“Full moon full harvest, full hearts…” these poignant words are those of Arthur Waskow in his introduction to the Festival of Sukkot in his engaging book entitled Seasons of our Joy. “As the moon of Tishrei draws to fullness,” he says,” we are ready to celebrate Sukkot, the Festival of Huts” (Seasons of our Joy, Pg. 47).
So let us rejoice under the beautiful harvest moon of Sukkot… the Festival of Booths, Tabernacles, the Feast of First Fruits or Ingathering…not only for the bountiful harvest at the end of the year, but also for the future ingathering of all peoples (Zech. 14:16)! Sukkot is often referred to as the Feast of the Nations … a festival for all of G-d’s children…the whole family…a type of joyous dress rehearsal for what is to come! It is a designated appointment HaShem set for His children to meet with Him in this seventh month of Tishrei. Like the two previous festivals of the month, Yom Teruah (or Rosh Hashanah as it is called on the Jewish calendar) and Yom Kippur, it is also referred to as a Mikra Kodesh, a Holy Gathering. Yet it stands apart, as we shall see, for it is a time of pure joy!
From the Torah
We read in the Book of Leviticus, that HaShem spoke instructed Moshe to speak to the children of Israel, and tell them, that the “fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the feast of booths (sukkot) for seven days to HaShem. On the first day shall be a holy gathering (mikrah kodesh): you shall do no servile work” (Lev.23:33-35; see also Num. 29: 12-40, Deut 16:13-16). Sukkot was one of the three named regalim or foot festivals in which the children of Israel were commanded to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate.
HaShem tells us further that the reason behind this festival of dwelling in sukkot for seven days…”that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Mitzrayim. I am HaShem your G-d” (Lev 23:42-43).
There is also mention of burnt offerings in these passages, but since the destruction of the temple they are no longer applicable so in the spirit of teshuvah we offer up our hearts and our prayers…through the sacrifice of our lips. The Prophet Hosea tells us, “Take with you words, and turn to HaShem; say unto Him, Forgive all iniquity and receive us graciously, so will we offer the words of our lips instead of calves” (Hosea 14:2).
Speaking of teshuvah, Rabbi Jacobson in his Meaningful Life Series says, “The rebbes tell us that what we accomplish on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur through our tears, we can accomplish on Sukkot and Simchat Torah through joy!” He continues by saying …”that you can’t reach the necessary state of joy unless you can cry first.” Some of us here, including me, are in great shape here.
So what do we do during this awesome feast of Sukkot? Do we stay in our homes or in beautiful elaborate buildings? No, we build temporary shelters, huts or little booths, called sukkot in Hebrew …and we live in them for a full 7 days. We take our meals in them, sleep in them, study Torah, meditate and pray in them and we invite friends and those less fortunate than we are to come and fellowship with us…we pretty much “camp out” …and as we look up at the heavens (if it’s a clear night) we see all those shining stars, like tiny pinholes shining through a dark sheet of paper in a window… as if HaShem is showing us a little glimpse of the Glorious Light that is to come!
There is an often quoted saying rabbinical saying that says,
“When a man sits in the sukkah of the Shadow of Faith, the Shechinah (G-D’s Presence) spreads His Wings over him from above”
Think of the Clouds of Glory that hovered over and protected the Children of Israel all through their 40 year wilderness journey. Psalm 91, traditionally said to have been written by Moshe, speaks beautifully about this amazing protection offered by HaShem for those who dwell with Him “under the shadow of El Shaddai “ and finding refuge “under His wings “(Psalm 91:1-3).
How amazing is that??? And so it follows that Sukkot is also called the “Season of our Joy!” Deut. 16:13-17 gives instruction that we are to be “ain simcha” only joyful!
And this wonderful festival lasts for a full week, 7 days… with an additional day, an 8th day called Shemnei Atzeret…because a week is just not enough!!!
But it requires emunah and bitachon, faith and trust, to leave the comfort and security of our homes and live out in the elements in these temporary shelters! When we do this we are in essence coming before HaShem, our G-d and Creator, the Adon or L-rd of the entire universe, with a full heart; and as we come before Him our desire is not for the comfort and security of our homes; our desire is only for Him!
This is expressed so beautifully in the following heartfelt words of Psalm 27 referred to as… Achat Shalati, a psalm which is traditionally read each day from the beginning of the month of Elul all the way through Sukkot…
One thing I have desired of HaShem and that I will seek after, that I may dwell in the House of HaShem all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of HaShem and inquire in His Temple.” Psalm 27:4
Seeking HaShem, dwelling in His House, beholding His beauty and the beauty of his bounty…these are all aspects of the celebration of the glorious Festival of Sukkot!
The Traditional Sukkot Blessings
There is a saying in Judaism that for everything there is a blessing and Sukkot is no exception!
- The first blessing is for dwelling in the sukkah and is traditionally said each time we enter the sukkah. Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam,asher kid’shanu v’tzivanu leisheiv basukkah. Blessed are you HaShem our G-d, King of the Universe who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to dwell in the sukkah.
- The following blessing is a bit of a twist from the traditional blessing for the candle lighting which is done on the first and the seventh nights because instead of saying that G-d has commanded us to kindle the flames for the Festival, we can say that He has commanded us to keep( l’shamor) and remember (zachor)it. Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam,asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’shamor v’zachor Yom Tov.
- The blessing for the Lulav, which will be introduced in the next section, is very similar to the blessing for handwashing. Baruch ata, Adonai Eloheyu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al n’tilat lulav. hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to take the Lulav.
- The Shehechehyanu blessing for marking a special occasion is said for the waving of the Lulav for the first time each year (also to be introduced in a section below) Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam,shehechehyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh. Blessed are you HaShem our G-d, King of the Universe who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this season
The Arba Minim
A significant part of the festival of Sukkot is the taking of the four Species or the Four Kinds, referred to in Hebrew as the Arba Minim..…“On the 15th day of the 7th month when you have gathered in the fruit of the land you shall keep a feast for HaShem for seven days…”and you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree hadar, branches of palm and the bough of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before HaShem your G-d seven days” (Lev. 23:40.)
The Torah actually gives limited detail about the celebration of the Festival of Sukkot. Aside from living in sukkot for seven days, taking the 4 species and rejoicing before HaShem there is little else… but as is common in Judaism, a whole plethora of tradition has been built around it through the centuries and comes down to us today.
From the Traditions – the Rich Symbolism of the Arba Minim
- Citron or Etrog is about size of average human heart…and is designated as a place of understanding and wisdom
- Date Palm or Lulav refers to the backbone and is symbolic of uprightness…yashar or Yeshurun, as Israel is called…contrasted to spineless”
(3) Myrtle or Hadassim with its almond shaped leaves corresponds to the eyes…and is representative of enlightenment as expressed by the lovely words of the ‘Sweet Singer’ King David, “Open my eyes and let me see wondrous things in your Torah”(Psa.119:18).
(4) Willow or Aravot with its leaves shaped like lips…is representative of the service of prayer… “May the words of my lips and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You,
Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psa. 19:15).
When bound together in a bundle these Four Kinds are referred to as the Lulav and according to the Midrash refer to four different types of people.
- The Citron or Etrog has a delicious taste and a wonderful aroma. It represents the individual who studies Torah and does good deeds.
- The Date Palm or Lulav has a delicious taste but no smell. It corresponds to the individual who studies Torah, but does not engage in many good deeds.
- The Myrtle or Hassadim has no taste but it does have a lovely aroma. It corresponds to the individual who does not engage in Torah study, but excels in good deeds.
- The Willow or Aravot has neither taste nor smell corresponds to the person who neither excels in Torah study nor good deeds, so that its value is not openly seen, but it grows in clumps by the river and its roots extend down deep and provide support.
The Midrash points out a thought-provoking aspect regarding the Etrog. It states that it stays on the tree through all the seasons the whole year round. Rabbi Jacobson makes the analogy between the Etrog that produces fruit all year long and subsequently is subjected to all kinds of climatic conditions with a group of special highly esteemed individuals… “But so too in life do we find that the greatest people are beset by travail and challenges, that the most balanced personalities are forged by the constant need to adapt to new climates and environments (The 60 Days, a Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays, pg. 113).
Each of these four species, the Arba Minim, are unique in and of themselves like each of us…for we all have a varying degrees of Torah knowledge and good works…some more obvious that others…some of us are leaders, some are followers and work behind the scenes to strengthen and provide needed support…yet we each represent an integral part of a community, for we each serve a purpose, but when we are all bound together in a bundle as in the Lulav we become as one in purpose…to honor and glorify the Creator
Here’s a question for each of us to meditate upon…which of the four species most represents you?
The Waving of the Lulav
There are different ways according to halachic Judaism –but each represents the idea that HaShem’s Presence and His Kingdom covers the entire face of the earth.
One custom is to wave the Lulav in the direction of the 4 corners of the earth and then up and down.
- Facing east – wave frontwards 3x with a shaking motion as you extend arms outwards- each time bringing the Lulav back to your chest to touch your heart. In my own mind, I find this most symbolic for as we are reaching out, we are acknowledging that HaShem’s Presence is everywhere and we are making a heartfelt attempt to join ourselves to Him as He reaches out to the 4 corners of the earth to His scattered children. ( Note: In the shaking we only do it strongly enough to make the leaves of the Lulav rustle a little)
- Turn clockwise 90 degrees and face south, shake the Lulav 3 times… Repeat the waving in the same manner and each time, bring the Lulav back to your heart.
- Turn clockwise again 90 degrees and face west and repeat same process
- And clockwise again 90 degrees to the north and repeat
- And then while facing east once again shake three times upward towards the heavens and bring back to your heart
- And finally three times downward, and back to the heart
Ezekiel 37:9-10 makes reference to HaShem telling the prophet to prophecy to the four winds…and to breathe upon the dry bones that they may have breath and live. Is there a relationship here?
According to the Kabbalists, the four species as they are held in the hand represent the Name of HaShem…the Name above all Names… Yud Hey Vav Hey… being waved outwards to the four corners of the globe and upwards towards the heavens and downwards again to the earth upon which we stand…and as we wave we are holding His Name in our hand for all to see –All to His Glory!
Whether you choose to purchase a Lulav or whether you go out and cut your own myrtle, willow and palm branch and purchase a nice beautiful citron such as a lemon, it is important that you do this mitzvah with kavanah, heartfelt intent…and not do it simply as a ritual. All of the rituals in Judaism are rooted in symbolism, intended to bring us closer to our Creator and enhance our spirituality. In and of themselves, they are simply empty rituals.
An Esoteric Tradition…the Ushpizim
It is traditional to invite guests into our sukkah. We would normally think of inviting physical beings, but in Jewish mysticism, there is a rather unusual and otherworldly tradition that comes from the Zohar about a special group of people called the ushpizim. Who are they and what do they represent?
Since the Zohar was written in Aramaic, it follows that the term would be Aramaic as well. It refers to the seven mystical guests of antiquity (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David) who come to visit us each night in the sukkah, one for each of the seven days of the festival with each representative of one of the 7 “sefirot, or divine attributes, which categorize G-d’s relationship with our reality, and which are mirrored in the seven basic components of our character (man having been created ‘in the image of G-d.’)” (https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/571505/jewish/The-Ushpizin.htm)
Our Sukkot celebrations extend far beyond the walls of our individual or community sukkahs whether they are at our synagogues, in our own backyards, on our balconies, or even on our patios. Sukkot is a worldwide festival with people from all nations joining in. Some would even say, it includes all those who have gone before us…our ancestors, including the mysterious ushpizim and all who are yet unborn… Sukkot is a festival for everyone…it could be compared to a dress rehearsal for the Big Joyous Event to Come when we will all be gathered together and sit under a big giant sukkah!
May we look forward with great anticipation to the coming redemption when the prophecy of Amos is fulfilled and HaShem will “raise fallen sukkah of David” (Amos 9:11). Baruch HaShem and Chag Sameach Sukkot!
Stay tuned for the Great 8th Day, Shemnei Atzeret!