This is a basic primer for the seventh commanded designated time of G-d found in Leviticus:23. I hope you find it helpful as you seek to follow G-d’s instructions (Torah).
The first day of Festival of Sukkot is on Tishrei 15, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. Since the Biblical day begins in the evening, the festival begins at sunset on Tishrei 14. It is quite a drastic transition, from one of the most solemn holidays in our year to one of the most joyous.
This festival is sometimes referred to as Zeman Simkhateinu; the Season of our Rejoicing. Sukkot lasts for seven days. The two days following the festival are separate holidays, Shemini Atzeret and Simkhat Torah, but are often thought of as part of Sukkot.
The word “Sukkot” means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings that we are commanded to live in during this holiday. The name of the holiday is frequently translated “The Feast of Tabernacles,” which, like many translations of technical Jewish terms, isn’t terribly useful unless you already know what the term is referring to.
Like Passover and Shavu’ot, Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural. The holiday commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Sukkot is also a harvest festival, and is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering. This ingathering refers not only to the agricultural harvest, but a harvest of souls; an ingathering Yahshua speaks of in the B’rit Chadashah (“New” Testament. This holy festival represents how G-d provided for the children of Israel in the desert, but more importantly, how He provides for all true believers defined in John Chapter 14, Romans Chapters 2-3, and the Seven-Fold-Witness in the book of Revelation. Yahshua was born during this festival (not Christmas), and this was G-d’s provision of a Redeemer, Messiah ben Yosef and Messiah ben David!
The festival of Sukkot is instituted in Leviticus 23:33 et seq. No ordinary work is permitted on the first and eighth days of the holiday. Work is permitted on the remaining days. These intermediate days on which work is permitted are referred to as Chol Ha-Mo’ed, as are the intermediate days of Passover.
In honor of the holiday’s historical significance, we are commanded to dwell in temporary shelters, as our ancestors did in the wilderness. The commandment to “dwell” in a sukkah can be fulfilled by simply eating all of one’s meals there; however, if the weather, climate, and one’s health permit, one should live in the sukkah as much as possible, including sleeping in it.
A sukkah must have at least three walls covered with a material that will not blow away in the wind. Canvas covering tied or nailed down is acceptable and quite common in the United States. A sukkah may be any size, so long as it is large enough for you to fulfill the commandment of dwelling in it. The roof of the sukkah must be made of material referred to as sekhakh (literally, covering). To fulfill the commandment, sekhakh must be something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks, bamboo reeds, sticks, or two-by-fours. Sekhakh must be left loose, not tied together or tied down. Sekhakh must be placed sparsely enough that rain can get in, and preferably sparsely enough that the stars can be seen, but not so sparsely that more than ten inches is open at any point or that there is more light than shade. The sekhakh must be put on last.
It is common practice, and highly commendable, to decorate the sukkah. However, G-d honors the heart. Decorations are fine, but not necessary. In the northeastern United States, observant believers commonly hang dried squash and corn in the sukkah to decorate it, because these vegetables are readily available in the Fall. Building and decorating a sukkah can be a fun project for friends and/or family. Many Americans, upon seeing a decorated sukkah for the first time, remark on how much the sukkah (and the holiday generally) reminds them of Thanksgiving. This is not entirely coincidental. Our American pilgrims, who celebrated a Thanksgiving holiday, were deeply religious people. When they were trying to find a way to express their thanks for their survival and for the harvest, they looked to the Bible for an appropriate way of celebrating and based their holiday in part on Sukkot. I submit that Columbus was of Jewish heritage and knew of this festival. Perhaps there were others who were Jewish on the boats.
Another observance related to Sukkot involves what are known as The Four Species (arba minim in Hebrew) or the lulav and etrog. We are commanded to take these four plants and use them to “rejoice before the L-rd.” The four species in question are an etrog (a citrus fruit native to Israel), a palm branch (in Hebrew, lulav), a myrtle branch (hadas) and a willow branch (arava). The three branches are bound together and referred to collectively as the lulav. The etrog is held separately. With these four species in hand, one recites a blessing and waives the species in all six directions (east, south, west, north, up and down, symbolizing the fact that G-d is everywhere). There is a deeper meaning for all of these species, the explanation of which is beyond the scope of this paper.
The four species are also held during the Hallel prayer in religious services, and are held during processions around the bimah (the pedestal where the Torah is read) each day during the holiday. These processions commemorate similar processions around the alter of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The processions are known as Hoshanahs, because while the procession is made, we recite a prayer with the refrain, “Hoshana!” (please save us!). On the seventh day of Sukkot, seven circuits are made. For this reason, the seventh day of Sukkot is known as Hoshanah Rabbah (G-d save us) (the great Hoshanah). The eighth day is a day of no ordinary work and of a public assembly. It is a festival in itself called Sh’mini Atzeret (8th Day of Assembly) It is as if G-d is saying; “Ok, you get one more day of this joyous occasion to tabernacle with Me.” It is also a time of celebrating the new cycle of the Torah; thanking G-d we are privileged to read, study, and live it for another year. One more day to pray for Messiah’s return soon and in our lifetimes.
Rabbi Tamah Davis