Sukkot and Simchat Torah: The Basics

Sukkot is all about not taking things for granted, and it’s a time to give thanks—particularly for food and shelter. It begins on the eve of the 15th of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, five days after Yom Kippur, and like all Jewish holidays, it begins at sundown. After all the seriousness of Yom Kippur, Sukkot is a time to kick back and have a party. In blessings, Sukkot is referred to as “z’man simchateinu,” which translates as “the time of our celebrating,” and since the holiday lasts seven days, there’s plenty of time to enjoy.

Let’s Consult the Books

Sukkot is a harvest festival that commemorates the memory of the Israelites seeking shelter in temporary huts while wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Here’s what the Torah says about this holiday: “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate a pilgrim feast of the Lord for a whole week.” (Leviticus 23: 39, 42)

Want to Build a Sukkah?

Where does the name of this holiday come from? The word “Sukkot” is the plural of the Hebrew word for a temporary hut or booth, a sukkah. The sukkah is a temporary structure that gets built and taken down every year. While there are some Jewish rules about how to build one, there’s also lots of room for creativity.

Sukkah “must-haves:”

  • A sukkah has to have at least 2.5 walls, which cannot be permanent.
  • The roof should be covered with any natural material, called skhakh and has to be thick enough to provide shade during the day but thin enough so you can see the stars at night.

There are many easy-to-build sukkah kits and templates to make your own. Christmas lights, holiday cards, gourds, paper chains and hand-drawn pictures are all popular ways to decorate a sukkah, and friends and family of all ages and backgrounds can get involved in building and decorating.

No sukkah? No problem. Here’s how to celebrate without a sukkah.

What To Do & How To Pray In the Sukkah

Anything that you can do inside your home can be moved outside to the sukkah for the week. Depending on where you live, some people may even sleep in their sukkah—a kind of Jewish camping. Meals in the sukkah are a particular highlight of the holiday, and blessings over challah and grape juice are included in the meal for the first day of Sukkot and, for some people, also the second day.

Whenever we eat in the sukkah, we say this blessing:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu leisheiv basukkah.

This translates to: Blessed is the Oneness that sanctifies our lives, and inspires us to dwell in the sukkah.

Alternative translation from Storahtelling: Thanks, big parent of this land, supervisor of the universe, who made holy these rules and told us to sit in this hut.

The first time each year that we eat in the sukkah, we say the Shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God for bringing us to this moment:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

This translates to: Blessed is the Oneness that inspires the universe, sustains us, raises us up, and enables us to reach this season.

Come One, Come All

Jewish tradition is all about welcoming people into our homes (or sukkahs!), from Passover seders to Sukkot. There is an interesting custom to invite a different ancestral guest to the sukkah for each day of the holiday. These guests, usually Biblical ancestors, are called ushpizin. Some people also honor other historical, cultural and ancestral figures by telling stories and sharing pictures.

Invite real guests, too, especially for meals, to relax, to enjoy the outdoors and to experience the unique environment of the sukkah. Anyone who who is important to your family can all be included in your ushpizin.

Symbols of Sukkot: The Lulav & Etrog

Another part of Sukkot is the waving of the four species: the etrog (citron, which looks like a large bumpy lemon) is held in one hand next to a tall, thin bundle of plants that includes the lulav (palm branches), hadasim (myrtle branches) and aravot (willow branches).

While this is a mysterious custom, there are two common interpretations: One, that each element represents a part of the human body: heart, spine, lips and eyes. Another is that each species represents a different kind of person, and holding them together represents the importance of everyone in a community. We love that!

Here’s how to shake the four species (follow along with our video):

  1. Facing east, hold the cluster of three branches together with the spine of the palm facing you. The myrtle (the one with smallish leaves) should be on the right and the willow should be on the left.
  2. Holding the etrog in your left hand with its stem facing downward, recite this blessing: Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al n’tilat lulav.
    This translates to: Blessed is the Oneness that sanctifies our lives, and inspires us to wave the lulav.
  3. Turn the etrog over so the stem is facing up, and, still holding your hands together, shake the four species to the front, to the right, in back, to the left and up and down. The first time you do this each year, add the Shehecheyanu prayer (as above).

The Theme of Vulnerability

Sukkot reminds us about protection and vulnerability. The structure of the sukkah itself is temporary and subject to the elements. We can live in the moment and enjoy it, but you never know when it might start to rain.

A more spiritual approach is to say that it is not the strong walls and roof of our homes that protect us, but rather the shelter of God’s divine protection.

Next Up: Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah

Immediately following Sukkot are two additional holidays: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. In Israel and in some Reconstructionist and Reform congregations, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated together on the eighth day of Sukkot. For others, Shemini Atzeret is also the eighth day of Sukkot and Simchat Torah is the ninth day.

Interestingly, the Torah directs us to observe Shemini Atzeret, but we have little information about it otherwise. Many people have struggled to determine the true meaning of the holiday.

One interpretation is that after the tough spiritual work of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret is the culmination of all of these holidays. Another way of looking at it is that, since it’s so long between Sukkot and Passover, Shemini Atzeret is an opportunity to spend one more day basking in God’s presence.

The End & The Beginning

Simchat Torah means “Joy of the Torah,” and it marks when we complete the yearly cycle of Torah readings in the synagogue. Since Torah is continuous and never-ending, as soon as we finish reading the end of Deuteronomy, we immediately begin again with Genesis.

On Simchat Torah, synagogues will typically take out all of their Torah scrolls so that many people get the honor to hold one. There are seven hakafot (circlings), often with the congregation following the Torahs dancing and singing, sometimes carrying flags or miniature Torahs, while others stay in their seats and may kiss the Torahs as they go past. It’s like one, big, festive parade.


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Author: 18Doors