The Jewish Festival of Sukkot appears in the Bible in Lev 23:34. It is described as the "Feast of Tabernacles." Sukkot is a pilgrimage festival, which means it is one of three festivals which, before the year 70 CE, was celebrated by a mass pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. For this reason it is also known as a foot festival.
In Israel, Sukkot lasts for 7 days. The first and last days are holidays (Yom Tov) like Shabbat, in which, traditionally, work is prohibited. The intermediate days of Sukkot are called Chol Ha-Moed, and traditionally, work is permitted on these days.
In the Diaspora, Orthodox communities celebrate 8 days of Sukkot, with two non work days at the beginning and the end of the festival. The difference in the Diaspora, commemorates a time when signal fires and couriers were used to tell those in the Diaspora that a festival was starting at the Temple in Jerusalem. As it took a long time for this information to disseminate, the Diaspora observed the festival for longer, a tradition which has remained. The last days of Sukkot are called Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
The Sukka is a temporary shelter. It is significant because Sukkot commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. During Sukkot, Jews remember the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. This is the reason why Sukkot is celebrated by making a Sukka (a tabernacle or temporary shelter).
On Sukkot, Jews are commanded to live in a Sukka, just as the Israelites did, in the desert after the Exodus. Observant Jews will eat all their meals in the Sukka during Sukkot and some will even sleep in there. Traditionally, when partaking of a meal in the Sukkah, containing at least two ounces of bread or cake, thefollowing blessing is said:
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ha-olam Asher Kideshanu Bemitzvotav Vetzivanu Leshev Basukkah
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to sit in the Sukkah.
Building a Sukka
A Sukkah must have at least three walls. The roof of the sukkah must be made of material referred to as sekhakh, which means "covering". Sekhakh must be something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches. It is customary to decorate the walls of a sukka. In some countries fruit is hung inside, to reinforce the harvest theme. In Israel, Sukkas are decorated in the interior with pictures, streamers and tinsel.
The Four Species – The Lulav and Etrog
Sukkot is also a harvest festival, a time to celebrate the gathering of the crops. This is why it is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha'Asif, the Festival of the Ingathering (harvesting).
There is a commandment to gather together the following plants: an Etrog (a citrus fruit native to Israel), Lulav (palm branch), Hadas (3 myrtle branches), and Arava (2 willow branches). The brances are then joined together and referred to as the Lulav. The etrog is held sperately. These are known in Hebrew as the arbat haminim, the four species. There are special prayers to say, whilst waving the species in six directions (east, south, west, north, up and down) to symbolize that God is everywhere:
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ha-olam Asher Ki-deshanu Be-mitzvo-tav Ve-tzvi-vanu Al Netilat Lulav.
Blessed are You, L-rd, our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to hold the lulav.
Each day during Sukkot, there are special processions in Synagogue where the Lulav and Etrog are held. These processions remind practicing Jews of the processions around the alter of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The processions are called Hoshanas and prayers are recited with the plea to G-d to save us.
Sukkot is a happy and sociable festival for the Jewish people. In Israel, school children are on vacation during Sukkot and many people take hikes around Israel and have parties in which they invite people to eat with them in their sukkas.