So you’ve been invited to a Sukkot holiday meal. What can you expect?

General Information:

Sukkot is the seven-day festival when observant Jews dwell in asukkah—an outdoor hut of temporary construction with a roof of branches—most notably, eating all of our meals there. This is to commemorate G‑d’s kindness in shielding our ancestors in the Sinai desert.

If you have been invited to an observant Jewish home on Sukkot, you can assume you will be enjoying your meal in the sukkah.

The sukkah may be in the driveway, front yard, back yard, or even a balcony or fire escape (when legal).

In addition to dwelling in the sukkah, another notable Sukkot observance is the “taking of the Four Species.”

To do this mitzvah, we hold a palm branch bundled with willows and myrtles together with an etrog (lemon-like fruit)—these are “the Four Species”—recite a special blessing, and give them a gentle wave (read how to do that here).

These Species represents the various types and personalities that comprise the community of Israel. On Sukkot, we emphasize the intrinsic unity of all Jews.

On any day of Sukkot except for Shabbat—as long as it is daytime—there is a good chance that your hosts will invite you to perform this mitzvah and show you how. If they don’t, you can definitely ask to do it.

Different Days, Different Ways:

As far as what else to expect, this depends on what day of the holiday it is. The first two days and eighth day of this festival are known as Yom Tov and are major holidays (in Israel, it is just the first day), while the remaining days of Sukkot are Chol Hamoed ("intermediate days"). See here for this year’s calendar. Bear in mind that Jewish calendar days begin at night, so a day actually means an evening and the following day.

The meals held every night and day of the Yom Tov days are official feasts. If you have previously attended a Shabbat meal, you are likely familiar with the way it works. (You can click here to read more about that.)

If you’ve been invited to an event during the “intermediate days,” the only thing you have to do is show up in the sukkah at whatever time you have been invited. There are not many set rules during this time. Enjoy!

On Some Nights, We Light Candles

On these first, second, and eighth nights of Sukkot, women and girls light candles ushering in the special day. Unlike the Friday-night candlelighting that ushers in the Shabbat, which MUST be done before sunset or not at all, on Yom Tov, the candles can be lit at any time. If you are a guest just coming for the meal, you can light candles whenever you come. Weather permitting, the candles will be lit in the sukkah and stay there for the entire meal. If you are a woman who would like to light candles, your hostess will be glad to help you with the procedure and blessings.

Shabbat and holidays are ushered in with candle lighting. - Photo courtesy Mendel Mayteles/Merkos 302
Shabbat and holidays are ushered in with candle lighting.
Photo courtesy Mendel Mayteles/Merkos 302

A Holiday Meal

So what can you expect a holiday meal to be like?

The meal will commence with your host reciting Kiddush over a cup of wine and distributing a small amount of wine to all participants.

Next everyone will head to the sink for the ritual washing for bread and then return to the table—in this case in the sukkah—to eat challah bread dipped in honey (a departure from the Shabbat meal, when we would dip the challah in salt). If you could use some help with the ritual handwashing, your hosts will gladly help you. After washing hands we don’t speak until after we’ve eaten some challah, so just return to your chair and wait quietly.

Photo: Flash90
Photo: Flash90

The breaking of challah will be followed by a delicious meal, most likely comprised of two or three courses and dessert.

The whole meal will conclude with Grace After Meals. Small booklets will be brought to the table containing the text of this after-blessing. There are sure to be some booklets with English translation, so you can read comfortably at your own pace.

The main difference you will notice between this and an ordinary Shabbat meal is that it will all take place in the sukkah.

As a side effect of this, you may find more use of disposable tablecloths and dinnerware on Sukkot, for greater ease in setting up and clearing away. And a tip: On Sukkot, especially in places where the weather is intemperate, your help—serving, clearing, or folding and putting away chairs afterwards—is likely to be extra appreciated.

Additional Tips for Yom Tov:

You’ll note that many (though not all) of the same rules that govern our behavior on Shabbat are in effect. Most notable is that just like on Shabbat, observant Jews won’t operate electric switches during these days.

Some practical tips associated with the special rules of Yom Tov:

  • When you come, don’t ring the doorbell. Knock instead.1
  • Don’t take pictures, or use your phone.
  • Don’t turn off any lights, as there will be no holiday-permissible way to turn them back on.
  • When using the bathroom, avail yourself of the tissues or pre-torn toilet paper rather than tearing toilet paper. Don’t worry, there is no problem at all with flushing the toilet.

What to Wear:

For a Yom Tov meal, clothing that is a notch more dressed-up than you would wear on an ordinary weekday is appropriate: a suit or blazer for men, topped off with a kippah, and a modest dress or modest top and skirt for women. Try to wear something that you think you could comfortably wear outdoors for a few hours. If you can’t find just the right getup… don’t worry, you will not be the only one shivering or sweltering. It is part of the experience.

For an event on one of the intermediate days of Sukkot, casual wear is appropriate. Just bear in mind that you will be spending time in the sukkah.

What to Bring:

Though not necessary, a small hostess gift is appropriate when attending a Yom Tov meal. If the gift is a food item, such as wine or chocolate, make sure that it is kosher-certified (and if it is wine, that you see the word “mevushal” on the label).

It is better to avoid giving a dairy dessert, even a kosher one, as most Yom Tov meals feature chicken or meat and observant Jews will not serve dairy in the same meal as chicken or meat.

The world of kosher certification can be complicated. If you want to be absolutely sure that the food item you are considering will be something that your hosts can enjoy, you can check with them in advance—they will be touched by your consideration.

Weather Considerations:

Depending on the climate and weather, your Sukkot meal may vary from feeling like a relaxing picnic to feeling like an extreme-weather adventure.

A Sukkot meal is best entered with a spirit of fun. Pine needle in your soup? All part of the Sukkot atmosphere.

If it is really cold, you may decide to just keep your coat on for the whole meal.

If It Rains…

If it starts to rain hard during the meal, many will head inside and finish up the meal out of the rain. However, some, including Lubavitcher chassidim, will likely finish their meal in the sukkah, in the rain.

Note: The rules of eating in the sukkah on Sukkot do not apply equally to men and to women. Take your cues from those around you. If it starts to rain hard and all the women head indoors, join the cozy indoors group if you are a woman… If you are a man, enjoy the male bonding in the sukkah. It will probably be a quicker meal than it would have been otherwise.