In the evening, people light candles. Festive meals are preceded by Kiddush (a prayer and blessing recited over a cup of wine). Unlike other Jewish holidays, Sukkot has no traditional or symbolical dishes. Instead, people get to enjoy a variety of foods – fish, chicken, meat, salads, challah bread dipped in honey, fruits, various sweets, and a lot more.

The following intermediate days are known as Chol Hamoed. These days are considered “quasi-holidays”: a bit more than regular days but less than festive days. Any work required for the preparation of the holiday (such as buying, preparing, and cooking food, and cleaning the house for the visitors, etc.) is permitted. Entertaining guests, traveling or visiting other people’s sukkot or on family outings is also allowed. However, activities that will interfere the relaxation and enjoyment of the holiday, as well as labor-intensive activities, are not allowed. Observant Jews see Chol Hamoed as an enjoyable vacation period. In an effort to foster goodwill and community, many synagogues and other Jewish centers offer meals and host events to the faithful.

If the Shabbat falls during the week of Sukkot, the Book of Ecclesiastes is read in the morning at synagogues in Israel.

There is a separate — but related — festival that follows immediately after Sukkot. It is called Shemini Atzeret, which literally means “the eighth day of assembly.” On Shemini Atzeret, people leave their sukkot and eat meals at their homes. Another significance of Shemini Atzeret is the Simchat Torah, which celebrates and marks the end of the annual cycle of public Torah readings as well as the beginning of the new cycle.

the four holy species in sukkot

On each day of the Sukkot (except Shabbat), it is mandatory to perform a waving ceremony called the “Four Species” or the “Four Kinds.” In this ritual, the faithful take the four plants – lulav (palm frond), hadass (myrtle), aravah (willow branch) and etrog (citron fruit). Then they recite a blessing over them, bring them together and wave them in all six directions: right, left, forward, up, down and backward. According to Talmudic sages, the Four Species symbolize the desire to unite the four various “types” of Jews in service of God, with each plant representing every person’s attitude towards the Torah and good deeds.