Judaism, one of the three monotheistic religions, is practiced by the Jewish people since the 9th century BCE. It is their way of life and religion, with tenets and laws form the Torah.
It has several festivals, most of which are centered on the family. The three major ones observed each year:
- Pesach. It is about the Biblical Passover and Exodus of the Jews from Egypt.
- Shavuot or Pentecost. It is also called the Festival of Weeks.
- Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles. It remembers the Sojourn in the Wilderness, or the years that the Jewish people spent in the desert to reach the Promised Land, and putting their trust in God to protect them throughout their journey.
What is Sukkot?
Sukkot is an annual Jewish festival. In 2020 it starts in the evening of October 2 and ends in the evening of October 9. In other translations, Sukkot is called the Feast of Ingathering or the Festival of Shelters.
Sukkot holds a double significance, as it is referred to in the Torah as Chag Hasukkot or the Festival of Booths and Chag HaAsif, or Festival of Ingathering (Harvest Festival). In the Book of Exodus, the festival is mentioned as an agriculture festival or year-end Festival of Ingathering.
But in the Book of Leviticus, Sukkot means the commemoration of the Jews’ journey through the desert or their 40-year exodus from Egypt to Canaan, the “Land of Milk and Honey.” Today, the territory includes Israel, Jordan, West Bank, and Gaza, as well as the southern parts of Lebanon and Syria. Throughout history, the area has been called different names, such as Djahy, Holy Land, Bilad es-Shem, Eretz-Israel, and Palestine.
Sukkot is a plural term. The singular word is Sukkah, which translates to tabernacle or booth. A Sukkah is a makeshift dwelling that farmers build where they can rest during the harvest season. It also represents the type of living spaces the Israelites built during their 40-year journey across the Sinai Desert.
Sukkot customs and rituals
The festival lasts for seven days in Israel. However, in Jewish communities around the world, Sukkot is an eight-day festival. No one is allowed to work on the first day of Sukkot, but during the middle days of the holiday (Chol Hamoed), specific work is allowed. People are permitted to work if their work contributes to the observance of the festival, or if they will incur financial losses if they do not work. However, the rest of the workforce is encouraged to take a vacation during Sukkot.
While observing the holiday, certain activities, such as shaving, cutting their hair, or laundry washing, are not allowed.
During Sukkot, each Jewish family builds a transitory, open-air hut with three walls, reminiscent of the huts built by their ancestors in the desert. They must eat their meals and sleep in the huts during the 7-day holiday. The huts should be made from light and flimsy materials. The roof should have leaves and tree branches. They should be able to see the sky while inside the hut.
Another ritual they observe is the waving ceremony, which they perform every day. Jews create a special bunch made from specific plant materials. They need an etrog, a type of citron fruit, one lulav (a green, closed, ripe frond of a date palm), three hadass (twigs from the myrtle tree, with leaves), and two aravah (willow tree branches with leaves). These plants are vital to the Jews; thus, they spend lavishly to find the freshest branches and twigs, the most beautiful etrog and the most straight date palm frond.
To create the bunch, the lulav is placed in the center, the aravah branches on the left and the hadass twigs on the right. They should be bound with palm fronds.
Jews will recite a blessing while waving the bunch in every direction, holding it in their dominant hand, and the etrog fruit in the other. Several explanations are given why these four plants are used for the ceremony. One of them is that the plants represent different parts of the body:
- Heart – etrog
- Mouth – aravah
- Eyes – hadass
- Lulav – spine
For the Jews, these plants represent their entire body, and they bind them together to symbolize their desire to consecrate themselves wholly to serve God.
On the last day of Sukkot, the Jews go around their synagogue’s room seven times before they recite their prayers.
No special food is prepared for Sukkot. However, since the holiday is also a harvest festival, people prepare traditional food using vegetables and fruits. Most of the foods they eat during Sukkot are those that are easy to transport from the kitchen of the main house. They often have honey-dipped challah, kreplach (on the last day), different grains such as oat, wheat, barley, spelt, and rye. They also usually have different salads, soups, and stuffed vegetables.
For the children, and the family as a whole, they prepare different snacks made from potatoes, sweet vegetable dishes called tzimmes, casseroles, fish, tarts and strudels.
Alternative ways to celebrate Sukkot
In the Jewish diasporas, you may not have the space to build a hut, as you may be living in apartments and condominium units.
There are still ways to celebrate the holiday. You can build a sukkah using a tent or a large tablecloth inside your home. Otherwise, think of the sukkah’s content – proving a temporary dwelling. There are still countless homeless people.
You can help provide them with a home, by donating to Habitat for Humanity or to some organizations affiliated with the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. You can donate some of the household things you no longer use to organizations in your community that help people move into homes after staying in homeless shelters.
It may be difficult to go to a farm and help harvest fruits and vegetables due to the pandemic, but you can support local farmers by buying their produce. You can also buy the products imported from Israel just for the holiday.
Instead of creating your lulav bunch, order one online. The more important thing is to do the waving ceremony and saying your blessings and prayers.
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