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What Is Sukkot?

What Is Sukkot?

A Guide to The Jewish Holiday of Sukkot, The Feast of Tabernacles, and the Meanings Behind it

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Sukkot 2017 (October 4-11 2017)

Sukkot is a weeklong Jewish holiday that comes five days after Yom Kippur. Sukkot celebrates the gathering of the harvest and commemorates the miraculous protection G‑d provided for the children of Israel when they left Egypt. We celebrate Sukkot by dwelling in a foliage-covered booth (known as a sukkah) and by taking the “Four Kinds” (arba minim), four special species of vegetation.

The first two days (sundown on October 4 until nightfall on October 6 in 2017) of the holiday (one day in Israel) are yom tov, when work is forbidden, candles are lit in the evening, and festive meals are preceded by Kiddush and include challah dipped in honey.

The intermediate days (nightfall on October 6 until sundown on October 11 in 2017) are quasi holidays, known as Chol Hamoed. We dwell in the sukkah and take the Four Kinds every day of Sukkot (except for Shabbat, when we do not take the Four Kinds).

The final two days (sundown on October 11 until nightfall on October 13 in 2017) are a separate holiday (one day in Israel): Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah.

(Special Note: This year, yom tov is directly followed by Shabbat. It is therefore important to make an eruv tavshilin, which allows us to cook on Friday for Shabbat (read how here).)

The Significance of Sukkot

Of all the Jewish holidays, Sukkot is the only one whose date does not seem to commemorate a historic event. The Torah refers to it by two names: Chag HaAsif (“the Festival of Ingathering,” or “Harvest Festival”) and Chag HaSukkot (“Festival of Booths”), each expressing a reason for the holiday.

In Israel, crops grow in the winter and are ready for harvest in the late spring. Some of them remain out in the field to dry for a few months and are only ready for harvest in the early fall. Chag HaAsif is a time to express appreciation for this bounty.

The name Chag HaSukkot commemorates the temporary dwellings G‑d made to shelter our ancestors on their way out of Egypt (some say this refers to the miraculous clouds of glory that shielded us from the desert sun, while others say it refers to the tents in which they dwelled for their 40-year trek through the Sinai desert).

Dwelling in the Sukkah

For seven days and nights, we eat all our meals in the sukkah and otherwise regard it as our home. Located under the open sky, the sukkah is made up of at least three walls and a roof of unprocessed natural vegetation—typically bamboo, pine boughs or palm branches.

(Read more here: How to Build a Sukkah)

The goal is to spend as much time as possible in the sukkah, at the very minimum eating all meals in the sukkah—particularly the festive meals on the first two nights of the holiday, when we must eat at least an olive-sized piece of bread or mezonot (grain-based food) in the sukkah. The Chabad practice is to not eat or drink anything outside the sukkah. Some people even sleep in the sukkah (this is not the Chabad custom).

(Read more here: The Sukkah)

Taking the Four Kinds

Rabbi Danny Cohen of Chabad of Hebron and his son Shneor offer the lulav and etrog to a soldier during Sukkot. (Photo: Israel Bardugo)
Rabbi Danny Cohen of Chabad of Hebron and his son Shneor offer the lulav and etrog to a soldier during Sukkot. (Photo: Israel Bardugo)

Another Sukkot observance is the taking of the Four Kinds: an etrog (citron), a lulav (palm frond), three hadassim (myrtle twigs) and two aravot (willow twigs).

(Read more here: Four Kinds Owner’s Manual)

On each day of the festival (except Shabbat), we take the Four Kinds, recite a blessing over them, bring them together and wave them in all six directions: right, left, forward, up, down and backward. The sages of the Midrash tell us that the Four Kinds represent the various personalities that comprise the community of Israel, whose intrinsic unity we emphasize on Sukkot.

(Read more here: The Four Kinds)

Hoshanot and Hoshanah Rabbah

Credit: Alex Levin
Credit: Alex Levin

Every day of Sukkot we say Hallel, a collection of psalms of praise (Psalms 113-118) as part of the morning prayer service. Every day aside for Shabbat, we recite Hallel while holding the Four Kinds, waving them in all directions at certain key points in the service, which are outlined in the siddur (prayerbook).

Afterward, we circle the bimah (the podium on which the Torah is read) holding the Four Kinds, reciting alphabetically arranged prayers for Divine assistance known as Hoshanot.

The seventh day of the holiday is known as Hoshanah Rabbah. This is the day when our fates for the coming year—which were signed on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur—are finalized. On this day, we circle the bimah seven times. We also say a short prayer and strike the ground five times with bundles of five willows (also known as Hoshanot)

(Read more here: Hoshanot: Winding and Willows)

Sukkot in the Holy Temple

In the days of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, there was a special regimen of sacrifices that were to be brought on the altar. On the first day, no less than 13 bulls, two rams, and 14 lambs were to be sacrificed. Every day, the number of bulls was depleted by one. All in all, 70 bulls were brought, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world.

Along with Passover and Shavuot, Sukkot is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three annual pilgrimages, when every male Jew was to be in Jerusalem. Every seven years, on Sukkot, the king would read aloud from the Torah to the entire nation—men, women and children. This special gathering was known as Hakhel.

(Read more here: What Is Hakhel?)

Water and Joy

On Sukkot, G‑d determines how much rain will fall that winter (the primary rainy season in Israel). Thus, while every sacrifice in the Temple included wine libations poured over the altar, on Sukkot, water was also poured over the altar in a special ceremony. This ritual engendered such joy that it was celebrated with music, dancing and singing all night long. This celebration was called “Simchat Beit Hasho’evah.”

Even today, when there is no Temple, it is customary to hold nightly celebrations that include singing and dancing (and even live music during the intermediate days of the holiday).

This holiday is so joyous that in Talmudic times, when someone said the word chag (“holiday”) without specifying which one, you could know that they were referring to Sukkot.

(Read more here: The Joyous Water-Drawing Ceremony)

Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah: Even More Joy

Chabad Telethon/Youtube
Chabad Telethon/Youtube

The Torah tells us that after the seven days of Sukkot, we should celebrate an eighth day. In the diaspora, this eighth day is doubled, making two days of yom tov. On the final day, it is customary to conclude and then immediately begin the annual cycle of Torah reading, making this day Simchat Torah (“Torah Celebration”).

Although the eighth day follows Sukkot, it is actually an independent holiday in many respects (we no longer take the Four Kinds or dwell in the sukkah). Diaspora Jews eat in the sukkah, but without saying the accompanying blessing (there are some who eat just some of their meals in the sukkah on the eighth day but not the ninth).

The highlight of this holiday is the boisterous singing and dancing in the synagogue, as the Torah scrolls are paraded in circles around the bimah.

(Read more here: What to Expect at Simchat Torah)

Final Note

By the time Simchat Torah is over, we have experienced a spiritual roller coaster, from the solemn introspection of the High Holidays to the giddy joy of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Now it is time to convert the roller coaster into a locomotive, making sure that the inspiration of the holiday season propels us to greater growth, learning and devotion in the year ahead.

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Debra Colorado October 4, 2017

Is a yiskor candle lit on erev Sukkot? Reply

Chabad.org Staff October 4, 2017
in response to Debra :

Hi Debra yizkor is said on Shemini Atzeret (October 12 this year) so you'll light the candle on the 11th before yom tov starts in your location. If you plan on cooking over yom tov, you can light a yahrtzeit candle to use as a starter flame as we cannot light one from scratch on the holiday. Reply

Anonymous Los Angeles via chabadofthevalley.com October 3, 2017

What blessings do we say when we light the candles for each night that we need to light. Wed, Thur, Fri and again the following week? Reply

Chabad.org Staff October 4, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Wednesday and Thursday we say "shel yom tov" and "shehecheyanu"; Friday we say the regular Shabbat blessing. The following Wednesday and Thursday "shel yom tov" and "shehecheyanu". The text for the blessings can be found here Reply

Hardly a Beinoni Boca Raton, Florida October 21, 2016

A SuccosThought I believe, that it was Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1824), of Poland, one of the foremost Chassidic Rebbes of that era, who noted, that the Mitzvah of Sukkah is unlike any of the other 612 Mitzvoth. Namely; when one enters the Sukkah, recites the appropriate blessing(s), he/she is completely enveloped by the observance of this Mitzvah, not only spiritually, but also, physically; because you enter the Sukkah, in body, soul, clothes, and, even the boots on your feet. Chag Sameach. Reply

Anonymous September 27, 2016

Can this be child friendly? Reply

Chabad.org Staff via chabadone.org October 26, 2015

To Anonymous Sukkot is celebrated in the fall. Check out Chabad.org/holidays for dates Reply

Anonymous October 21, 2015

When is it celebrated? what are the dates? Reply

LeeJoyStern September 28, 2015

Very informative and enlightening
Reply

Shaul Wolf Chabad.org May 28, 2015

Re: The festival of Sukkot is mentioned a number of times in the Torah. See Exodus 22, Exodus 34, Leviticus 23, Numbers 29, Deuteronomy 16. Reply

Samyy May 26, 2015

Where in the Chumash is the mitzvah of sukot Reply

Sharmon Hickory Valley, Tn May 10, 2014

Jewish holidays Now I have a better understanding of the 6 most important holidays in the Jewish faith. Thanks for the educational experience. Connecting the event with names. Thanks again. Reply

Akki Zurich September 18, 2013

My neighbors built sukkah yesterday and are celebrating today so thought of searching about it. Your post helped me to understand the festival. Reply

Paula, Brooklyn October 8, 2012

Thanks for the explanation of Sukkot. Was never sure of its meaning Reply

Nicole Pittsburgh, PA October 6, 2012

New Neighbors My neighbors built a sukkah and I admit at first I had no idea what it was. I decided to go introduce myself and they were so welcoming and friendly! They explained the holiday and I just love their sukkah! It's almost a shame that it's only temporary. Sukkot has helped me to meet my neighbors and learn more about Judaism, and for this I am very thankful! Reply

Chris Hamilton, Ontario October 5, 2012

Jewish Holidays I have recently become business partners with a group of observant Jews, and have found this site very informative, thanks ! Reply

Sensei Elliott Hartford , Ct October 3, 2012

Enlightened I am a martial arts instructor and one of my students couldn't attend class in observance of this holiday. In an attempt to understand my students faith a little more I looked up the Sukkot holiday and found your website. After reading and going through your page I learned something new from my student. Reply

Anonymous new york, US October 1, 2012

sukkot Thanks for the great article , The word "Sukkot" means "booths," and refers to the temporary dwellings that we are commanded to live in during this holiday. The name of the holiday is frequently translated as The Feast of Tabernacles. Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov October 11, 2011

To Anonymous If the tent's roof can be removed and replaced with a suitable covering, it may be used for a Sukkah, as long as the tent is fastened to the ground and will not be blown away by a regular wind.

You would have to inquire with the campground's officials whether they allow 'tents' to be erected. Reply

mary Ireland, Ireland October 11, 2011

beautiful idea The whole idea is saturated with meaning, tradition, aestheticism and beauty. However, I must say that so very much is demanded, down to selecting a perfect fruit and I would be terrified that i wouldn't be doing it right. Really, surely its the heart being in the right place that's more important. Reply

Anonymous Prescott, AR/US October 11, 2011

Sukkot Could a person set up a regular tent, and then put some symbolic branches on it? And...what about using a public campground if a person was an apartment dweller? Would most state campgrounds be accepting of such? Reply

Tzvi Freeman October 10, 2008

Not within traveling distance The best solution is to build your own sukkah. It's not so hard. In fact, there are portable sukkahs available that can be put up in a matter of minutes. You can even order one online. Reply

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