Here are some topics and ideas for discussion. They can be used in study or youth groups or even around the dinner table. Some may seem more suitable for older ages, although never underestimate the younger set, where some concepts may work just as well on a simpler level. For more background and ideas, be sure to look over our "Overview" and "Worthwhile Information" sections. Many of the topics below also dovetail well with suggested peulot / activities in our "Let's Get Busy section", so be sure to look that over.

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What's In A Name?

a pomegranates tree Review the alternate names for Sukkot. Discuss and debate which is the most meaningful to the students today. Or- divide them into small groups and each will present a case as to why their assigned name is so important today.

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So Many Thanks

hands holding olives Being thankful both for material harvests and personal achievements
  • We have just gone through an extended period of increasing teshuva [return] and introspection, as well as making amends with others. We now experience great relief at having reached the other side of this period. In an outward expansion, this is a good time for discussing and showing appreciation to God and to others in our lives.
  • It is said: "In the world to come all prayers will be eliminated except for prayers of thanksgiving, which will never be abolished" [Midrash Tehillim 80:56]. Sukkot is truly the whopper of Thanksgivings. We are thankful for the material harvests, for God's saving and care of us in our years of wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt, for achievements and times of good fortune this past year, for the personal relief after Yom Kippur and for moving ahead into a new and hopefully good year.
  • Sukkot is a time of thanksgiving for all the harvests and milestones in a person's life. It reminds us to not take such things for granted.
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I Thought It Was Just Some Odd Booth

dry leavesDon't take anything for granted
the negev desertTrust and self-reliance. The Negev Desert
the negev desertGo outside - build a sukkah!

"Dwelling" in the sukkah is a mitzvah. Dwelling is not only a physical place but a mental place too. The sukkah provides a wonder of symbolism and stimulation for both senses and mind…

  • The sukkah is a reminder of transience - nothing in life is truly permanent, and so should never be taken for granted. Sometimes that is a fairly scary thought, but there is also an important flip side…
  • Impermanence also has to do with openness, flexibility and preparedness to handle variation and change. Challenge, evolution as well as sudden change are all inherent in living, so one can look at this as a reminder of possibilities. Rabbi Akiva, for example, saw the sukkah as representing a concern that we not become too insular or falsely secure. Too much permanence can cut us off, limit or stunt us. One needs proper shelter but with sufficient openness. As we are thankful and celebrating this harvest just past, we already look ahead and start planning the next. What will be in your next "harvests"?, so-to-speak.
  • The sukkah, even in the rules of its construction, says to us to "look up", "be inspired by the sky", expand, be a dynamic part of God's creation.
  • The sukkah is yet another symbol of a leap of faith in God, as our ancestors took in leaving Egypt and the long sojourn in that desert. And of gratefulness for that redemption, protection and guiding hand. It also reminds of how far we have come as a people- as in that forty years of wandering, we started out as still too young, immature, and needing more help while raising a new generation to a point of more self-reliance and responsibility as a whole. It is worthwhile to also be thankful then for that patient "good parenting", and faith that the "parent" in a sense placed in our potential. More broadly, the sukkah teaches a lesson in both the necessities of trust and also self-reliance.
  • The sukkah strips down the "material" world. It thus helps to keep us "grounded" in what is most important. This is more relevant than ever today.
  • Take a look at some of Kohelet / Ecclesiastes to see why it was chosen to be read on Sukkot and is so pertinent.
    Also, see a clever "taster" of Kohelet in a short video (produced by "G-dcast"), with animation and song here:
  • Why is Sukkot and this sukkah even more potentially important to today's Jews, especially city dwellers? We are reminded to tune into and reconnect with nature, balance (inner and outer), ecology, let go of the tech occasionally (what rules what?)…
  • Maimonides saw the sukkah as helping to keep us modest, closer to ethical values and a more balanced perspective.
    Sukkot also functions as a real turning point, or fulcrum of moods and events, where fast meets slow, ends meet hopes and preparations for the next beginnings, the last bursts of fruits meet fallow, autumn and winter, vulnerability meets faith and God's shelter…
  • The sukkah serves as simple symbol of an embracing place of peace and shelter, both fragile commodities that must be continually worked at in tikun olam [fixing/improving our world]. We are at the most major point of ends and beginnings. Sukkot comes at the end of the agricultural year and as we plan for the year ahead. And at the start of the school term for that matter. [With apologies to our chevre/confreres in the Southern Hemisphere where things are obviously different]. Sukkot also marks another end and beginning- as Zechariah noted that in the time of the messiah, all nations would come up to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot. For at that time "The Lord shall be King over all the earth, in that day shall the Lord be One, and His name one" [Zechariah 14:9]. Just as we gather our harvests in this special time and space of our own sukkah, God gathers his world harvest into this proverbial greater sukkat shalom/sukkah of peace.
  • The sukkah is thus also a symbol and real vehicle of reaching out, hospitality and interaction, invitation to others to join us. 
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Sixty Percent is Serious Business

Israeli stamp encouraging water preservation

Simchat Bet HaShoeva

The human body is 57-60% water. It is literally the essence of who we are- there is no life without water. So it certainly merits our attention. And here we have been given a water drawing ceremony- which deserves reconstituting :) in some form today!

For youngest ones you might simply start out with brainstorming about all the needs and uses of water, and how important that is. With older ages, this could obviously also lead to a discussion as to how we should be so much more concerned (and committed to efforts) about issues of pollution, conservation, ecological balance, marketing ploys and additives, global warming (think up more).

Given all that, how about a Simchat Bet HaShoeva / "joy of the water drawing" for today? What might you emphasize in a new water ceremony and how might that ceremony sound and look? (see also this same title under "Let's Get Busy" for some activity suggestions).

(For the curious here, the original water ceremony is described in detail in Sukkah 51a-b of the Talmud).

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"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?"

a heart filled with the name Sarah
  • Thetraditionalushpizin represented divine attributes reflecting God's interaction with our own reality. Since we are made in God's image, these same attributes also correspond to seven main elements that define us. Abraham - loving-kindness,Isaac - restraint and personal strength, Jacob - truth and beauty, Moses – eternality,Aaron – empathy,Joseph – holiness,David – kingship.
  • Typical female luminaries have included Sarah, Leah, Rachel, Rebecca, Tamar, Miriam, Hulda, Abigail, Esther, Ruth… Which ushpazot (female Biblical figures) would you wish to include and what kind of attributes and themes would you be looking for particularly today?
  • What other attributes would you feel are important to add, and who might you want to "invite" to represent them? These could be other historical figures, modern role models, and/or personal ancestors, etc.
  • The mishkan [tabernacle, sanctuary] was carried with us in the desert, and was said to have been first constructed at this time of year. This was directly after Moses returned with the second copy of commandments on Yom Kippur, along with God's forgiveness for that golden calf lapse. The portable mishkan, thus also akin to our sukkah, was to be a place for God himself to be with the people, placed in the center of the encampment- "Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" [Exodus 25:8].
  • If you never had the experience of making a sukkah, really consider it this year, even a tiny one. Or consider making a joint one with some other neighbors and friends. Check out who has no sukkah and invite them to yours. Or at least to a festive meal to fulfill the mitzvah of rejoicing and thanksgiving. Invite a person whom you especially respect personally and would wish to express thankfulness to :) .
  • As the title suggests, play "guess who's coming to dinner". You can, for example, discuss attributes as outlined above, and have students charade each trait, or other aspects of the character or his/her background (and apply this to other personally meaningful "ushpizin" of yours as well).
  • Definitely also check "Ushpizin" in our sections "Worthwhile Information" and "Let's Get Busy". Additionally, we include links to a recent Israeli movie of the same name (with English subtitles) - available both in excerpt and in full on YouTube- it is quite suited and worthwhile for older youth and certainly adults!
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Just How Cool Are Those Four Species / Arba-at Haminim :)

Traditional Symbolism:

  • Etrog is heart, myrtle is eye, willow is mouth, and palm is backbone. Thus, with each major part of us we express our devotion and praise to God. Further, heart is understanding and wisdom, eye is enlightenment, mouth or lips is their action (as in prayer, for example), and backbone is uprightness.
  • The four species also mirror God's four-letter name, with the palm representing the vav as the conduit of divine energy to us and the world.
  • Since the Divine Presence (Shechina) has both "feminine" and "masculine" aspects (our Jewish yin and yang, if you like) - the etrog is said to represent the former and the lulav, the latter.
  • There are four kinds of Jews, corresponding to taste and odor characteristics:
    1. The willow has neither, so it symbolizes those who neither know any Torah nor perform good deeds.
    2. The date of the palm has taste but no aroma, thus signifying those who know Torah but do not engage in good deeds.
    3. The myrtle has fragrance but no taste, so stands for Jews who may not know Torah but do perform good deeds.
    4. The etrog is the best "winner" - it has both taste and fragrance, so it is the Jew who both knows Torah and does ma-asim tovim / good deeds.
  • The four species are also said to symbolize rootedness, land, fertility and fruit- more a sense of predictable cycle in counterbalance to the temporary and wandering nature associated with the sukkah. It is a rather nice representation of life, containing varying elements of both at different points.

As you can see, this mitzvah is a terrific sensory and symbolic bonanza, and also demonstrates serving God with all of us- our senses, our minds and our actions.

As part of an ever dynamic Judaism, see yourself not only as a faithful transmitter in this chain of our tradition, but as a full participant and contributor, just as our ancestors were through changing history and conditions. What layer of new symbolism might you add to that chain? Would you add new meanings to established symbols? Add a new symbol? A new prayer or emphasis for something that we particularly deal with in the world of today?

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Spread The Goodness Outward

hands dropping products at a donation box Time for good deeds

This is a good time of course for other maasim tovim / good deeds beyond hospitality, such as setting up and/or donating to a food drive for the needy, clothing and other items to area shelters, making a renewed commitment to local recycling and conservation efforts, cleaning up public areas and parks, starting plans for a community kitchen garden or spreading wildflowers in your area (depending on seasonal conditions)...

a kid in a community garden A community garden

By the way, in terms of gardening, remember that you start to plan and gather now, even if you cannot plant until spring (like have you ever thought about those seed pods from spent flowers?). Because now is when the leaves start falling (a nice ingredient in mulch), and making good earth takes time. Look up a little easy "lasagna gardening". This could also be a terrific class or community project. And if you are located in the Southern Hemisphere, this is planting primetime, right?

Come on, don't you want to be growing your own future pickles? (See our "What's Cookin'?" section).