The Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, begins Wednesday evening. The seven-day agricultural festival starts at sundown on Wednesday, and ends at nightfall on Oct. 15, also known as 15-21 of Tishrei 5775, according to the Hebrew calendar.
The holiday commemorates the story outlined in the Book of Exodus in which the Israelites left Egypt and traveled for 40 years in the Sinai Desert before they entered the Holy Land. Today Jews celebrate the holiday by building a Sukkah -- a temporary hut symbolizing the one the Israelites lived in during ancient times.
For those unfamiliar with the festival of Sukkot, below are five answers to common questions surrounding the harvest holiday:
1. What does Sukkot mean?
The word Sukkot, pronounced "Sue COAT," literally means “booths” in Hebrew. It refers to temporary dwellings that the Hebrews lived in for 40 years while wandering in the desert after their exodus from Egypt. The holiday of Sukkot is outlined in Leviticus 23:42-43, which tells Jews to “live in sukkot for seven days, so your descendants will remember that I [the Lord] had the Israelites live in wilderness shelters when I brought them out of Egypt."
The Hebrew Bible goes on to describe how the huts shielded the Israelites from the outside elements. The holiday holds metaphorical meaning, representing human fragility and urging Jews to appreciate the shelter of our homes and bodies.
2. How is Sukkot celebrated?
Sukkahs are normally built in backyards with branches as roof-covering. The branches, called sechach, should not be thick enough to prevent someone from seeing the stars. This is meant to remind Sukkah dwellers of the power of God as Creator. For seven days and nights, all meals are to be eaten in the sukkah, and some even sleep in the shelter during that time. Throughout the festival Jews are commanded to hold four plants: the etrog (fruit of the citron tree), lulav (palm frond), hadas (leaves from the myrtle tree), and aravah (leaves from the willow tree). During the holiday, it’s typical to arrange the four plants into a bouquet, known as the “lulav” and wave them together in six directions -- south, north, east, up, down and west. On each of the seven days of Sukkot the lulav and etrog are waved and accompanied by a blessing.
The practice is outlined in Lev. 23:40: "On the first day you shall take the product of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days."
The first day of Sukkot is considered a holy day where no work is to be performed. On the seventh day, called Hoshanah Rabah, the synagogue service involves circling the room seven times while the four plants are held and special prayers are recited.
Ushpizin, or the welcoming of guests into the sukkah, is a ritual derived from medieval times. While it’s common to invite “earthly guests” to share a meal in the sukkah, the Kabbalah ritual is a spiritual one where each night the family welcomes one of the “Seven Shepherds of Israel” -- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David – who represent seven different sefirot, or divine energies, such as love, discipline and beauty.
3. How is a sukkah built?
A sukkah has three walls and can be any size so long as it’s large enough to dwell in it. The roof must be made from material that comes from the ground like tree branches, bamboo reeds or sticks. These must be the last items used in the sukkah and should be spread out far enough to see the sky, but no more than 10 inches apart.
Inside, sukkahs are typically decorated using harvest vegetables such as hanging dried squash and corn. Sukkahs can be built on porches, backyards, courtyards, lawns, balconies and rooftops. There should be nothing between the sukkah and the open sky – no trees, canopies or roofs blocking view.
While some families opt to build their sukkahs from scratch, there are prefabricated ones and materials that are easy to assemble.
4. What’s to eat?
The Sukkot menu includes dishes related to the autumn harvest. In the United States, Sukkot recipes incorporate apples, pears, sweet potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables. Stuffed foods like kreplach (stuffed dumplings) are another popular dish during the holiday, representing the overflowing abundance of food during the harvest.
5. What do you say?
"Chag Sameach," which translates to joyous festival is a common greeting during Sukkot and other holidays including Shavu'ot and Passover. Unlike the recently observed Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement, Sukkot is a celebration that is commonly referred to as zman simchateynu, the "season of our joy."