While Judaism’s High Holy Days — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — have just ended, there are more Jewish festivals on the way.
Up now is Sukkot — also known as the Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles — which began Oct. 2 and ends Oct. 9.
This festival is mentioned in the Torah in Numbers 29:12-40 and Leviticus 23:33-43. It was instituted as a reminder of God providing shelter for the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. It also has characteristics of a harvest festival.
Two very strong resources to learn more about the festival are chabad.org, which has extensive and varied information about the holiday, and 18doors.org/sukkot/, which has a downloadable booklet with basics about the celebration.
Chabad’s site offers stories, audio and video, kids’ activities, recipes, art and more, while the 18doors.org booklet can be viewed online or in a download that can be printed and shared.
The most recognizable symbol of the festival is the booth known as sukkah (or sukkoth in the plural form). The booth must have at least three sides. The roof is made of thatching and has to allow some light — at night, stars must be visible — but must be mostly shaded. Many families build huts, but some places build communal sukkoth.
Leviticus 23:41-42 tells the Israelites to dwell in booths for the seven days of the festival. In contemporary usage, Jews at least eat in the booth. However, many people bring furniture into the hut and decorate the hut. Some sleep there, others take time to study or relax in the booth or spend family time there.
In addition to the booth, the four species — etrog (citron), lulav (palm branches), hadasim (myrtle branches) and aravot (willow branches) — are recognizable symbols.
The items come from Leviticus 23:40 and vary slightly between translations: "On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days."
18doors.org offers several interpretations of the meaning of the species. One rabbi “taught that the four species represent different parts of the body. The palm resembles the spine; the myrtle resembles an eye; the willow a mouth; and the citron, a human heart. Just as four different species must be brought together to fulfill the commandment, so too must the different parts of oneself come together to live a Jewish life.”
Or the site says, the four plants represent four types of Jews: “The citron has a pleasing taste and a pleasing scent. It represents Jews who have achieved both knowledge of Torah and the performance of commandments or mitzvot. The palm has a tasty fruit but no scent, representing the Jews who have knowledge of Torah but are lacking in the performance of mitzvot. The myrtle leaf has a strong scent but no taste, representing the Jews who perform mitzvot, but have little knowledge of the Torah. The willow has no taste or scent, representing Jews who have no knowledge of Torah and do not perform mitzvot. We bring all four of these species together on Sukkot to remind us that every person in our community is important and that we must all be united.”
Other people claim that the four items simply represent a successful harvest.