For sheer ambitious naming and expectations to live up to, you can't quite beat being designated as "HaChag" / החגaka "The Festival".

So how did that happen?

In oldest agricultural and nature-cycle contexts, before the fall holidays became more distinctly separate, it appears there was basically one big, longer autumn festival. It covered many linked themes: final harvests of fields, orchards and vineyards, preparations for the coming winter, tremendous relief, joy and thanksgiving to God, hopes and prayers for the coming rainy season... Even the sukkah would have a practical agricultural aspect - one would often stay in a temporary makeshift shelter during the heaviest harvestings. In similar vein, Sukkot is also known as Chag HaAsif / חג האסיף - "festival of the harvest" or "feast of the in-gathering".

With time came more layers, adding historical commemoration of our post-Egypt sojourn in the desert. More deliberate distinctions also evolved for New Year, introspection and repentance, and then celebratory relief. There was a political-religious shift as well regarding the shalosh regalim (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot) – three pilgrimage festivals to the Temple in Jerusalem – with the Temple becoming the only sanctuary for Jews, a major ritual departure instituted during the reign of King Josiah. Since there had regionally been a fall harvest festival celebrated by most inhabitants, this also further solidified a sense of difference and national character for our people. In this respect we may also have picked up yet another name for the holiday - Chag Adonai / חג יי, "The Lord's Festival", as part of that further distinction.

A model of the Temple

Until our dispersal and exile, Sukkot ranked as the greatest holiday of the year, only later superseded in importance by Passover. In fact, this was the chag chosen for the dedication of King Solomon's Temple. There is some lovely time symmetry to this theme as well, since Zechariah 14:16 notes that in the coming time of the messiah, all nations would come up to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot.

Sukkot was also was the occasion, every seven years, for the public reading of the Torah – known as hakhel – meaning "assemble". As described in Deuteronomy 31:10-13, at such time the people should come with their offerings and gather on the steps of the Temple, "that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord you God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching." In more recent times, some would go to the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, to symbolically recreate this practice.

The Torah mentions three mitzvot / obligations for this chag: to live in the sukkah, to gather together arba-at haminim / ארבעה מינים , "the four species", and to rejoice:

  • The name Chag HaSukkot / חג הסוכות means "Feast of the Tabernacles" or "Feast of the Booths", referring to the impermanent structures we are commanded to build and use. (In the desert, the tabernacle also had to be portable, of course). As to living in the sukkah, some do, although you are given some "outs" –like if it gets too rainy- because you are expected to be rejoicing, not facing undue hardships. Generally, one is expected at least to eat in it, or at very least to perform the blessings within it for bread (HaMotzi), for fruit of the vine (Kiddush) and for sitting in the sukkah. Some will also sleep there.
  • arba-at haminim / ארבעת המינים, "the four species" are the etrog / citron, lulav / palm fond, hadas / myrtle, and arava / willow. These are used in celebrating Sukkot, as referred to in the Torah: "On the first day you shall take the product of the citrus trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days." [Leviticus 23:40].

Sukkot is also known as Zeman Simchatenu / זמן שמחתנו , "the season of our rejoicing". This reflects our thanksgiving for a material harvest, a personal spiritual one, and also salvation on a national level. Even with its sharp contrast in tone and themes, it serves as the real culmination point for the preceding period ending with Yom Kippur. Many turn to building their sukkah the very next day, as this rather abrupt switch to upbeat Sukkot starts a mere five days later.

We get an extra semi-festival folded into Sukkot on its seventh day – Hoshana Rabbah, or "The Great Hosanna". On each day a processional circuit , or hakafa, is made once around the synagogue while carrying a lulav and etrog and reciting the Hoshana prayer "Save now, we beseech you O Lord (the text itself differs somewhat for each specific day). On this day however the circuit is repeated seven times (some congregations also blow the shofar at this time). Willows are then taken out - a bundle of five branches - to be beaten five times. This is done as a casting off of sins and entreaty regarding the past. It also symbolizes a hope for rain to successfully nourish both material and spiritual growths ahead. The atmosphere is therefore more somber in counterbalance to the rest of Sukkot. For one thing, it tempers what in some historical periods may have been a little too much "making happy" frivolity over a span of many days. More importantly, this is viewed as a last-chance opportunity for salvation before the gates of judgment really close for good this year, kind of like a final spiritual postscript to Yom Kippur.

A hope for rain

This is followed by Shemini Atzeret, on the eighth day. "Atzeret" means both assembly and cessation. This is essentially the endpoint for the Sukkot week and we barrel straight into the next chag- Simchat Torah, again with its more spiritual and intellectual character. Shemini Atzeret is also noteworthy for its Tefillat Geshem- the prayer for rain. Again this reflects that balancing of relief and thankfulness for successful completions together with thinking ahead to the next uncertainties. In Israel itself and the surrounding region this is of course a very timely issue. The coming rainy season- generally from around October/November through March/April is no minor matter, as reflected in whether we are below the yearly water table target or not in news reports. Outside of Israel, due to the usual addition of one extra day of observance, the separate chag of Simchat Torah follows on the next (ninth) day. In Israel, however, the two are combined into the same (eighth) day.

Every holiday has its evolutions and successive adaptive layers, and Sukkot is an especially colorful and joyous example of that fascinating process- and one which certainly continues. For Sukkot is more meaningful than ever in the contemporary concerns it may address, rich in possible new interpretations and creative personalization (see our other sections :) ! ). We at Learn Hebrew Pod wish you a heartfelt Chag Sukkot Sameach / חג סוכות שמח - Happy Sukkot Holiday - full of good harvests of every kind.

* For further details - including sukkah particulars, ushpizin / symbolic guests and much more, please be sure to look at Worthwhile Information & Tidbits.