Sukkot follows Yom Kippur

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Sukkot is one of the three Pilgrim Festivals, which now take place in the home and synagogue. It is the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles in Autumn (September/ October) despite being linked to the Exodus which has associations with Spring (e.g. Passover). Sukkot begins on the 15th of Tishrei, a full moon. Sukkot is plural for Sukkah, the tabernacle. It is also called "The Season of Our Rejoicing" and contrasts with Yom Kippur before.

Sukkot's origin is the harvest festival (Exodus 23:16; Leviticus 23:39; Dueteronomy 16:13), not in nomadic circumstances but with the harvest huts alongside crop growing some time after settling in Canaan, when the Israelites had begun to grow crops. Originally the Hebrews were shepherds, and then they were slaves in Egypt, and in the wilderness for 40 years they did not grow crops. Then they did. Sukkot in the Bible has meanings of a cattle-pen or military or agricultural shelter (Genesis 33: 17; 2 Samuel 11: 11; 1 Kings 20: 12, 16; Isiah 1: 8; Job 27: 8). Harvesting grapes and drinking their wine led to condemnation by Hebrew prophets.

Then came linkage to the Exodus and that mythic-historical movement of a people into liberation. The connection is the flimsy accommodation suggesting Hebrew people on their way through the wilderness. Survival in such booths would have needed faith and therefore is dependence on God.

Although the idea is that the people of the Exodus lived in booths, they will have used tents. The booths are an invented tradition. The booths' real origin is a sitting place in the hot sun of the day for agricultural workers. They are still used in Israel.

There is an association of origin of booths with the much later return from exile in Babylonian (538 BCE). Ezra, a Torah expert, brought the command to use booths from Babylon (see Leviticus 23: 39-43)

Harvest celebrations took place at these booths in Canaan and also there was harvest festival celebrated in the Temple (Exodus 23: 16) at the Feast of Ingathering when the best produce was brought to God. But then it became the historical commemoration of the time in the wilderness. In fact at the synagogue one person holding the Torah and others circling around with the bound four species suggests the ancient Temple service.

So, like the Seder celebration at Passover, Sukkot has agricultural origins which then is tied to an event. It retains the relationship to nature, not this time using food but in the form of the booths and their construction.

The Leviticus instruction (above) states confusingly: shall keep a feast to the Lord seven days; on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. (Leviticus 23: 39-43)

This confusion about the eighth day means it is holy too. It becomes regarded as its own festival which is known as Shemini Atzeret or "solemn assembly". The Torah instructs celebration but not how. On this day in Israel and reform elsewhere is celebrated Simchat Torah, but on separate days by the Orthodox in the diaspora. Simchat Torah is the end of the yearly cycle of reading the Torah and the beginning of the next cycle, finishing with the end of Dueteronomy and starting with Genesis, read by two "bridegrooms", one for each. This is a day of noisy joy in the synagogue.

No work should be done on the first and eighth days. Note that in Israel the Orthodox Jew celebrates Sukkot for eight days, though on entering the Sukkah their prayers do regard it as a different day. The extra day is a recognition of the sanctity of place of Israel. So eating takes place in the sukkah for seven days, and not eight.

Biblical and Mishnah requirements for the booths:

The sides of the sukkah should be no higher than twenty handbreadths and no lower than ten. Too big would suggest it is too permanent, too small would make it unclear whether a private space. There is a minimum size of seven handbreadths square but the roof has a minumum of only one handbreadth square, needing a covering. There is no maximum. Two walls should establish the minimum dimensions. The roof can slope but no more than its higher edge being over three handbreadths above the lower edge.

It is not enough to build a booth for display. It might be placed in the back garden of a house or on the patio. In the synagogue the ordinary roof may roll back from a space with three walls so that a temporary roof can be put in place. It can be big enough for the congregation if so wanted.

Vegetation makes up the roof constructions. The covering for the roof must come from plant materials, like foliage or grasses, but not growing like a climbing plant which would be wrong as it suggests permanence.

What else the construction represents:

Sukkot connects Jewish families through space and time. This requires hospitality towards others in the faith, including inviting a visitor to the meals in the Sukkah.


Every day during Sukkot, except on Shabbat, synagogue services have the arba'at haminim (Four Species) bound together up to and including the last day of Hoshanah Rabbah.

Lulav the shoot of a young palm tree
Etrog a citron (large lemon like but aromatic smell)
Hadas myrtle leaves
Arava willow leaves

The lulav, myrtle and willow are usually contained together in a specially prepared holder plaited from palm leaves with the etrog. Thus bound together they are shaken in a synagogue service so that the pointed ends of the palm leaves rustle, producing a sound like rain which is prayed for every day except Shabbat. This suggests openness to nature. It echoes the roof of the booth protecting against heavy rain but is not waterproof.

These species are symbolic, like Seder foods are symbolic, this time of observance and commitment. To have all four so held represents the interdependent unity of the Jewish community and its faith.

The myrtle branch Sweet smell, no taste Little study of the Torah, good practical deeds with the commandments
The date palm Taste, no smell Good study of the Torah, few practical deeds and use of the commandments
Etrog Good smell, good taste (marmalade!) Good study of the Torah, good practical deeds with the commandments
Willow No smell, no taste Little study of the Torah, few practical deeds and use of the commandments (in other words, little Judaism)

Good specimins of these must be used, particularly of the etrog. It has a pittom, like a stalk, which can easily break off. If it does it cannot be used in the synagogue.

During a service the Four Species are carried round the synagogue in procession behind the Torah Scrolls and waved while Psalms 113 to 118 (hoshanahs) are sung or said. They are waved East, South, West, North, upwards and downwards three times each. This represents the omnipresence of God.

On Hoshanah Rabbah (the Great Hoshanah - hoshanah means save us or salvation) the procession goes round seven times and more hoshanahs are said, thus the Great Hossannah. On the final circuit palm branches are beaten on the floor until the leaves come off. This could symbolise resurrection after death, shedding sins or simply represents autumn but is a request for salvation.