Overview of Sukkot

Found In: Sukkot

Tags: Sephardi, sukkah, hoshana

By Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick | Article

The festival of Sukkot is named for the huts or booths in which Jews are supposed to dwell during this weeklong holiday. Traditionally, this means doing as much as possible in a sukkah that one would normally do in one’s home, such as eating, studying, even sleeping (a favorite with children).

These temporary structures are built outside our homes, of materials from plants and trees (wood, bamboo, palm fronds, tree branches, and the like). The roof of a sukkah should provide more shade than sunlight during the day, yet the stars should be visible through it at night.

Sukkot are traditionally understood to represent the clouds that accompanied the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert (symbolizing and manifesting God accompanying them on their journey), the provisional homes they would erect along the way, and the temporary huts in which farmers would dwell during harvest time (one of the many names of Sukkot is chag ha’asif, the harvest festival).

A sukkah is the quintessence of the delicate spiritual balance between feeling safe and sheltered by God’s presence and recognizing our vulnerability and fragility.

Sukkot is a holiday of celebration even in the face of uncertainty; another of its names is z’man simchateinu, “our time of joy.” Jewish tradition enjoins us to begin constructing our Sukkot as soon as possible after Yom Kippur, as if to remind us of this: the work of being grateful and joyful is so important that we must force ourselves to return to it after an intense day (at the end of an intense period) of personal reflection and even self-criticism.

It is interesting that, if bad weather would make using the sukkah uncomfortable, we are instructed to make the required blessings in the sukkah, and then go indoors as quickly as possible! Our joy should remain unblemished – even if we have to experience it by looking wistfully through the window.

On Sukkot, in conjunction with the recitation of Hallel (the collective name for Psalms 145-150 included in morning services on many Jewish festivals and holidays), we take in hand the arba minim, or four species: palm, myrtle, and willow (known together as the lulav), plus the citron, or etrog. The lulav and etrog are waved in six directions, undoubtedly inspired in part by ancient fertility customs, symbolically invoking wishes for a good harvest, a good year filled with blessing, and our dearest hopes coming to fruition.

In the synagogue, on each day of Sukkot, those holding a lulav and etrog walk in a circle while reciting hoshanot, prayers that God “please save us” (hoshana). In one recent innovation, members of the community add hoshanot for contemporary concerns – “save us, for the sake of future generations, for the sake of our environment, for the sake of those suffering in war….”

The Sukkot custom that has drawn the most attention from feminists and other ritual innovators is that of inviting guests, or ushpizin, into the sukkah. This practice is of kabbalistic origin, and we have inherited from the Jewish mystics of centuries past more than one version of a list of seven biblical men (and much-less-known lists of seven biblical women) who are each linked with one of the seven lower sefirot (divine qualities) and thus with the seven days of Sukkot. These ancestors are symbolically invited to join us as we eat in the sukkah, and to bless us with their presence and the particular aspect of God with which each is associated.

In our own time, women are reviving and revising the lists of ushpizot (female guests), honoring women throughout Jewish history starting with our biblical ancestors. Beautiful decorative posters reminding us of the ushpizot – including one produced by Ma’yan – grace many sukkot. Often, the women in the sukkah are asked to name other women from Jewish history and in their own personal history whom they wish to invite in.

In some Sephardic communities, an empty chair is left for the “guest” for that evening. Sometimes a plate of food is prepared and placed in front of the chair, then later sent to those in need. A Hasidic teaching reflecting a similar value tells us that, in order for our ancient guest to join us, we must invite a living person in need into our sukkah. In the spirit of these traditions, one women’s organization has introduced the practice of designating a chair for battered women, who often feel ashamed or silenced and, consequently, are largely invisible.