...On the fifteenth day of this seventh month
is the Festival of Sukkot, seven days for the Lord.
The Sukkot celebration begins on the 15th day of Tishri. The word Sukkot is the plural of Sukkah which means “booth” or “hut”. The hut referenced here commemorates the type the Israelites built and lived in during their forty years of wandering in the dessert after their Exodus from Egypt.
In Israel and Reform communities, the holiday is celebrated for the full week with the first day as a celebratory festival. The remaining days are known as Chol HaMoed (festival weekdays) and the seventh day is Hoshanah Rabbah and has its own ceremony.
Shemini Atzeret (the eighth day of assembly) and Simchat Torah are celebrated in the Reform calendar as the eighth day of Sukkot. This entire period is known as Zeman Simkhateinu (the Season of our Rejoicing), as it is a celebratory break after the solemnity of Yom Kippur.
You will dwell in booths for seven days;
all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths.
As decreed, many celebrate Sukkot by eating, entertaining and sleeping in a sukkah. To fulfill the requirement of building and living in a sukkah, the structure must have at least two-and-a-half walls with the roof or sekkakh (covering) made of natural material such as tree branches, corn stalks, sticks, or wood planks. This covering is meant to be loose with enough space that the stars can be seen amongst the material but no more than ten inches open at any point so that it creates more shade than light.
Commonly, the sukkah is decorated with harvest vegetables such as squash and corn but some people use artwork (a bit of WRJ trivia – Flora Rosefsky the artist chosen to display her work in this year’s WRJ calendars has decorated her sukkah with copies of our wall calendar!).
Sukkot is, in part, a harvest festival, and as such, another of the commanded observances is to take four plants: an etrog (a citrus fruit native to Israel); a lulav (palm branch), a hadas (myrtle branch) and an arava (willow branch) and “rejoice before the lord”, saying prayers while holding them, each morning of the holiday as well as during processions around the bimah. These processions which commemorate similar ones made around the alter of the ancient temple, are known as Hoshanahs for the prayer recited during the march, Hosha na (“please save us”). When on the seventh day of Sukkot, the procession makes seven circuits around the bimah, it is known as the Hoshanah Rabbah (the great Hoshanah).
After these processions, we are told to beat the willow branches against the floor five times so that some of the leaves are shaken loose. This practice coincided with the beginning of the rainy season in Israel and symbolizes our hope for the rainfalls that are part of a fruitful harvest season.
Aside from building a sukkah, you might want to observe hachnasat orchim, the mitzvah of welcoming guests. In addition to inviting friends and family into your sukkah, there is a custom of inviting seven biblical guests (one for each night). Although traditionally, these guests are the patriarchs of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David in contemporary times, significant Jewish women have been added to this list of guests: Sarah, wife of Abraham; Rebecca, wife of Isaac; Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob; the prophetess Miriam, the sister of Moses; Deborah, one of our judges; and Ruth, an ancestor of David.