Festival of Booths
The festival is primarily a supreme thanksgiving festival to YHVH. Because Sukkot was one festival that everyone could attend, it has become tradition that it is at this time of year that communities have their gatherings and informal communal meetings.
In biblical times, Sukkot was the most popular and most joyous festival of the year (harvest festivals usually were – see Isa 24:13-16). Because it mainly celebrated the final harvest of the year, everyone was freed from their work, and was able to go along. It is the third of the Pilgrim Festivals (the others being Passover and the Festival of First Fruits).
The traditional meaning of the holiday is that it commemorates the time when the Israelites dwelt in booths during their forty-year wandering in the desert (Lev 23:43). However, it is unlikely that the Israelites dwelt in booths / field-shelters, rather in tents. A more likely origin is that the very ancient Hebrews built booths to watch over their crops – the final crops of the year. In its most primitive form, it probably had a connection to a Canaanite nature festival. The Hebrews copied it, and when the worship of YHVH was reasserted among the Hebrews, the festival was too ingrained to abolish, so it was given a new meaning in Mosaic Law.
The general observance of Sukkot
The festival begins on the 15th day of the Seventh Month, and lasts for seven days. The first day and the day after (the Eighth day of Closed Assembly) 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, fragrant or 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. You can also decorate the booth with any type of fruit that is fragrant or attractive.
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 only ‘species’ that is waved during the festival is a frond of a date palm.
The shape of a booth is not dictated or prescribed either (despite what the rabbis say), but 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 top-covering (sekhakh) is of plant material, not cloth or canvas.
There are two types of ‘booth’ or sukkah: one is simply 4 poles with a flat roof, and no sides; and the other has sides to it. The first type is the traditional field-shelter under which a farmer sits and sleeps to guard his crops, and the second is the type of sukkah used during the festival. We know this because we are commanded to dwell ‘in’ booths; you cannot dwell ‘in’ a field shelter (because there are no sides or walls, you can only dwell ‘under’ a field-shelter).
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 a palm branch. This is very enjoyable for the children.
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.
By tradition, a portion of the Psalms of Praise (Psalms 111 – 118) is sung each day. Also, every Sabbatical year on each day of the festival, a long portion of the 5 books of Torah is read publicly (see Neh 8:18).
Also in ancient times, traditionally each night there was dancing, singing and feasting (see the tractate Tosefta, Sukkah part IV).
In the morning before breakfast, from the second to the seventh day, we can 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 of the 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.
The Eighth Day of Closed Assembly – Yom Shmini ha-‘Atzéret
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.
On the seventh day, we prayed for the blessing of rain for other nations; on this day, we pray for rain for Israel. 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.
Sukkot was for Israel and all the Nations; Yom ha-Atseret was for Jews and Godfearers only
The ‘atzéret was a private gathering for the House of Isrel (Jews and Godfearers): Because of Zekh 14:16-21, and other passages like Isa 56:6-7, Sukkot was also a festival associated with Gentiles. During Sukkot, our thoughts and prayers go out to all nations. Many Gentiles also enjoyed the celebration, and were included in it (Deut 16:14). However, the eighth day was set apart exclusively for Jews and Godfearers, a closed assembly (`atzeret) for those who serve only YHVH. In modern Hebrew, `atseret means a rally for a political party.
On this day, we become introspective. We examine our personal ability to fulfil our mission as followers of YHVH – to live lives worthy of YHVH, in our outlook, in our attitudes, in our ethical principles, and in our cultural distinctiveness. We also remember God’s promises, uplifting our souls by remembering what God has said He will do for Israel.
Other points to note
- In our tradition, the eighth day is not the “Rejoicing of the Law” (Simchat Torah). That is observed at Yom Tru`ah (the Day of Shout and Trumpet – that is, in thanks and welcoming for God’s Torah, when the whole of Deuteronomy is read).
- The festival consists of seven days for Sukkot, and one day – the eighth day – for the `atzeret (closed assembly).
- Only the first and eighth days are days of rest.
- We do not wave ‘four species’, we only wave a palm branch, and build our booths out of the plants
- There is no necessity for an etrog; the booth can be decorated with any fruit, leaves and shady or aromatic branches.