BBC – Religions – Judaism: Sukkot

Posted By on June 16, 2021

Sukkot Sukkot

Find the date for Sukkot 2014 in the multifaith calendar

Sukkot commemorates the years that the Jews spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, and celebrates the way in which God protected them under difficult desert conditions.

Sukkot is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths.

The word sukkot means huts (some translations of the bible use the word booths), and building a hut is the most obvious way in which Jews celebrate the festival.

Every Jewish family will build an open air structure in which to live during the holiday. The essential thing about the hut is that it should have a roof of branches and leaves, through which those inside can see the sky, and that it should be a temporary and flimsy thing.

The Sukkot ritual is to take four types of plant material: an etrog (a citron fruit), a palm branch, a myrtle branch, and a willow branch, and rejoice with them. (Leviticus 23: 39-40.) People rejoice with them by waving them or shaking them about.

Most people nowadays live in houses or apartments with strong walls and a decent roof. Spending time in a fragile hut in the garden, or under a roof of leaves rigged up on a balcony gives them the experience of living exposed to the world, without a nice comfy shell around them. It reminds them that there is only one real source of security and protection, and that is God.

Similarly, the holes in the roof reveal the sky, and metaphorically, God's heaven, the only source of security.

Another meaning goes along with this: a Jew can be in God's presence anywhere. The idea here is that the person, having abandoned all the non-natural protections from the elements has only God to protect them - and since God does protect them this shows that God is there.

A sukkah must also have at least two walls and part of a third wall. The roof must be made of plant materials (but they must have been cut from the plant, so you can't use a tree as the roof).

Jews don't live in these huts too completely; it depends on the climate where they live. People in cold countries can satisfy the obligation by simply taking their meals in the huts, but in warmer countries, Jewish people will often sleep out in their huts.

What Jewish law requires is that the hut should be a person's principal residence.

The festival is set down in the Hebrew Bible book of Leviticus:

This evening, we begin the Jewish festival of Sukkot, known in English as Tabernacles.

It's a simple festival. We take a palm branch, a citron, and some leaves of myrtle and willow, to remind ourselves of nature's powers of survival during the coming dark days of winter.

And we sit in a sukkah, the tabernacle itself, which is just a shed, a shack, open to the sky, with just a covering of leaves for a roof. It's our annual reminder of how vulnerable life is, how exposed to the elements.

And yet we call Sukkot our festival of joy, because sitting there in the cold and the wind, we remember that above us and around us are the sheltering arms of the divine presence.

If I were to summarise the message of Sukkot I'd say it's a tutorial in how to live with insecurity and still celebrate life.

And living with insecurity is where we're at right now. In these uncertain days, people have been cancelling flights, delaying holidays, deciding not to go to theatres and public places. The physical damage of September 11th may be over; but the emotional damage will continue for months, maybe years, to come.

Yesterday a newspaper columnist wrote that looking back, future historians will call ours "the age of anxiety." How do you live with the fear terror creates?

For our family, it's brought back memories of just over ten years ago. We'd gone to live in Israel for a while before I became Chief Rabbi, to breathe in the inspiration of the holy land and find peace. Instead we found ourselves in the middle of the Gulf War.

Thirty-nine times we had to put on our gas masks and take shelter in a sealed room as SCUD missiles rained down. And as the sirens sounded we never knew whether the next missile would contain chemical or biological warheads or whether it would hit us.

It should have been a terrifying time, and it was. But my goodness, it taught me something. I never knew before just how much I loved my wife, and our children. I stopped living for the future and started thanking God for each day.

And that's when I learned the meaning of Tabernacles and its message for our time. Life can be full of risk and yet still be a blessing.

Faith doesn't mean living with certainty. Faith is the courage to live with uncertainty, knowing that God is with us on that tough but necessary journey to a world that honours life and treasures peace.

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BBC - Religions - Judaism: Sukkot

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