SUNSET on SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 30: Wherever Jewish families live around the world, their neighbors are likely to be fascinated by the annual appearance of a leafy, make-shift hut in the yard. That means it’s Sukkot and the important thing for non-Jews to know is that this is an ancient symbol of thanksgiving and hospitality. Jews are recalling an ancient era when farmers and shepherds praised God, gave thanks and paused for refreshment with friends.
The High Holidays are over. For the next seven days (or eight, in the Diaspora), Jews enjoy meals, welcome friends and even sleep in outdoor shelters they’ve constructed themselves in what sometimes is translated as the Feast of Booths. Not much of an outdoorsman yourself? Don’t worry if you are invited to help a Jewish neighbor or to attend a dinner in a sukkah. No major camping skills are necessary here. As you can see in the photos today, sukkahs have an intentionally temporary look—and some may appear rickety. But the meals inside a sukkah generally are a great pleasure. Some families even host formal meals (think like the American Thanksgiving—get tips here). By taking up a temporary abode, Jews remember the dwellings their ancestors inhabited for 40 years, following the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Zechariah believed that in the messianic era, Sukkot would be cheerily observed by all nations! (Learn more, get recipes and tools at Aish.com.)
Sukkot is about much more than tradition—in fact, its festivities were commanded by God. According to Leviticus, God relayed to Moses that the people must live in booths for seven days, after constructing them of branches. (Wikipedia has details.) Most modern sukkahs aren’t made completely of branches (they can be wood, canvas, aluminum siding or even the wall of a building or porch—learn more at the Jewish Virtual Library or Chabad.org), but roofs are woven of something that grew from the ground. The interior of the sukkah is popularly decorated with dried vegetables of the season, like corn stalks and squash; the roof materials of the sukkah are tied loosely enough so that stars can be seen through it at night.
A VISITING SHEPHERD
Ghost stories can be kept for the campfire, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a bit of lore to Sukkot, too! During the holiday, Jews recite a prayer that welcomes seven “exalted guests” into the sukkah: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. By tradition, a different shepherd enters the sukkah first each night, bringing with him a lesson that mirrors the spiritual theme of the day. Some modern-minded Jews go a step further by inviting female counterparts into the sukkah, too, such as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Esther and Ruth.
THE FOUR SPECIES—AND AN ONLINE SUKKAH
Of course, Sukkot wouldn’t be complete without the Four Species: the etrog (a citrus fruit of Israel), the palm branch, the myrtle branch and the willow branch. The greens are woven in traditional patterns to make them easy to hold and to wave. Each day of Sukkot, Jews bless these species and worshippers carry them around the synagogue. Most point to a resemblance of the ancient willow ceremony at the Temple in Jerusalem, but meaning can extend much further—such as the idea of praising God with a “bouquet of beauty.” Symbolically, these species represent a bringing together of the Israeli nation. (See an article at Aish.com.) God calls the faithful to welcome everyone into the sukkah, whether a stranger or friend. The Four Species represent not only different types of people, but the many facets of each person.
Uniting before God is also the theme of “Gimme Shelter: The Digital Sukkah Experience,” an interactive online exhibit out of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. (Jewish Weekly has the story.) The project includes recordings from 25 artists, musicians, writers and more, all invited to share their story. Participants applaud the ability to invite people from all walks of life into the online sukkah.