Thursday, September 27, 2007


After the solemn holiday of Yom Kippur, it's time for a more joyful Jewish holiday - Sukkot. It lasts for 7 days, but the 2 separate holidays following the festival (Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah) are related and sometimes thought of as part of Sukkot. It is the last of three pilgrimage festivals.

Historically, Sukkot commemorates the 40-year period when the Israelites wandered in the desert, living in temporary shelters. The word "Sukkot" is a plural word means "booths" or "huts" (or "shelters" or "covers") and refers to those temporary dwellings. The dwellings were made of branches and were easy to assemble, take apart and travel with.

Sukkot is also a harvest festival sometimes referred to as the Festival of Ingathering ("Chag Ha'asif"). This focuses on hospitality, and it is important to share your meal with others.

No work is permitted the first two days of Sukkot, but okay on the remaining days. Those days are generally used to prepare food, clean house or travel to visit family all in celebration or preparation for the holiday. Activities that will interfere with relaxation and enjoyment of the holiday (laundry, mending, labor-intensive activities) are not permitted.

The focal point of the festival is the sukkah (the singular form of sukkot). Those who observe Sukkot build and live in a sukkah for 7 days. They are temporary shelters, the roofs covered with foliage, and fruits and vegetables are hung inside. Families eat their meals in the huts. Most people just eat in them, but some sleep in them as well. You can buy kits to build them. They can be built of any material, but the roof must be organic.

On each of the 7 days of Sukkot, the Torah requires the Jew to take Four Species of plants and to grasp and shake them in a specific manner. This ceremony is a symbolic prayer to invoke God's blessing for rain in the coming year for the earth's vegetation. This is usually done in synagogue during the daily prayer services but can be done at home or in the sukkah.

Shemini Atzeret ("the assembly of the eighth (day)") is a separate festival that follows immediately after Sukkot, on the 8th day. The family returns indoors to eat and sleep in their house, special synagogue services are held, and holiday meals are served.

Simchat Torah ("the joy of the Torah") falls on the 9th day. The very last portion of the Torah is read in synagogue during morning services and the very first portion of the Torah (beginning of Genesis) is read immediately after. This conveys the idea that Torah study never ends. In Orthodox synagogues, all the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and worshippers engage in rounds of spirited dancing. In the Former Soviet Union, Simchat Torah was the day when Jews would gather in the street outside the synagogue to dance and proclaim their Jewishness openly.


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