Five days after the solemn High Holy Days, Jews bounce back with Sukkot, the Festival of Tabernacles. The nine-day festival starts at sundown tonight (Sept. 18).
Sukkot is one of the three Pilgrim Festivals in Judaism, recapping the deliverance the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The other two are Passover, the Festival of Unleavened Bread, starting sundown April 14 next year; and Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, which will fall on sundown June 3.
For Sukkot, whose name is Hebrew for "Shelters," the festival recalls the wanderings of the Israelites en route to the Promised Land. Each family builds a sukkah and eats meals there. Crudely built and thinly thatched — even letting sunlight or starlight through — the sukkah reminds Jews of the fragile existence of their forebears in the wilderness.
But a festive air still tinges the holiday as the family hangs fruits, flowers and vegetables from the rafters of the sukkah, reminding them that Sukkot falls during the harvest in the Holy Land. Some scholars believe that the 17th century American Pilgrims, who were avid readers of the Bible, modeled Thanksgiving after Sukkot.
Traditional Jews recite a blessing while holding four plants from the Holy Land: a palm frond, willow and myrtle branches, and an etrog, a citric fruit that looks like a large lemon. Traditional synagogues hold extra services with chanting processions.
The eighth day of Sukkot is known as Shemini Atzeret, or The Solemn Assembly, which includes prayers for rain in the Holy Land. Jews also pray for deceased loved ones in a public prayer known as Yizkor, as they did during Yom Kippur.
Sukkot ends with a mini-festival known as Simhat Torah, the Rejoicing Over the Law. On Simhat Torah, the last chapter of Deuteronomy is read, and the first chapter of Genesis is read, starting another cycle of readings. Synagogue members also take the sacred scroll around the synagogue, with children carrying flags in a singing, dancing procession.
James D. Davis