Sukkot is a Jewish holiday most commonly known as the Feast of the Tabernacles. During Sukkot the Jewish people celebrate the fall harvest. It also commemorates the 40 years that the Jewish people wandered in the desert after they left Egypt. It is one of the three important pilgrimage festivals, the others being Passover and Shavuot. People celebrate Sukkot by eating their meals and sometimes sleeping in special temporary huts built for the holiday. The word sukkot means huts (singular is sukkah) in Hebrew. Sukkot is also called the Feast of Huts and Chag Ha-Asif (Harvest Festival, or the Festival of Ingathering).
Sukkot begins at Sundown on the 15th day of Tishrei, which is the 7th month of the Jewish calendar. Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, the dates vary year to year and range from late late September to early October. The first day of Sukkot is a holy day. Work is prohibited. The last day of Sukkot is Hoshanah Rabah and is spent at the Synagogue. On Hoshanah Rabah, the celebrants circle the room 7 times while holding the Arbat Haminim and reciting special prayers. The Arbat Haminim consists of a citron in the left hand and a wand made from a palm branch, myrtle branches, and willow branches in the right hand.
Following Yom Kippur, families build and decorate the hut used during Sukkot.
These huts have at least three walls which are sturdy enough to withstand normal wind. You make the roof out of plan materials like branches. The roof material needs to be dense enough to provide more shade than the sunlight but not solid. People should be able to see the stars through the gaps in the roofing material. The family decorates the hut together, often with plants and fruits associated with the harvest.
During Sukkot, families spend as much time as they can in these temporary structures, weather and health permitting. At the minimum, they share their meals inside the sukkah. Sometimes they sleep there as well. The huts symbolize the temporary homes the Jewish people lived in when they were wandering the desert after escaping Egypt.
The name Feast of the Tabernacle refers to the portable sanctuary that Moses built so that the Jewish people had a place to worship while they crossed the desert. The sukkot symbolizes the temporary structures Jewish people built near their fields when it was time for the harvest.
During Sukkot, people wave the Arbat Haminim while saying prayers.
The four species, Arbat Haminim, consist of etrag (citron), lulav (palm branch), hadasim (myrtle), and aravot (willow). People combine the palm branch, myrtle, and willow together to form a wand. They call the wand the lulav because the palm branch is the most prominent component. Holding the lulav in right hand and the citron in the left, they wave the four species in 6 directions while praying–east, south, west, north, up, and then down.
During Sukkot, families recite Ushpizin.
Ushpizin is the Aramaic word for guest. It is a prayer inviting prominent people of the Jewish faith to celebrate with them. The practice serves as a reminder of the importance of hospitality. It also serves as a reminder to help the poor because the ushpizin won’t enter a sukkah if the poor are not welcomed there.
The prayer invites seven men: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and King David. Not only did each of these men play an important role in the Jewish faith, but each symbolizes a valued personal characteristic. In the same order as the men who represent them, these characteristics are loving kindness, strength, beauty, eternity, majesty, foundation, and sovereignty.
Some Jewish traditions now include 7 prominent Jewish women who represent these characteristics as well. The names and the order of the women is not as well established as it is for the men. One solid example is Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther.
Sharing food is an important aspect of Sukkot.
As is true with many Jewish holidays, there are some specific foods associated with the holiday. Kreplach, steamed dumplings, are the food specifically associated with Sukkot.
Along with the Kreplach, families enjoy a wide variety of traditional Jewish holiday foods. This includes Kugel and challah. Kugel is a baked casserole made from either egg noodles or potatoes. Challahs, rich, braided breads, are also favorite holiday treat.
To celebrate the harvest, dishes commonly include foods found with the local harvests. In the USA, apples, carrots, sweet potatoes, and squashes are common during Sukkot. Stuffed foods, such as stuffed cabbage or peppers, are also traditional. These dishes symbolize the abundance of the harvest. Hearty soups, stews, and other one pot dishes that are easy to carry out to the sukkah are also favored.
Sukkot is a favorite holiday and a great one, we find, to celebrate with kids. We hope that for those of you who celebrate it, that you have a wonderful holiday and for those who are just learning, that we’ve given you a glimpse into another Jewish holiday.
Chag Sameach! (Happy Holiday!)
Our blogs on other Jewish Holidays
- Passover: Memories of Years Past
- Rosh Hashanah
- Yom Kippur
- Hanukkah: A Brief History of Hanukkah, The Dreidel: History and How to Play
Check out our Special Feature section on Holidays Around the World, too!