Sukkot is known as Z’man simchateinu, the festival of our greatest joy. Just five days after the spiritual peak of Yom Kippur, we re-enter the more physical realm and acknowledge both the impermanence and abundance of the natural world.
Sukkot is named in honor of the sukkah, an outdoor booth or hut, a reminder of how the Israelites sheltered themselves after they fled slavery from Egypt. It also resembles temporary shelters used by farmers during harvest seasons. The sukkah reminds us that everything in life is subject to change, that nothing is solid, and there is much in life we cannot control. The sukkah has an open roof made of branches to let in shade, shadows, and moonlight, as well as an open side to symbolically (and literally) welcome guests.
In the Torah, the first Jews, Abraham and Sarah, greet some unexpected guests who arrive at their tent and work to make them comfortable. From this story we learn the mitzvah of welcoming guests, or hachnasat orchim, which is not just about inviting people in, but also making them feel honored, relaxed, and at home. The simplicity of dwelling in the sukkah refocuses our minds on the important things in life—relationships, shelter and security, connection with nature—and loosens our preoccupations with the material possessions of the modern world.
How We Celebrate
Sukkot traditions embrace the beauty of the season with the building of a temporary sukkah in the backyard. A sukkah is meant to be simple—it requires only two and a half walls and a roof made of natural materials such as branches or bamboo rods. The roof, called s’chach (from the same word for sukkah), provides both shade and shelter, yet still allows for a view of the sky. Decorating the sukkah is an exciting and empowering time for family and friends, children and grownups alike. All eight days of the holiday, people are encouraged to eat their meals, study, and schmooze in the sukkah—some even bring a sleeping bag and camp out overnight!
Another central custom of Sukkot is to bind together four plant species: a small bouquet of willow and myrtle branches with a palm frond, together called a lulav, alongside a lemon-like citron called an etrog. Jewish wisdom teaches that these four different species represent different senses, character traits, or kinds of people, amongst other metaphors. Each day we say a special blessing for the lulav and etrog and shake the bundle, pointing them in six directions to symbolize the oneness of all creation.