Updated: Oct 3, 2020
On Friday night we begin Sukkot, the Festival of Booths. In ancient times this was the most popular Jewish holiday and I have to say, that it weren't for my mother's insanely delicious matzah ball soup and chopped liver on Passover, Sukkot would absolutely be my favorite one as well. On Sukkot we building temporary dwellings outside of our homes called sukkot in which we are supposed to eat and even sleep in for 7 days in Israel (8 days abroad). We also gather together four species from the Land of Israel (palm, willow and myrtle branches as well as a citron called an etrog) for a special ritual.
The holiday has it all - nature, camping, history, agriculture, [weird] traditions, even arts & crafts and building projects; in short it is all about family bonding. I love building and decorating the sukkah with my daughters. And I love going to the special markets which appear in Israel to get my 4 species (not this year, unfortunately). Some people spend hours and hours trying to find the perfect specimens!
Check out 10 incredible fun facts about the etrog here: https://www.israel21c.org/10-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-etrog/
Bonus Facts: A Maccabean king, Alexander Janneus, may have once been pelted with etrogs for blasphemy! Later on the four species appear on a coin at the time of the last Jewish revolt against the Romans (Bar Kochba).
As a tour guide of Israel, I'm going to miss taking people to Neot Kedumim on Sukkot where we can see the four species growing in nature and 50 different kinds of sukkot (and learn which ones are kosher and which ones are not). I'm going to miss taking people to Uziel, the Etrog Man, for his crazy etrog-based concoctions, amazing juices and natural health-remedies. Fortunately we can see them at any time of year, but on Sukkot it's just a bit more special. Here are some videos about them:
Note that the second video talks about the size of the Sukkah and mentions 10 tfachim. A tefach is a Biblical measurement relating to the size of an adult man's hand. Just in time for the holiday, a comprehensive study of hundreds of years of Biblical archaeology was undertaken in order to figure out what the actual modern measurement is. Check it out: https://www.timesofisrael.com/rabbinic-debate-settled-study-takes-measure-of-biblical-handbreadth-unit/
I also love going to see the Samaritans over the holiday to check out their amazing sukkot. Some 2700 years ago they took on some Jewish traditions, but did them in their own way. Their sukkot are indoors and the roofs are made out of fruit. Check out this crazy photo (from Flash90). You can learn more about the Samaritans on my multicultural tour of Israel! https://www.tourguideofisrael.com/ethnic-mosaic-tours
I'm definitely going to miss the yearly Jerusalem March where thousands of Christian pilgrims from all over the globe march through Jerusalem in traditional costumes from their homelands, all in support of Israel, on what they refer to as the Feast of Tabernacles.
Yet despite all the challenges that COVID has brought, I am still building a sukkah this year on my balcony. I have my 4 species. I can still watch one of my favorite Israeli movies of all time, Ushpizin (which means "guests" in Aramaic), which is set over the Sukkot holiday in Jerusalem. Check out the trailer here:
And most importantly, the meaningful messages of the holiday are still here and more relevant than ever. Here are some of my favorites:
No matter how much we plan, we are not in complete control of our lives and never will be. Learn to live with it. Stop trying to control everything. We live in uncertain times, now more than ever. Our dwelling/life is never 100% secure and the only one on whom to rely is God and so we should be open to God's presence in our lives, just as the roof of the sukkah needs to be open to the heavens (at least somewhat).
We need to be happy. Sukkot is called "zman simchateinu" - the "time of our joy." We are reminded that happiness is a state of mind. It's not about having this or that. Some new item or title won't make you happy. It's up to you to be happy and that starts with being thankful for what we have, even when it's minimal - like a sukkah and some time in nature and water. Water? The water-drawing ceremony which took places during Sukkot (Simchat Beit HaShoeva) was considered to be the happiest day of the year. Keep in mind that we don't get rain here for 6 months straight and then right around Sukkot time it begins again. Yes, we are happy when it rains here. No wonder Thanksgiving is considered to be based on Sukkot.
No matter how nice our homes may be, once a year to spend a week out in a hut, reminds us all that we are equal and that we have a common humanity and as such need to treat each other equally. While most of us can come inside after the week, we need to remember that not everyone has a home - or a warm and loving home - to go to and we need to remember to take care of the most vulnerable among us.
That we need to be welcoming of other people - even those who look different or think different than we do. While on Sukkot this year, due to Covid, we cannot really invite guests over, traditionally we invite guests to eat with us in our sukkot. We even go sukkah-hopping! It's so important that we even have a tradition to invite guests from the past - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David - and talk about a different quality they had which we hope to emulate. And in modern times many families have wisely added a group of 7 women - the fun thing is that they can pick them. So take some Biblical women like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Esther and Avigail or some modern rebel girls like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hannah Szenes, Hedy Lamarr, Henrietta Szold, Emma Lazarus, Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi and Sara Schenirer. These days, learning how to welcome the stranger is one of the most important lessons we can learn - that's why the Torah mentions it 36 times, more often than any other commandment.
That all of us are in it together. On Yom Kippur we are all judged together . It is why our confession is always together and in the plural (also not to embarrass anyone). On Sukkot we cement that by bringing together 4 very different species. The etrog has smell and taste, the hadas has smell but no taste, the lulav has taste but no smell and the aravah has neither taste nor smell. This is likened to Jews who keep the mitzvot (commandments) and are good people, those who keep the mitzvot but somehow are not good people, those who are good people even without keeping the mitzvot and those who neither keep the mitzvot nor are good people. We need to bring everyone together in unity. This is especially true in Israel these days when many segments of the society somehow think that the corona regulations don't apply to them or their group. Sukkot reminds us that we need everyone to pull together to be successful.
If you don't remember how to shake the lulav, this awesome music video from last year's Sukkot will remind you of the movements and directions.
Here are the blessings for shaking the lulav and sitting in a sukkah. And if it is your first time this year doing either or those, don't forget to say the shehechiyanu blessing.
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And if you still need a primer, here is a Sukkot 101 video... in Lego.
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