The Festival of "Sukkos" (Booths; Shelters; Tabernacles) begins on Tishrei 15, the fifth day after "Yom Kippur" (the Day of Atonement). On the surface, the timing of the holiday seems to be jarring, almost a contradiction, jumping quickly from one of the most solemn holidays in our year to one of the most joyous. Sukkos (or Sukkot in Israeli Hebrew) is so unreservedly joyful that it is commonly referred to in Jewish prayer and literature as "Z'man Simchaseinu" (the Season of our Rejoicing). However, upon closer examination, there is a deep connection between the solemnity of Yom Kippur and the enthusiastic joy of Sukkos. On Yom Kippur, our sins are atoned for and forgiven by G-d (Leviticus 16:30). What could be a more natural and appropriate reaction for forgiven people than outbursts of joy?
Sukkos is the last of the three pilgrimage festivals. Like "Pesach" (Passover) and "Shavu'os" (the Feast of Weeks / Pentecost), Sukkos has a triple significance: Commemoration of the Historical (our past), celebration of the Agricultural (our present) and faith / belief in the Prophetic (our future), when the festivals will be fully realized for us and for all the nations of the world in the "Acharis HaYamim" (End of Days).
The Past: Living in a Sukkah
Historically, Sukkos commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were traveling in the desert, living in temporary shelters. At that time, they were sheltered from the burning sun by the cloud of G-d's glory overhead. According to our rabbis, clouds surrounded them like walls as well, protecting them from danger, and these clouds of glory, above and on each side, formed a nation-wide sukkah.
The Present: Building a Sukkah
Ever since those days, we remember G-d's kindness and reaffirm our trust in His providence by constructing and dwelling in a sukkah - a temporary three walled (at least) shelter with a "s'chach" (a see-through roof of branches) - for the duration of the Sukkos festival, seven days and nights. We eat all our meals in the sukkah, sleep in it (if we live in Israel), invite guests to it and treat it as our home. Agriculturally, Sukkos is a festival celebrating the end of the harvest season, and it is sometimes referred to as "Chag Ha-Asif" (the Festival of Ingathering). The Scriptural passages read on Sukkos typically have recurring themes of water, dew and rain, which are interpreted both literally (as we ask G-d for rain during the winter rainy season in Israel) and also as metaphorical references to His return in the time to come.
"Arba Minim" (The Four Species)
Another practice during Sukkos involves four plants, which are commonly known as the "Lulav and Esrog". We are commanded (Leviticus 23:40) to take these four plants and use them to "rejoice before Hashem." The four species in question are an "Esrog" (a citron - a citrus fruit similar to a lemon, native to Israel), a "Lulav" (palm branch), two "Aravos" (willow branches) and three "Hadassim" (myrtle branches). On the first day of Sukkos, the six branches are bound together and held in the right hand and are nicknamed collectively, "the Lulav", while the seventh component, ("the Esrog") is held separately in the left hand with the stem facing toward the heavens. After reciting a blessing, the left hand brings the esrog, turning the stem earthward, together with the right hand’s lulav. With these four species joined together, one rejoices by "waving" the species (a custom derived from Leviticus 23:9-11) in all six directions (east, south, west, north, up and down), symbolizing the fact that G-d is sovereign over all creation. For the remaining days of Sukkos, the blessing is said while holding the lulav and before picking up the esrog.
The four species are also held and waved during the special "Hallel" (Praise) prayer in religious services, and are held during processions around the "Bimah" (the pedestal where the Torah is read) each day during the holiday. These processions commemorate similar processions around the altar of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. This part of the service is known as "Hoshanos" (salvations), because while the procession is made, we recite a prayer with the refrain, "Hoshiah Nah!" (please save us!). On the seventh day of Sukkos, known as "Hoshanah Rabbah" (the Great Salvation), seven circuits are made.
The Future: The Nations Dwelling in Sukkos
Prophetically, the season of Sukkos is associated with the Messianic Kingdom, the time of resurrection (Isaiah 26:19, Ezekiel 37:1-14) and of global homage to G-d, when all the nations will be required to go up to Jerusalem to keep the festival of Sukkos, under penalty of rain being withheld from them (Zechariah 14:16-17). At that time, G-d will come to us like the rain (Hosea 6:3), and will "tabernacle" among His people again (Leviticus 26:6, Ezekiel 37:27).
"…and Hashem will be King over all the earth; in that day there shall be one G-d, and His name will be one … and it will come to pass, that every one who is left [alive] of all the nations which came against Jerusalem [in battle] will go up from year to year to worship the King, Hashem of hosts, and to keep the feast of Sukkos. Moreover it will be, that whoever chooses not to come up (of all the families of the earth) to Jerusalem to worship the King, the L-rd of hosts, then upon them there will be no rain. Additionally, if the family of Egypt does not ascend, and do not come, then upon whom there is no rain; there shall [also] be the plague with which Hashem will smite the heathen that come not up to keep the feast of Sukkos. This shall be the punishment of Egypt, and the sin of all the nations that choose not to come up to keep the festival of Sukkos…"
-- Zechariah 14:9; 16-19
"… For the earth will be brimming full with the knowledge of the glory of Hashem in the same way that the waters cover the sea…"
-- Habakkuk 2:14
“We shake the lulav to show our yearning for the messianic age and to remind G-d of His promise. This is one of the reasons why Sukkot is called in rabbinical literature “ha-chag”, (the festival), because it not only reminds us of our history, when little ramshackle huts protected our ancestors from the buffeting of the elements, but it foreshadows our future, when all mankind will sit in unity in G-d’s universal sukkah and call upon the One Eternal G-d, and every part of the universe will acclaim the grandeur and power of its King.”
-- R’ Apple of Oz-Torah
"...Rabbah in the name of R. Yohanan further stated: 'The Holy One, blessed be He, will in time to come make a sukkah for the righteous from the skin of Leviathan (the great serpent); for it is said: "Can you fill sukkot with his skin" (Job 40:31)'..."
-- Bava Batra 75a
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