When is Sukkoth Celebrated?

a family sitting in a sukkah
  • Sukkot starts on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (as noted in Leviticus 23:24), a mere five days after Yom Kippur. In 2018 this corresponds to sundown on September 23rd (making the 24th the first full day of the holiday). Earlier in history it may not have been celebrated with such a specific date (that also shifts so much with a lunar calendar), but rather would have been more directly tuned in with actual harvests.
  • In Israel: Sukkot is celebrated for seven days. The first day is treated as a yom tov - a full holiday, including the usual restrictions on work and travel. The second through sixth days are chol hamo-ed, having a semi-festival status (similar to Passover) where work and travel are permitted. The seventh day is Hoshana Rabbah. It is also the last day of Sukkot. The day after that is Shemini Atzeret /Simchat Torah (day eight in a straight count). Shemini Atzeret in Israel is one day long, and runs simultaneous with Simchat Torah. However the yom tov status of this combined day is actually due to Shemini Atzeret, not Simchat Torah. Dizzy from this holiday pace yet? Check over the schedule outside of Israel now…
  • In the Diaspora, the first two days are treated as yom tov, and Sukkot lasts for eight days. The second through sixth days are chol hamo-ed, and the seventh, Hoshana Rabbah. Shemini Atzeret runs for two days. The first day of Shemini Atzeret is a yom tov, and is also the last day of Sukkot (day eight). The second day of Shemini Atzeret (not a yom tov) runs concurrent with Simchat Torah (day nine in a straight count).

About That Sukkah

  • Masechet Sukkah means "Tractate Sukkah" and is the part of the Talmud that deals with laws of Sukkot, including correct sukkah construction. For example, if you are curious about handbreadths, cubits and the debated validity of a certain height…
  • Basically, the "proper" sukkah [is very cool :)]…
    It has at least 3 walls, although that 3rd wall doesn't have to be a complete one. The walls can be made of more or less anything. Still, keep in mind that it must be a temporary structure. So a screened-in porch for example is out due to its permanent nature. The walls should be strong enough to hold up to ordinary wind, and have a height of less than 30 feet. The minimum size is basically enough room for at least one person to fit in it. The roof covering must be made of natural materials that had grown in the ground but are now no longer attached to it. As to amount of coverage by this "schach", shade must exceed sun, but still be open enough to be able to see stars at night. You don't have to sleep there, especially when it falls later in the season in geographically colder areas, but we'd like to add this- it's a lot of fun, and in Israel one's kids are usually into doing this at least one night or so (or part of a night). Eating in the sukkah is considered a mitzvah/obligation. However, remember the joyful part of this, so if it gets to the point of more rain than food in one's bowl, you are certainly exempt and even running counter to the mitzvah in this case. Do decorate your sukkah (see more in "Let's Get Busy").
  • The Shehechiyanu prayer, which is recited at the start of all festivals, is said when entering the sukkah for the first time. (You can find it further below in this section).
  • Truth-Is-Stranger-Than-Fiction Department: As to rumors about any real debate regarding an elephant filling in for a valid sukkah wall, the answer is yes- it was actually discussed in the Talmud. Just Google elephant + sukkah and see what comes up!
  • A sukkah can be built on a boat or a wagon!

The Four Species, aka Arba-at Haminim / ארבעת המינים

These consist of etrog / אתרוג(citron) and lulav / לולב - made up of palm fond, myrtle and willow. The palm fond comes in a holder woven of more palm leaves, with two willow branches on the left side and three myrtle boughs on the right. Some Sefardim though (as well as some Ashkenazi Chasidim) place one willow on each side and then cover them and the palm fond with the myrtle. People go out of their way to obtain the most beautiful, perfect specimens possible. This is a good example of the concept of hidur mitzvah /הידור מצווה, "beautifying the commandment" so as to further glorify God.

Symbolism:

  • Each species corresponds to a part in our body: Etrog is heart, myrtle is eye, willow is mouth, and palm is backbone. Thus through each major part of us, we express our devotion and praise to God.
  • Four kinds of Jews, corresponding to taste and odor characteristics:
    The willow has neither, so it symbolizes those who neither know any Torah nor perform good deeds.
    The date of the palm has taste but no aroma, thus signifying those who know Torah but do not engage in good deeds.
    The myrtle has fragrance but no taste, so stands for Jews who may not know Torah but do engage in good deeds.
    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 permanence and predictable cycle in counterbalance to the temporary and wandering nature associated with the sukkah. It's a rather nice representation of real life, containing varying elements of both at different points.
  • See also "Let's Talk About It" for even more depth!

Decoration and food: Décor is good :) !!!, and one can go really anywhere with this, besides the usual fruit, vegetable and paper chains too (see a few ideas in "Let's Get Busy). There are no specific-to-Sukkot foods per se. But thinking practical – e.g. carrying things out to the sukkah or to someone else's pot-luck, etc., seasonal and festive is always a good way to go (check out some recipes in our "What's Cookin'?" section).

Ushpizin / אושפיזין & Hospitality

Ushpizin is the Aramaic word for guests. One symbolically invites a daily Biblical guest, with a mystical flavor to this custom whose origins are the Zohar ("When a person is seated in his sukkah, Abraham and six distinguished visitors partake of his company"). Starting as a further embellishment among Sefardim, among some there is a chair set aside in the sukkah as well. Traditionally, these distinguished guests were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David- which might be viewed, in stages, like founding fathers of our people. It is also interesting to note that these original classic ushpizin all had some flight and/or wandering in their background- like that symbolized by the sukkah. Beyond this, in Kabbalistic teachings, each of these men was said to embody a specific divine attribute 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.

a long line of people at the entrance to the SukkahHospitality

These days, more have expanded this to include our matriarchs and other female luminaries- examples including Sarah, Leah, Rachel, Rebecca, Tamar, Miriam, Hulda, Abigail, Esther, Ruth… However, the concept is actually not as new as one may expect. Suggestions for ushpizot were already being made, for example, by the Italian rabbi Menachem Azaria da Fano back in the 16th century. (For even more on ushpizin, see also "Let's Talk About It" and "Let's Get Busy").

Of course, in the same spirit, this is a holiday of hospitality. So it is customary to invite those less fortunate or who have no sukkah or place to celebrate the chag, also those who never experienced this, as well as thinking and doing something regarding the needy. When we are fulfilling the mitzvah of rejoicing, after all, how could we really do so without including others, especially those in some sort of need?

Many of us also have warm, yearly experiences in our neighborhoods and congregations of doing a sukkah tour, going from sukkah to sukkah one afternoon for Kiddush and/or a nosh or just "sightseeing" and marveling at all the ingenuity of each construction or embellishment. The concept of the mitzvah of "dwelling" in the sukkah includes and encourages socializing there :) .

More Sukkot Rituals

Simchat Bet HaShoeva / שמחת בית השואבה , meaning "joy of the water drawing":
This ritual and celebration is thought to have been linked to prayers for rain. In Temple days, priests filled containers of water from the Pool of Siloam (south of the Temple). The containers were brought back to the Temple for ritual pouring on the altar and a joyous pull-out-the-stops celebration, including song, dance, and even juggling and acrobatics done by the most pious of the sages. According to the Talmud,“anyone who did not witness the Simchat Bait HaShoeva never saw real rejoicing in his life" [Sukkah 51a-b]. The celebration is certainly worth a revival of sorts (see "Let's Get Busy" & "Let's Talk About It"). A version is still done in Tzfat (Safed) by some Chasidim, and it is said to be a very impressive sight.

Tikun Lel Hoshana Rabbah / תקון ליל הושענא רבה is "Devotional Study for the Night of Hoshana Rabbah". This is a book including all of Deuteronomy and the 150 Psalms, plus portions of mystical writings. It is often studied on this night, particularly as with the coming of Simchat Torah, Deuteronomy is concluded and the yearly Torah reading cycle starts over again.

Lel HaChotam / ליל החותם aka "The Night of The Sealing" is an alternate interpretation and tradition that one's fate is not completely finalized until the erev [evening, start] of Hoshana Rabbah [semi-festival on the seventh day of Sukkot], as opposed to Yom Kippur.

Key Points In Readings & Liturgy

  • The Torah portion for the first and second days of Sukkot is Leviticus 22:26-23:44. This starts with rules regarding animal sacrifice. It then goes on to give a full description of the yearly festivals, finishing off with a review of Sukkot.
  • Numbers 29:12-35 goes into details regarding sacrificial offerings specifically for Sukkot. The Maftir (concluding Torah reading) for the first two days is verses 12-16. Other different verses from this portion will then be read on each of the remaining days.
  • The Haftorah portion for the first day of Sukkot is Zechariah 14:1-21, describing how life in Israel will be when "a day of the Lord comes", or end-times.
  • Haftorah portion on the next day is I Kings 8:2-21. It recounts King Solomon talking to the people during a festival- most likely Sukkot- about our wondrous heritage and about the Temple in Jerusalem.
  • While this is not universal among all Jewish communities, it is fairly common- more so among Ashkenazim- to read the scroll of Kohelet / Ecclesiastes during Sukkot. Even though rather less upbeat than the joyful mood of the chag itself, the themes do fit nicely- including meaning of life, how best to live, enjoying simple pleasures, and changes of the seasons and their predictability.

Blessings / brachot ברכות

Shehechiyanu

(recited the first evening of any festival and the first time a ritual is done)

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שהחינו וקימנו והגינו לזמן הזה.
baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam, shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigi-anu lazman haze.
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has given us life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this time.

Blessing for eating in the sukkah

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו לישב בסכה.
baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu leshev basuka.
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to dwell in the sukkah.

Blessing for arba-a minim / ארבעה מינים, four species

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על נטילת לולב.
baruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al netilat lulav.
Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to take up the lulav.

Directions (according to Ashkenazi custom): Do this while standing. Hold the lulav in your right hand with its back (the flat side) facing you. Hold the etrog (next to the lulav) in your left hand, with its top facing downward and near to your heart. Say the above blessing. Then turn the etrog right side up and keep your hands together so that the etrog is touching the lulav. Now wave these in six directions- north, south, east, west, up and down. This is done every day with the exception of Shabbat.