The festival of Sukkot, commemorating G-d's
enveloping protection of the Children of Israel during their 40-year journey
through the desert (1313-1273 BCE), is celebrated for seven days, beginning
from the eve of Tishrei 15. During this time, we are commanded to
"dwell" in a sukkah -- a hut of temporary construction, with a roof
covering of raw, unfinished vegetable matter (branches, reeds, bamboo, etc.) --
signifying the temporality and fragily of human habitation and man-made shelter and our utter dependence upon G-d's protection and providence. "How [does one
fulfill] the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah? One should eat, drink, and live
in the sukkah, both day and night, as one lives in one's house on the other
days of the year: for seven days a person should make his home his temporary
dwelling, and his sukkah his permanent dwelling" (Code of Jewish Law, Orach
At least one k'zayit (approx. 1 oz.) of bread should be eaten in the
sukkah on the first evening of the festival, between nightfall and midnight. A special blessing, Leishiv BaSukkah, is recited. For the rest of the festival, all meals must be eaten in the sukkah (see the Code of Jewish Law or consult a Halachic authority as to what constitutes a
"meal"). Chabad custom is to refrain from eating or drinking anything outside
of the sukkah, even a glass of water.
"And you shall take for yourself on the first day," instructs the Torah in Leviticus "the splendid fruit of a tree, fronds of dates, the branch of the thick-leafed tree and aravot of the river." Torah SheBaal Peh (the oral tradition given to Moses at Sinai and handed through the generations, and later documented in the Mishnah and Talmud) identifies the four kinds as the etrog (citron), lulav (unopened palm branch), hadass (myrtle twig, of which three are taken) and aravah (willow, two twigs). The palm branch, three myrtle twigs and two willow twigs are bound together (with rings made from palm leaves).
Each day of Sukkot -- except Shabbat -- we take the lulav in hand, recite a blessing over it, take hold of the etrog, hold the "Four Kinds" together, and move them back and forth in all directions (right, left, forward, up, down and back). An additional blessing, shehecheyanu, is recited the first time that the Four Kinds are taken during the festival. We also hold the Four Kinds during the Hallel prayer (moving them as above in specified places in the text) and the Hoshaanot prayers (during which we march around the reading table in the synagogue) which are included in the daily service each day of Sukkot.
When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, one of the special Sukkot observances was to pour water on the Altar. The drawing of water for this purpose was preceded by all-night celebrations in the Temple courtyard; on the 15 steps leading to the azarah (inner courtyard) stood Levites while playing a variety of musical instruments, sages danced and juggled burning torches, and huge oil-burning lamps illuminated the entire city. The singing and dancing went on until daybreak, when a procession would make its way to the Shiloach Spring which flowed in a valley below the Temple to "draw water with joy." "One who did not see the joy of the water-drawing celebrations," declared the sages of the Talmud, "has not seen joy in his life."
While water was poured each day of the fetival, the special celebrations were held
only on Chol Hamoed since many of the elements of the celebration (e.g., the playing of musical instruments) are forbidden on Yom Tov.
Today, we commemorate these joyous celebrations by holding Simchat Beit HaShoeivah ("joy of the water drawing") events in the streets, with music and dancing. The Lubavitcher Rebbe initiated the custom of holding such celebrations on Shabbat and Yom Tov as well -- without musical instruments of course. The fact that we cannot celebrate as we did in the Temple, said the Rebbe, means that we are free to celebrate the joy of Sukkot with singing and dancing every day of the festival.