by Travey R. Rich, Judaism101, jewfaq.com
Tracey R. Rich is the database administrator for a Jewish charitable organization and the co-author of several legal reference texts. She writes and maintains jewfaq.org herself.
The Festival of Sukkot begins on the fifth day after Yom Kippur. It is quite a drastic transition, from one of the most
solemn holidays in our year to one of the most joyous. Sukkot is so unreservedly joyful that it is commonly referred to in
Jewish prayer and literature as the Season of our Rejoicing.
Sukkot is the last of the Shalosh R’galim (three pilgrimage festivals). Like Passover and Shavu’ot, Sukkot has a dual
significance: historical and agricultural. Historically, Sukkot commemorates the 40-year period during which the children
of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Agriculturally, Sukkot is a harvest festival and is
sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering.
The word “Sukkot” means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings that we are commanded to live in during this holiday in memory of the period of wandering; the singular form is sukkah. The Hebrew pronunciation of Sukkot is “Sue COAT,” but is often pronounced as in Yiddish, to rhyme with “BOOK us.” Sukkot lasts for 7 days with the two days following the festival, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, being separate holidays related to Sukkot and are commonly thought of as part of the holiday.
Building the sukkah each year satisfies the common childhood fantasy of building a fort, and dwelling in the sukkah satisfies a child’s desire to camp out in the backyard. The commandment to “dwell” in a sukkah can be fulfilled by simply eating all of one’s meals there; however, if the weather, climate, and one’s health permit, one should spend as much time in the sukkah as possible, including sleeping in it.
The sukkah must have at least two and a half walls covered with a material that will not blow away in the wind. The”walls” of the sukkah do not have to be solid; canvas covering tied or nailed down is acceptable and quite common in the United States. A sukkah may be any size, so long as it is large enough for you to fulfill the commandment of dwelling within it. The roof of the sukkah must be made of material referred to as sekhakh (literally, covering), and to fulfill the commandment, this must be something that grew from the ground and was cut off, suchas tree branches, corn stalks, bamboo reeds, sticks, or two-by-fours. Sekhakh must be arranged to provide ample shade and must be placed sparsely enough that rain can get in and so that the stars can be seen. This roof must be placed last and not be tied down to anything.
It is common practice and highly commendable to decorate the sukkah a fun family project for all ages. In the northeastern United States, Jews commonly hang seasonal dried squash and corn in the sukkah to decorate it. Many families also hang artwork and crafts made by their children on the walls.
Upon seeing a decorated sukkah for the first time, man Americans remark on how much the holiday reminds them of Thanksgiving. This may not be entirely coincidental: I was taught that our American pilgrims, who originated the Thanksgiving holiday, borrowed the idea from Sukkot. The pilgrims were deeply religious people, living their lives in accordance with the Bible. When they were trying to find a way to express their thanks for their survival and for the harvest, they looked to the Bible for an appropriate way of celebrating and found the fall harvest festival of Sukkot.