SERVICE FOR SUKKOT
The general observance of Sukkot
The festival begins on the 15th day of the Seventh Month, and lasts for seven days. The first and the eighth day are days of rest, on which no work is done.
The first day
On the first day (i.e. not before, see Lev 23:40), we build a booth out of various green and leafy branches and twigs. Lev 23:40 says these are to be of fruit trees, date branches, and willows. However, Neh 8:15-16 also mentions olive branches, myrtle twigs, and generally any shady and leafy branches. There are not specifically ‘four species’ of plants; rather the intent is to collect together any leafy, shady and fragrant boughs, leaves and branches. In Israel, these could come from fruit trees, olive trees, date branches, willows, and myrtle.
Leviticus does not tell us what we are supposed to do with the branches and leafy boughs, but from the passage in Nehemiah 8:15, it is clear that they are to be used to build the booths, not waved about like the rabbanites do.
The shape of a booth is not dictated or prescribed in Torah either – the knowledge of what it is is assumed. A booth is generally a free-standing, 4-cornered construction with a flat roof. That’s all it has to be, as long as the covering (sekhakh) is of plant material, not cloth or canvas. There are two types of booth: one is simply 4 poles with a rectangular flat roof, and no sides; and the other has sides to it.
The booth can be built anywhere – on roofs, in courtyards, in open or public places, or in your garden (cf. Neh 8:16).
One modern tradition right at the beginning of the festival, is that once the booth has been completed, everyone gathers with friends and family at the booth on the first day, singing the first psalm of praise (Ps 111), and waving leafy branches. This is very enjoyable for the children:
I will extol YHVH with all my heart
in the council of the upright and in the assembly.
Great are the works of YHVH;
they are pondered by all who delight in them.
Glorious and majestic are His deeds,
and His righteousness endures for ever.
He has caused his wonders to be remembered;
YHVH is gracious and compassionate.
He provides food for those who revere Him in awe;
He remembers His covenant for ever.
He has shown His people the power of His works,
giving them the lands of other peoples.
The works of His hands are faithful and just;
all His precepts are trustworthy.
They are steadfast for ever and ever,
done in faithfulness and righteousness.
He provided redemption for His people;
He ordained His covenant for ever
– holy and awesome is His name.
The reverent awe of YHVH is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
To Him belongs eternal praise.
Blessed be YHVH, who has ordained that we should dwell in booths for seven days. Blessed be YHVH, God of Israel and of all the Nations!
Hear O Israel, concerning what YHVH has instructed us to do:
“Speak to the Israelites and say, ‘On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, this is a festival of Booths, a period of seven days for YHVH. On the first day there is a sacred convocation; do not do any work of labour. For seven days present offerings made by fire to YHVH. On the eighth day it shall be a sacred convocation for all of you. And you shall present an offering made by fire to YHVH . It is a closed assembly; you shall not do any work of labour.’ ”
“Indeed, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered in the harvest of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of YHVH, a period of seven days. The first day is a day of rest, and the eighth day is a day of rest. On the first day, you are to take the foliage produced by majestic trees, the fronds of date palms, the branches of thickly-leafed trees, and white willows; and rejoice in the presence of YHVH your God for seven days. So celebrate it as a festival to YHVH for seven days each year. It is an eternal ordinance for the generations to come; in the seventh month you are to celebrate it. Dwell in booths for seven days – every native-born Israelite shall dwell in the booths. Because of this, your descendants will know that I made the Israelites dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am YHVH your God.”
“Then on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, you shall have a sacred convocation. You shall not do any work of labour. Celebrate a festival to YHVH for seven days.”
“Keep the Festival of Booths for seven days, after you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and from your winepress. Then rejoice at your Festival – you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and your maidservants, the Levites, the foreigners who are resident with you, the fatherless and the widows who live among you. Celebrate the Festival for seven days to YHVH your God at the place that YHVH will choose, for YHVH your God will bless you in all of your harvests and in everything you do and make, and you will indeed be joyful. Three times a year every one of your men shall appear before YHVH your God in the place that God will choose: at the Festival of Unleavened Bread, at the Festival of Weeks, and at the Festival of Booths. But no one shall appear before YHVH empty-handed; each of you shall give a gift in proportion to the way YHVH your God has given blessing to you.”
They found written in the Torah, which YHVH had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to dwell in booths during the Festival in the seventh month; and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem, saying: “Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive trees, and branches of oleasters, and branches of myrtle, branches of date palms, and branches of thick shady trees, to make booths” – as it is written. So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. The whole exile community who had returned built booths and dwelt in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of God’s Torah. They celebrated the Festival for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was a closed assembly.
(Now the family may serve a meal inside the booth)
During the seven days
For seven days, we dwell in the booths (Lev 23:42). Now, in ancient times, people literally lived in the booth for seven days; they ate and slept there. However, if it rains or is very cold, or you suffer from ill-health, then it is reasonable to take oneself inside one’s home, away from the elements.
In ancient times, on each day of the seven days of the festival, people would bring all kinds of offerings to the Temple (in proportion to how God had blessed them i.e. a tithe – see Deut 16:17). Those who attended the festival in the Temple were not to come empty-handed (Deut 16:16). Nowadays, (as a suggestion, and if one wishes), one could collect together some money or even food, hold it up as an offering to God while facing Jerusalem, and during the festival distribute that money or food to the poor.
Also on each day of the festival, a portion of the Torah is read (see Neh 8:18). By tradition, a portion of the Psalms of Praise (Psalms 111 – 118) is also sung each day.
Also in ancient times, traditionally each night there was dancing, singing and feasting (see the tractate Tosefta, Sukkah part IV).
In the Talmidi tradition, there has developed the following custom: in the morning before breakfast, from the second to the seventh day, we stand in the booth and bless God and sanctify the day. There is no specific biblical origin to this, but it helps to make each day ofthe Festival special, and there is never, ever, anything wrong with blessing YHVH!
On the seventh day
Right at the end of the seventh day, there is a custom left over from Temple times, when water was poured on the altar as part of a prayer for rain, and the priests walked round the altar, beating a willow branch to ask for a bountiful harvest next year (this is described in a tractate, Rosh haShanah, part 16a).
Some people have adapted this custom, and a willow branch is beaten on the ground around the booth, then water is poured on the walls of the booth, and the last psalm of praise (psalm 118) is sung. This quaint custom is especially enjoyable for children, and they should be encouraged to take part to close off the festival for them.
While pouring the water, one prays for those nations and lands which suffer drought, and we ask YHVH to bring them rain; and while we beat the willow, we pray for those nations and lands which suffer famine, and we ask YHVH to bring them a good harvest.
The booth is then dismantled.
In ancient times, Sukkot was strongly associated with prayers for rain. Because water supplies are still an issue in modern Israel, we still pray for rain in Israel. And when the rain comes, we bless God for the gift of it.
On the eighth day we do not dwell in the booth (it has already been dismantled, and Sukkot is over). It is a day of rest, and a day set apart for a solemn and private assembly (‘atzéret means ‘closed’ or ‘private’ assembly – see 2Ki 10:20, 23 – this meaning is obvious).
The day was set apart as a private assembly for the Israelites
In ancient times, on each day of the festival, bulls were sacrificed (Num 29:13-34). On the first day there were thirteen, decreasing by one each day, until the seventh day when there were only seven sacrificed – a total of seventy. It is said that these were the sacrifices for all the nations of the earth. However, on the eighth day of closed assembly, only one bull was sacrificed. It is said that this was for the people of Israel.