Sukkot, also called the Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles, is a biblical Jewish holiday celebrated on the 15th day of Tishrei, usually falling between late September and late October. It is one of the three mandated festivals upon which the Jewish people were commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The holiday lasts seven days. The first day is a Sabbath-like holiday, having special regulations and services. The sukkot (the plural form of sukkah) is to remind the people of the type of fragile, temporary dwelling places in which the Israelites lived during their forty years of travel in the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land.
Many believe that according to the biblical prophet Zechariah, during the messianic era Sukkot will become a universal festival. All nations will make annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast.
Dates for Sukkot
Although the festival is meant to commemorate the years the Israelites spent living in tents following the Exodus from Egypt, like many of the Jewish festivals Sukkot also finds roots in agriculture. The biblical name, “The Feast of Ingathering” (Exodus 23:16, 34:22), speaks to the time of harvest. The season itself obviously set it apart as “the festival of the seventh month” (Ezekiel 45:25, Nehemiah 8:14). Finally, the reason for the celebration is explained by Moses: at the end of the year when you gather in your labors out of the field, you are to celebrate the “Feast of the Lord” (Exodus 23:16, Leviticus 23:39). Sometimes this festival is known simply as “The Feast” (1 Kings 8:2, 65; 2 Chronicles 5:3).
Because of its wide attendance, Sukkot became a time when important messages could be given to the masses of people. Many important state ceremonies have taken place during Sukkot.
In the Bible, Moses convened the gathering of the nation for a reading of the Law during Sukkot every seventh year (Deuteronomy 31:10-11). King Solomon dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem on Sukkot (1 Kings 8; 2 Chronicles 7). Sukkot was the first instance of a festival observed after sacrifices were resumed in the Temple following the Babylonian captivity (Ezra 3:2-4).
The biblical observance was dictated by the command of the Lord. “You shall live in booths for seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42-43).
Customs and Rituals
Sukkot is a seven-day holiday, with the first day celebrated as a full festival with special prayer services, Scripture reading and meal. The remaining days are known as “Chol HaMoed” or “festival weekdays.” On the final day of Sukkot, the day is known as Hoshana Rabbah, referring to the tradition that the believers walk around the outside of the sanctuary during their worship service. Specific references to observing the Sukkot can be found in Nehemiah and Leviticus of the Bible, along with passages in the Mishnah, the Tosefta and both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds.
Prayer plays an important role of the entire Sukkot week. Prayers are given at synagogues every day, accompanied by the reading of the Torah. Morning prayers, reciting Hallel (words of praise), and ceremonial prayers given at meals make the entire week a time of reflection and petition to the Lord.
The Hallel refers to a specific selection from the book of Psalms. These passages from Psalm 113 through Psalm 118 are sung or recited during all festivals, including Sukkot. The festival is expressed by blessing and waving the lulav and the etrog, symbols of the harvest.
People often build and decorate a sukkah. The structure must have at least three walls, but only one can be against an existing structure. The make-shift construction is usually out of canvas, wood or metal. Many families purchase sukkah kits to aid in the building.
The ritual for the lulav and etrog is quite specific. Worshippers are to stand facing east. The lulav should be in the right hand with the spine facing the individual with the myrtle to the right and willows to the left. In the left hand, the etrog should be carried. Hands should be brought together so that the two are side by side.
Special blessings are repeated and prayers are recited. Finally the two are shaken in all directions while chanting the words, “Give thanks to God, for God is good, for God’s loving-kindness endures forever.”
Funerals and Mourning during Sukkot
Jewish teaching provides specific guidelines for how the deceased should be properly mourned by the family through defined Periods of Mourning in Judaism.
The Jewish burial usually takes place within a couple of days after the death. It is usually a time of stress and busyness for the family, as many decisions and details surrounding the funeral must be considered. A telephone call relaying personal condolences would be welcomed.
Public viewing of the body is against Jewish law and tradition. There is no equivalent to the wake or funeral visitation. Today Jewish funerals are held at a funeral home, synagogue, cemetery building or graveside. Attending a funeral is a demonstration of care and concern for the surviving family and respect for the deceased. Invitations to a funeral are rarely offered, but friends are always encouraged to attend. In Judaism accompanying the family to the gravesite is one of the highest forms of kindness.
After the burial, the first period of mourning begins. Shiva (meaning “seven”) consists of seven days of mourning during which family members remain in their home. During shiva the family would stay home from work, refrain from public appearances, and not conduct any business transactions. Friends and family members would reach out to the bereaved by visiting the home to offer comfort and support.
Sukkot has both solemn practices and festive ones. The more reverent times would not disrupt the mourning traditions of shiva. The burial would not be permitted on the Sabbath during Sukkot. However, during the remaining days of the holiday, it would be permissible for the family to attend congregational services, but they should not participate in any leadership role. Their activities should reflect the respectful attitude of their time of loss.
Because of the sensitive nature of the time of loss, a Rabbi should be consulted for proper procedures for mourning during the holiday, particularly in complicated situations. The rabbi will take into account the circumstances, traditions and Scripture and offer guidance.
Remembering Loved Ones during Sukkot
Both the first and last days of Sukkot focus on remembering the days of the past. During these moments, there is a prescribed time to honor and reflect upon life and loved ones. The Yizkor (also Yiskor) is a special memorial service held four times a year. Yizkor is the Hebrew word for “remembrance.” This dedicated part of the service is considered one of the most recognized times to remember the deceased.
The tradition of inscribing one’s name in the book of life is a common occurrence in the Jewish faith. Families may light a yizkor candle, plant a tree in Israel, or dedicate a name plaque. Other meaningful and appropriate ways to memorialize a loved one include the creation of a Plaque and Memory page online through the National Jewish Memorial Wall (NJMW.org). The inclusion on a memorial or yahrzeit wall is a meaningful way to show honor and respect for the deceased.