Sukkot: Jews gather ‘neath the sukkah for harvest festival, Feast of Booths

Woman hanging vegetables from a straw roof

A woman decorates her family sukkah in preparation for Sukkot. Photo by Julia Glassman, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 18: An ancient harvest festival of thanksgiving blends seamlessly with a biblical story in the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which begins tonight and lasts seven days (or eight, in the Diaspora).

Almost immediately following the solemn Yom Kippur, which occurred five days ago, adherent Jews began constructing a hut—a sukkah, more specifically—where they will spend as much time as possible during the seven or eight days of Sukkot. Constructed of both man-made and natural materials, sukkahs trace their origins to ancient Egypt, where the Hebrews lived in similar temporary structures for the 40 years following Exodus. Jews today follow literally the biblical command to “dwell in booths for seven days,” taking this opportunity to release material desires and focus on their faith.

Historically, the booths or huts were used by farmers in early autumn, providing a temporary living structure during the final hectic days of the year’s harvest. When the Bible related the structures to the Hebrews’ huts, Jews took a religious meaning to the practice. (My Jewish Learning has more.) During the days of the Temple, Sukkot was one of three pilgrimage festivals in which Jews traveled to Jerusalem.

Children gather in a blue-tarp-wall sukkah, or temporary structure

Children gather in a sukkah to learn about Sukkot. Photo courtesy of Flickr

While a fun project, building a sukkah also requires specific regulations to be met.

ENJOY A JEWISH OVERVIEW OF THE HOLIDAYS

This year, we welcome Jewish author Debra Darvick, who is known nationally for writing books and columns about the diversity of Jewish life. You may have seen Debra’s byline in national magazines, such as Good Housekeeping. She’s also a ReadTheSpirit author and columnist.

Today, Debra is sharing a chapter from her book, This Jewish Life, that explains Sukkot, explains the rules Jewish families follow in building these unusual structures, and also introduces the two closely connected observances that follow Sukkot: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Please, enjoy that chapter—as you learn about the odd-looking huts that you may see popping up in Jewish neighbors’ back yards.

FRESH IDEAS ONLINE

Inspiration with a practical twist: This year, a sukkah builder in Los Angeles took to heart the readings of the book of Kohelet when he built a sukkah out of—believe it or not—homeless signs. After paying each homeless person for his or her sign, he is constructing a sukkah to raise awareness about homelessness on multiple levels. Read more in the Jewish Journal, or join the effort by visiting www.homelesssukkah.com.

In search of a new harvest recipe for family or friends? Check out the Sweet and Sour Stuffed Cabbage recipe that Bobbie Lewis prepares for her family—complete with a video Bobbie made to show easier handling of the cabbage leaves.

Quick quiz: Did America’s pilgrims base the first Thanksgiving on the harvest festival of Sukkot? Yes—and no. While experts affirm that it’s likely Pilgrims turned to the Bible for inspiration in praising God for a good harvest, they didn’t mimic the booth-building of Sukkot. (Read a full story at JNS.org.)

Sukkot ends at dusk on September 25. Shemini Atzeret immediately follows and, in the Diaspora, Simchat Torah occurs one day later.

 

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  1. Thank you for this informative article.
    For readers who would like to see the rare and entertaining movie based on this holiday, there is Ushpizin, an Israeli film as I recall. My review of it it can be found in the ReadtheSpirit site Visual Parables. Just go to the Film Index. A good film for people of all faiths.

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