Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
Whew! What a wonderful High Holiday season we have had. From our Selichot play “The Gates Are Closing” through our final Ne’ilah service and Break-Fast on Yom Kippur, it has been a truly wondrous season here at CBI.
And the season isn’t over. On Sunday at 2pm we’ll gather to build our congregational sukkah; the festival of Sukkot begins on Sunday at sundown. In honor of its arrival, here are some frequently-asked questions about Sukkot — and answers, too.
What is Sukkot, again, exactly?
Sukkot — sometimes called the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles — is a week-long festival in which we build little temporary houses in our backyards and “dwell” in them. Some people actually camp out in their sukkot; for most of us, “dwelling” in the sukkah means hanging out, eating meals, and enjoying time with friends.
Some scholars suggest that Sukkot, as an autumn harvest festival, was likely the Pilgrims’ inspiration for creating a celebration of harvest and thanksgiving.
Remind me: what’s a sukkah?
A temporary hut. It needs to have a roof made from organic material (we usually use corn stalks; in south Texas where I grew up, people used palm fronds) through which one can glimpse the stars.
Much has been written about the variety of possible shapes for a sukkah. Generally speaking, sukkot are shaped to look like one of the letters in the word סכה — so either two and a half, three, or four walls. With, again, a permeable roof through which one can see the moon (full at the beginning of the festival) and the stars.
What does one DO during Sukkot?
The primary mitzvah of this holiday is sitting in the sukkah and rejoicing. Sukkot is known as Zman Simchateinu, “The Season of Our Rejoicing,” and it is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the Three Pilgrimage Festivals when we used to congregate in Jerusalem. So the most important thing to do during Sukkot is to sit in a sukkah and have fun.
(The sages are clear that if it is raining or otherwise nasty out, then it is a mitzvah to not sit in the sukkah — unless, I guess, you’re someone who derives joy from being rained-on.)
Another big mitzvah of this holiday is gathering the Four Species — willow, myrtle, palm, and a citrus fruit called an etrog — and shaking them in all directions. Depending on who you ask, this may be either a fertility ritual, a prayer for rain, or a way of beckoning blessing to come from all sides. If you didn’t order yourself a lulav-and-etrog set, no worries: we have three of them at CBI for communal use.
There’s also the custom of welcoming Ushpizin, or exalted guests, into our sukkah. Traditionally these guests are the spirits of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. Today many of us also welcome Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Deborah, Esther, and/or Ruth.
And finally, during Sukkot we get to recite the psalms of Hallel during morning prayer, which means there are wonderful songs to sing. (There’s also a tradition of doing hoshanot — moving in a circle around the sanctuary with lulav and etrog and Torah while singing — every morning. We’ll probably only manage that here on Shabbat, though.)
How can I celebrate Sukkot this year?
I’m glad you asked! Here are some options:
– show up at CBI on Sunday 9/30 at 2pm to help us build our sukkah. Our sukkah is built from metal tubes which attach together; the walls are made of tarps; the roof is cornstalks. It’s not heavy labor, but the more hands we have on deck, the easier it will be
– bring items to beautify our CBI sukkah: strings of lights, ornamental gourds, whatever says “harvest festival” and “beauty” to you (as long as it’s waterproof!)
– reserve the CBI sukkah for one night next week (do so by signing up on the sign-up sheet on the corkboard near the CBI restrooms) and sit / rejoice in the CBI sukkah: with friends, with a bottle of wine, with a portable radio so you can listen to baseball, or just in sweet moonlit solitude
– pack a lunch and bring it to the CBI sukkah any day next week
– come to Reb Rachel and Ethan and Drew’s house in Lanesboro on Tuesday evening between 7 and 8:30 to enjoy cider in their sukkah
– come to morning meditation next Friday — weather permitting, we’ll meditate in the sukkah, surrounded by the sound of the birds and the rustling leaves
– bring a vegetarian/dairy dish to our First Friday Shabbat / Sukkot Potluck on Friday October 5 at 5:30pm
– and, of course, you could build your own sukkah! Here’s a very simple set of instructions for How To Build a Simple Sukkah from my friend and colleague Rabbi David Seidenberg at NeoHasid.com
What’s the point of all of this?
Joy. Togetherness. Renewed awareness, perhaps, that our lives and our dwellings are temporary. A remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt (our sukkot are meant to remind us of the tents in which our ancestors lived while leaving Egypt) and a remembrance of the harvest (our sukkot can also remind of us of the temporary tents erected in the fields during harvest-time.) Hospitality — both ours (when we invite people over during Sukkot) and God’s (tradition says that Shemini Atzeret, in particular, is when God says to us, “don’t go yet! Linger with Me a little longer in My sukkah!”) Renewed awareness that we live not only under roofs but also under the skies, the heavens, God’s sheltering presence.
And once Sukkot is over, then we’re done?
Almost. Sukkot culminates with Hoshana Rabbah (“The Great ‘Save-Us!'”) on the 7th day of the festival, Shemini Atzeret (“The Pause of the 8th Day”) on, you guessed it, the 8th day of the festival, and Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing in the Torah.”) In Israel and in Reform Jewish communities such as ours, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated on the same day; in Conservative and Orthodox comunities in the Diaspora, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are on subsequent days (so in those communities Simchat Torah would come on day 9.)
I’ll send out more information about Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah soon.
For now: I wish you a sweet Shabbat and a joyful journey into this Season of Our Rejoicing! Hope to see you at CBI soon.