Friday, September 28, 2007

Sukkot: Season of Our Joy


After the solemnity of the High Holy Days, comes Sukkot, which is the Jewish Thanksgiving. It is the Festival of the Ingathering Harvest, the last harvest before winter.
Sukkot is one of the shaloshim regalim--the three pilgrimage festivals--seasons in which Israelites were commanded to bring offerings to the temple in Jerusalem. It is commanded in Torah thus:

"On the fifteenth day of the seventh month is the feast of Sukkot (Booths) to Adonai, to last seven days...when you have gathered the produce of your land, you shall observe a festival to Adonai...You shall dwell in sukkot seven days...in that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I, Adonai your G-d." (Leviticus 23: 34, 39, 42-43).

Sukkot started at sunset on Wednesday. So on Wednesday afternoon, N. and I decorated the Sukkah so that we could observe the festival. I strung the chile lights up while N. cut branches from trees that needed trimming on our land. We figure it will take several years of Sukkot building to actually trim down the trees as much as they need it.


A sukkah is essentially a harvest booth. In the days of old Israel, people would build booths near their fields and orchards in order to sleep near where they were working the harvest. The booth should have branches across the roof, called schkach, to shade the interior, but it should be thin enough that one can sit in the sukkah at night and count the stars, as our father Abraham did of old, reminding us that the offspring of Israel will number as the stars.

We beautify the mitzvah (commandment) of the sukkah by decorating it with vegetables and fruits of the harvest. Ours has Indian corn and peppers tied to the roof, and pumpkins and squash to decorate the table. We take our meals in the sukkah throughout the seven days, which is enough to satisfy the commandment to dwell in the sukkah.


Since the first night and day are days of festival, we light candles (or lamps--since we are outside) and make a blessing over a cup of wine (called Kiddush) to usher in the Holy Time. Being that we are the spiritual descendents of wanderers (Ivri--Hebrew--means boundary crosser), we do not, as a rule, sanctify spaces; rather we sanctify time. For example, the synagogue sanctuary is not a sanctified space. But the times we celebrate there are holy, as is the holy kahal--congregation--that prays there.

There is another commandment we observe at Sukkot. It is the commandment of the four species. In Leviticus we are also told:

"...you shall take the product of goodly trees (citron), together with the branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees (myrtle), and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your G-d seven days." (Leviticus 23:40)



Lulav and Etrog
by N.

During Sukkot we wave the lulav and etrog, in six directions while we are dwelling in the sukkah. The lulav is a bundle that has the palm branch in the middle, two willow branches on one side, and three myrtle branches on the other. The etrog is a citron, which smells really, really good! It looks like a lemon, but it is larger and jucier and smells sweeter. We hold the lulav in the right hand, and the etrog in the left hand, and we face east. We shake the lulav three times east, three times south, three times west, three times north, three times up and three times down. This shows that G-d is everywhere! While we do the shaking, we sing "Hodu l'Adonai ki tov!" That means "Give thanks to Adonai for G-d is good."

There is a story about what the lulav and etrog mean. The willow branches have no smell and no taste, like the Jew who does not study Torah and does not do good deeds. The myrtle branches have a sweet smell, but no taste, like the Jew who studies Torah, but does not do good deeds. The palm branch is from the date palm, and it has no smell, but the dates are sweet to taste, like the Jew who does not study Torah but does good deeds. And the etrog--the citron--has both a good smell and tastes good, like the Jew who both studies Torah and does good deeds. We bring them all together when we thank G-d on Sukkot because the it takes all kinds of Jews to make our people Israel.

Back to you, Mom!

Here is Bruce demonstrating the waving of the Lulav and Etrog in our Sukkah.

Sukkot brings together so many things! All of the senses are involved. We sit in the beautiful Sukkah and feast our eyes on the colors of autumn and the full harvest moon. We wave the lulav, smelling the myrtle leaves and the citron. We taste the sweet wine and eat good food there. We hear the swish of the lulav and the melody of Hodu l'Adonai. We feel the warmth of the sun, the cool breeze of sunset, and the night air on our skin and in our breathing. All of the senses are involved in making a memory. The memory of wandering in the wilderness, fed by manna from the desert. The memory of all of our ancestors, who also sat in their sukkot the same way that we are now.


As we sit in our Sukkot--booths that shake a little in the wind, we also look at our houses with thankfulness, and remind ourselves of the fragility of our lives. Everything we have could be gone in an instant. It is essentially dust in the wind. We are commanded to rejoice in the bounty of earth, given to us freely. We are reminded that life is fragile and fleeting, a gift from the Eternal. And we remember that we are one with our ancestors, who wandered in the wilderness, becoming a people through shared hardship and emunah--reliance on the Eternal.



In the Birkat ha-Mazon--the blessing after food, we sing:
"Poteach et yadecha..."--You open your Hand and satisfy the needs of every living thing.

Essentially, everything we have comes from the Eternal. We did not make it. We do not own it. Our existance is predicated on the gift of life and the gifts of the earth. And therefore we have the obligation to care for and nurture life and the earth that sustains it. It is not ours to destroy. We must be good stewards of creation so that we and our children may live.

During Sukkot we read Kohelet the Preacher, who said:

"What profit it a man of all his labor that he works under the sun? One generation passes and another comes, but earth abides forever...For what has a man from all his labor, all his striving under the sun. For all his days are pains, and occupation a vexation...this also is vanity. There is nothing better than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy pleasure for his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of G-d...All the days of his life which G-d has given; for that is his portion...Let him remember that the days of his life are not many; for G-d answers him in the joy of his heart." (Ecclesiastes 1:3-4; 2:22-24; 5:17-19).

It is good to take the time to rejoice in the fruits of our labor, for our lives are fragile and fleeting and what remains is memory.

Chag Sameach--Happy Holiday--during the Season of Our Rejoicing!

3 comments:

Amie said...

I love reading about how you observe Holidays. You also answered my question (which I tried to post before, but the comments were not working at the time) about the Sukkot. I thought you were supposed to sleep in them too.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Amie,

You can sleep in them. And many people do. However, since Sukkot is called zeman simchateinu which is the season of our joy, the rabbis reasoned that we must enjoy the Sukkah and the festival. So if the weather is cold or one would be made uncomfortable by sleeping in the Sukkah, then taking meals in the Sukkah and spending time there each day is enough. And if it is raining at meal times, then one should not even eat out there. However, if it is only sprinkling, then one can make the Kiddush and Motzi (blessings over bread and wine) in the Sukkah and then retire to the house to eat!

Whatever one does with the Sukkah, the bottom line is to make it beautiful and enjoyable!

Megan from Down Under said...

E I think the Jewish faith needs to make you a special ambassador. I learn every time I read your blog entries. They are simply fantastic.

Things are going well down here. I have still had no contact from my angel but my heart has healed and I have put the incident behind me as much as I can.

Mxx