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Sukkot

SUKKOT

SUKKOT is the Hebrew name for the Jewish autumnal festival, also called the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles. Sukkot begins on the fifteenth day of the month of Tishri and lasts for seven days, followed by an eighth day called ʿAtseret (possibly meaning "assembly"; see Lv. 23:36, Nm. 29:35). (Outside Israel, ʿAtseret is observed also on the ninth day.) Thus, according to Jewish tradition, there are really two distinct but interconnected festivals: Sukkot proper and Shemini ʿAtseret ("eighth day of ʿAtseret"). The Sukkot rituals are carried out only on Sukkot proper; two are essential. The first is to dwell in booths or tabernacles (sukkot; sg. sukkah ) as a reminder of the dwellings in which the Israelites lived at the time of the Exodus from Egypt (Lv. 23:3344). The second is derived from the biblical verse regarding four plants: lulav (palm branch), etrog (citron), ʿaravot (willows), and hadassim (myrtles) (Lv. 23:40). It is traditionally understood that these four plants are to be ritually held in the hand. Sukkot, as the culmination of the three pilgrim festivals, is the season of special rejoicing (Dt. 16:1317) and is referred to in the liturgy as "the season of our joy."

The Sukkah

The main symbol of the festival is a hut, having at least three walls, no roof, but covered with leaves or straw. During the seven days of the festival, all meals are eaten in the sukkah. Many Jews, especially those living in warm climates, sleep there as well. In addition to the biblical reason, medieval thinkers saw the command to dwell in the sukkah, a temporary dwelling, as a reminder to man of the transient nature of material possessions, and an exhortation that he should place his trust in God. According to the mystics, the sukkah is visited on each of the seven days by a different biblical heroAbraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. It is the custom among many Jews to recite a welcoming formula to these guests (ushpizin ) as if they were real persons visiting the sukkah.

The Four Species

The rite of the four plants consists in taking them in the hand during the synagogue service and waving them above and below and in the four directions of the compass. The stated reason is to dispel harmful "winds" and to acknowledge God as ruler over all. Various interpretations have been given of why it is commanded to take these four plants. For example, it has been said that they represent the human backbone, heart, eye, and mouth, all of which must be engaged in the worship of God. Moses Maimonides (1135/81204) treated these as homiletical interpretations and suggested as the true reason a means of thanksgiving to God for the harvest. The harvest motif is also observed in the custom of having a procession in the synagogue while holding the four plants on each day of Sukkot. During the procession the Hoshaʿnah ("save now") prayer for a good harvest in the year ahead is recited. On the seventh day there are seven processions, hence the name of the day, Hoshaʿnah Rabbah ("great Hoshaʿnah"). At the end of the service on this day, the ancient custom of beating bunches of willows on the ground follows. On Shemini ʿAtseret a special prayer for rain is recited. In a later development within Jewish tradition, Hoshaʿnah Rabbah is seen as setting the seal on the judgment made on Yom Kippur, so that the day is a day of judgment with prayers resembling those offered on Yom Kippur. There is a folk belief that if a person sees his or her shadow without a head on the night of Hoshaʿnah Rabbah, that person will die during the year.

Shemini ʿAtseret

The last day of the festival has acquired a new character from medieval times. The weekly Torah readingsfrom the beginning of Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy are completed on this day and then immediately begun again, so that the day is both the end and the beginning of the annual cycle. The day is now called Simat Torah ("rejoicing of the Torah"). In the Diaspora, Simat Torah falls on the second day of Shemini ʿAtseret (23 Tishri). In Israel, Simat Torah coincides with the one-day celebration of Shemini ʿAtseret on 22 Tishri, the day also observed by Reform Jews, who no longer observe the additional second day of festivals traditionally observed by Diaspora Jews. The person who has the honor of completing the reading is called the "bridegroom" of the Torah, and the one who begins the reading again is the "bridegroom" of Genesis. On this joyful day the scrolls of the Torah are taken in procession around the synagogue, and the "bridegrooms" invite the congregation to a festive repast.

Bibliography

Two useful books on the Sukkot rituals and customs are Isaac N. Fabricant's A Guide to Succoth, 2d ed. (London, 1962), and Hayyim Schauss's The Jewish Festivals: History and Observance (New York, 1973).

New Sources

Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. The History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods. Atlanta, 1995.

Ulfgard, Håkan. The Story of Sukkot: The Setting, Shaping, and Sequel of the Biblical Feast of Tabernacles. Tübingen, 1998.

Yaged, Moshe. "The Biblical Readings for the Festival of SukkotTheir Influence on Simhat Torah." Journal of Jewish Music and Liturgy 10 (19871988): 15.

Louis Jacobs (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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