Festivals, Prayers & Services
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 denominations have their gatherings and informal communal meetings. In our tradition, the Nasi was elected during Sukkot in ancient times.
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 obligatory Pilgrim Festivals (the others being Passover and the Festival of First Fruits).
The traditional rabbinic meaning of the holiday is that it supposedly commemorates the time when the Israelites dwelt in booths during their forty-year wandering in the desert (based on Lev 23:43). However, throughout the Torah, and elsewhere, it says that the Israelites dwelt in tents, not booths.
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 at this time of year. 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 more feasible interpretation of Lev 23:42-43 is that it commemorates how, when the Israelites first left Egypt, they dwelt in a place called Sukkot (Ex 12:37) – which at that time meant ‘shanty-town’. Therefore, the sukkah commemorates how the Israelites dwelt in shanty-huts. This would also colour how we view what the structure of the sukkah should be.
General Themes of the Festival
- Thanksgiving, rejoicing and pure joy
- prayers for rain in Israel
- prayers for good crops in Israel during next year’s agricultural cycle
- prayers for the welfare of the Nations (for good crops and rain)
- ‘God of all Nations’
- the temporariness and frailty of life
- our reliance on God’s providence
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 regular work is done.
The first day
On the first day (i.e. not before, see Lev 23:40), those who are able to do so, 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. Furthermore, Neh 8:15-16 also mentions oleaster (wild olive) branches, myrtle twigs, and generally any shady, fragrant or leafy branches. There are not specifically ‘four species’ of plants as the Rabbanites have ordained; rather the intent is to collect together any leafy, shady and fragrant boughs, leaves and branches. In Israel, these could come from any fruit trees, oleaster 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 (nor do we wave etrogs). The only ‘species’ that is waved during the festival – according to tradition recorded in the Bible – is a frond of a date palm.
The booth can be built anywhere – on roofs, in courtyards, in open or public places, or in your garden (cf. Neh 8:16). The sukkah is not meant to be an indoor hut.
If the first day of Sukkot is a Sabbath, then the sukkah can be built in the hours leading up to the first evening of Sukkot.
Who is to build a sukkah?
Lev 23:42 says that ‘every ezrach in Israel shall dwell in Sukkot’. In Talmidaism, an ezrach is any Israelite who has full citizen rights in Israel according to Torah. This would be those of Israelite / Jewish descent, as well as full converts, since converts are to be treated as a native-born (Lev 19:34). Elsewhere, festival laws are to be observed by both ezrach and the foreigner who dwells among us and is circumcised (eg the laws of Pesach).
One can extrapolate from this, and deduce that all Israelites (by descent and by conversion) are required to build a sukkah (if they are able to). However, it should also be noted that the separate commandment to actually build a sukkah is not restricted to any specific group of people, so anyone who practices the Israelite faith exclusively can build a sukkah – and this would include Godfearers.
The Shape of the Booth
The shape of a booth is not dictated or prescribed either (despite what the ancient rabbis say), but a booth is generally a free-standing, 4-cornered construction with one entrance (no door) and 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.
As for the size, it should be big enough to accommodate all the members of your household when they sleep there. A communal sukkah can be large enough to accommodate members of one’s community who might visit it.
There is a rabbinic stipulation from the Talmud that the roof should be such that one can see the stars through it, but in the modern age of light pollution, this would result in a very threadbare roof indeed! Another ancient tradition was that the roof was such that it did not keep out the rain – and this is a more sensible stipulation. So, for example, if you are making the roof out of palm fronds, there is only a single layer of fronds. If you are making a covering using a reed mat, you use only a single reed mat.
There are two types of ‘booth’ that the Hebrew word sukkah referred to: 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 sides of the sukkah can be made of anything – plant material, wood, cloth or canvas – and it should have sides. If the sukkah refers to the shanty-huts that the Israelites initially dwelt in when they first left Egypt, and stopped over in the town called Sukkoth (‘Shanty-town’), then this second type of shelter or booth is what the sukkah has to be. This implies that the sukkah should have sides, and not resemble a field-shelter.
The Temporariness of Life
One minor theme of the festival is the temporariness and frailty of life. If the sukkah falls down during the festival, it is not meant to be repaired or rebuilt. Our dwelling out under the stars is meant to remind us that everything we have is by the providence of YHVH.
When you build the sukkah, the intention is to build it sturdily, in the hope that it actually lasts the entire festival. With this intent in mind, a sturdily built sukkah should not need to be repaired or rebuilt.
We don’t bring luxuries into the sukkah; we only have the basic necessities for living. In our modern age, this brings us back to human basics, and helps us focus on what is important in life.
With regard to ‘going back to basics’, if you live in a climate which will allow, then if you can, you can even cook outside (but not in the sukkah). If you cannot cook outside, then when you cook inside your home during sukkot, do not use any fancy utensils (like food-mixers, bread-makers, etc). Only use basic equipment to make your food.
Dwelling in a house with sturdy bricks and mortar gives us a false sense of security in life. We only have one life, and anything can happen in that life. Anything can befall us – both good things and bad. The frailty of the booth reminds us of the frailty of human life; the booth is a place of joy and celebration, but any time that booth can be taken away, so be happy in life when you can, celebrate and give thanks while you can, for tomorrow it can be taken away. However, YHVH our God can never be taken away, and that is our Rock.
Customs during the seven days
For seven days, we dwell in the booths (Lev 23:42). Now, in ancient times, in the warm climate of the Holy Land, 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.
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.
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!
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).
The Water Drawing Ceremony (Beit ha-Sho`eivah)
On each day of the intervening days of the festival in ancient times (from the second to the sixth), there was the water drawing ceremony, where water was drawn from the Pool of Siloam in the southernmost corner of the city of Jerusalem, and carried up to Jerusalem in a golden pitcher by a priest, with great ceremony and rejoicing. The water was then poured out on a corner of the altar. Psalms of praise and deliverance (Hoshanot) were sung.
This ceremony was part of the general prayers for rain. The comment is recorded in the Mishnah that, ‘Whoever has not seen the joyful celebration of the Bet Hashoevah has never seen rejoicing in his life!’ (Mishnah Succah 5:1).
There is a reenactment of the ceremony on Youtube.
On the 2nd to 6th days, people walked around the altar, waving date palms, and made just one circuit. On the 7th day, they made seven circuits.
International nature of the festival
On each of the seven days, prayers are said for the welfare, bountiful crops and prosperity of all the nations of the earth.
Because of Zechariah 14:16-19 and Isa 56:6-7, Sukkot has always had an international aspect to it. In modern Israel, in Jerusalem on the first day of the festival, there is a Sukkot parade, which contains a parade of delegations from many nations. You can see a video of the 2019 Sukkot parade on Youtube, the parade of Nations starts at 1:44. There is another video of stills of various national delegations from the 2017 parade.
Because we also pray for the prosperity and welfare of all nations on each day, one theme of the festival is good will to all nations and religions, because YHVH is the God of all Nations.
On the seventh day
Right at the end of the seventh day, as part of the prayers for rain, water was poured out on a corner of the altar, and the priests walked round the altar seven times, beating willow branches to ask for a bountiful harvest next year (this is described in a tractate, Rosh haShanah, part 16a). Ordinary Israelites walked round waving date palms.
Some people have adapted this custom, and a willow branch is beaten on the ground around the booth, then water is poured out on a corner 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 8th 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 Israel (i.e. Jews and Godfearers): Because of Zech 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 or gathering 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 God 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. The etrog came to Persia from China in the 6th century BCE; the original Israelites in the time of Moses were completely unaware of the existence of etrogs, and so Torah cannot be referring to etrogs.
What you can do if you are unable to build a Sukkah
I’ve had a search on the internet, and found a few suggestions of some things you can do if you cannot build a booth. These first 3 are ONLY if you cannot build a booth, you cannot find a neighbour willing to let you visit theirs, or do not have access to a synagogue which has a booth):
- inside, decorate the top and sides of your front door with leafy decorations (either real or artificial), especially palm branches over the top, and plastic fruit and greenery down the sides (but oviously make sure you can still open and close your front door)!
- have a meal under an inside field-shelter on the first and last day (a field-shelter is a frame of four poles with a covering of greenery, real or artificial)
- if you have children, then they can build a mini sukkah inside and decorate it
If you can build a booth, then you shouldn’t do any of the above.
Here are some suggestions of things you can do whether you have a sukkah or not:
> have a family meal on the first and 7th day of the festival
- at the meal, give thanks to God for the bounty and abundance of things that have come to you over the past year since last Sukkot
- try to do without using your domestic luxuries – decide on what you are going to resist using during the festival (since you would not use these in a sukkah)
- support your local farmers’ market – visit and buy your fresh produce from there during the festival
- eat seasonal or local fruit and vegetables
- donate fresh produce, or tinned fruit/vegetable produce, to a charity
- donate to charities for the homeless
- get involved with community events as much as you can (since Sukkot is a festival about connecting with the broader community)
- connect with friends and family
- take some time to appreciate the outdoors – have a picnic with friends or family (begin and end with Sukkot prayers)
Here are some of the themes of the Festival, which might give you some more ideas:
> the unity of everyone who worships YHVH alone
- a time for connecting together everyone who worships YHVH – Israelites, Godfearers and Noachides
- a time for community gatherings, annual meeting of elders, election of community leaders etc
- God as Provider, Guide and Protector
- thanksgiving to God for our plenty and abundance
- the impermanence of life
- Torah study
- appreciating the outdoors