Sukkot: Jews gather ‘neath the sukkah for the Feast of Booths

Branches and dried stalks building structure with wooden table in the middle

A sukkah. Photo by Jeremy Price, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 23—SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 30: Jewish families around the world spend time in temporary outdoor shelters to celebrate the ancient harvest festival: Sukkot. Following the Jewish High Holidays each year, Jews enter a joyous “Season of our Rejoicing.”

The tradition calls on Jews to construct and dwell in temporary structures, called sukkahs, in memory of the ancient Israelites’ living quarters during their 40 years in the desert. Agriculturally, Sukkot is a harvest festival and, as such, many sukkahs are decorated with autumn crops. In the U.S., it is not uncommon to see sukkahs decorated with gourds, pumpkins, squash and other foods associated with fall. Traditionally work is halted on the first and second days of Sukkot, with the days in between reserved for relaxation (though work is permitted on these days).


Though sukkahs may look vastly different, the builders try to abide by specific rules. A sukkah must have at least 2.5 walls covered with a material that cannot be blown away by wind; the roof must be made of something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks or wooden boards. The roof materials of a sukkah must be left loose, so that rain can get in and, preferably, the stars can be seen at nighttime. (Learn more from Judaism 101.) A sukkah may be any size so long as a family can dwell in it, and many Jews spend as much time as possible in the sukkah. It is common to eat meals in the sukkah, and some Jews even choose to sleep in it.

Yellow citrus fruit hanging from branch surrounded by green leaves

An etrog. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Another custom associated with Sukkot involves the Four Species. The four species—the etrog (a citrus fruit native to Israel), the lulav (palm branch), aravot (two willow branches) and hadassim (three myrtle branches) are used to “rejoice before the L_rd.” With the etrog in one hand and the branches bound together in the other hand, blessings are recited. The branches are waved in all directions, to symbolize that G_d is everywhere. (Wikipedia has details.)

Note: The two days following Sukkot are Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

Looking for autumn recipes, tips on building a sukkah and more? Check out the resources at My Jewish Learning, and 

Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah: Jews dwell in huts, restart Torah

You will dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths.

Leviticus 23:42

Burlap in background, draped in vines of sunflowers with pumpkins, haystacks in front and Sukka sign to the right

Photo by Oliver Hammond, courtesy of Flickr

TO INTRODUCE our coverage of Sukkot, ReadTheSpirit magazine welcomes back author and Jewish scholar Joe Lewis as well as our regular Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton. In addition to this column, you’ll enjoy these other stories:




No festival in the Jewish calendar requires more gear than this seven-eight-nine-day shackfest. We need an etrog (which looks like a lumpy lemon); the romantic lore praising the fragrance and beauty of this fruit, and the religious obligation to enjoy this festival, raise the price of an etrog to heavenly heights. We also need palm, myrtle and willow branches. Gathering these four types of plants is the easy part. Daily synagogue services include processions with our plants.

At home, parents suddenly become d-i-yers, and ramshackle huts roofed with greenery sprout in the back yard or on the patio. It’s a “sukkah” (shelter) designed as a substitute for our regular house, a place to take meals and relax on the holiday; in warmer climes the family can camp overnight. Detailed rules govern the shacks, huts or “tabernacles,” but there’s still freedom for creativity in size, shape and materials.

Temporary dwellings remind us of our 40-year trek through the wilderness, protected and sustained by our compassionate God. In ancient times, harvest workers slept outside by their work, as we read in the Book of Ruth (3:6-15). Our huts remind us that our own existence is fragile; that the protections we build for ourselves can be swept away in a storm; and that too many people in our society lack a home of their own. Gazing at stars through chinks in the roof promotes awe and humility, for we are but momentary specks in a universe of untold extent in time and space.


The first part of the holiday is “Sukkot,” shelters, and lasts for seven days. On the eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, “the concluding eighth day” (Num 29:35), we no longer need our four types of plants or our temporary shelter.

The ninth day is the final day of our festival season. It’s called Simchat Torah, a party to celebrate the Five Books of Moses, our manual for effective living. We finish the annual cycle of readings and begin anew, reading the final portion of Deuteronomy and then the first chapters of Genesis, accompanied by all the “disorder, laughing, sporting, and … confusion” that disturbed the famous diarist Samuel Pepys when he visited a London synagogue on October 14 1663. Dancing in the synagogue sometimes spills on to the streets, as we share our joy with the community in which we live.



Dark spice cake with pomegranate seeds on top, on white plate and platter, one piece cut out of cake

Pomegranates are a common ingredient in Sukkot recipes. Photo by Jamieanne, courtesy of Flickr

As Joe Lewis has described, most Jewish families try to take part in the construction of a sukkah—a temporary booth, or structure—in honor of Sukkot, spending as much time as possible inside the dwelling during the festival. The commandment to “dwell” in the sukkah can mean simply eating meals inside of it or fully residing. (Wikipedia has details.)

Each day of Sukkot, a waving ceremony is performed with the four species, or the lulav and etrog. An etrog—a citrus fruit native to Israel—is placed in one hand, while the other hand contains a bound bundle (lulav) of one palm branch, two willow branches and three myrtle branches. A blessing is recited and the species are waved in all directions, to symbolize that G_d is everywhere. The four species are also transported to the synagogue, where they are held, waved and beaten against the floor, during religious services. The four species are also held while forming processions around the bimah (pedestal where the Torah is read), in synagogue.


Immediately following Sukkot is Shemini Atzeret, on which Jews leave their sukkah and dine inside the home. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret is combined with Simchat Torah; in the diaspora, Simchat Torah falls on the day immediately following Shemini Atzeret. (Learn more from Judaism 101.)


On Simchat Torah, literally, “Rejoicing in the Torah,” the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings is complete. On Simchat Torah, the final Torah portion is read and, in a cyclical manner, the first chapter of Genesis is then immediately read. The completion of the cycle is met with great celebration, singing, dancing and the carrying of Torah scrolls.


For many Jews, Sukkot arrives just in time. After the solemn experience of Yom Kippur, the happy gathering of family and friends is a welcome event. Read more about the unity of Sukkot and more from the Jerusalem Post.

A $50,000 penthouse sukkah? Rates are high for a luxury Sukkot at the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel, but the price tag for the 12 private sukkahs comes with everything needed for a four-star holiday: three cooked meals per day for four people for eight days; a personally designed sukkah and plenty of room for entertaining guests. (Read more in the JTA.) For those wishing to spend a little less, the Inbal constructs two enormous sukkahs that can hold up to 600 guests at mealtime.