The somber High Holy Days, which ended on Oct. 4, give way tonight to Sukkot, the colorful Feast of Tabernacles. One of the three "Pilgrim Festivals'' — the others are Passover and Shavuot — Sukkot recalls the Israelites' travels in the Sinai desert after their liberation from slavery in Egypt.
The eight-day festival takes its name from the sukkah , a hut made by many Jewish families and synagogues. Loosely thatched and crudely built, the sukkah reminds Jews of their wandering ancestors' meager shelters.
Fruits and flowers are hung from the sukkah rafters, recalling the festival's other significance: gratitude to God for the fall harvest in the Holy Land, for which Israelis still celebrate it. Each morning of Sukkot, traditional Jews recite a blessing while holding four kinds of Israeli plants: a lulav or palm frond, an etrog or citron, and branches of myrtle and willow.
Sukkot has been called the Jewish Thanksgiving and may even have been its model. The American Pilgrims were avid students of the Hebrew Scriptures, even comparing their crossing of the Atlantic to the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea. The Pilgrims may well have adapted Sukkot to the New World as well.
The seventh day of Sukkot is Hoshana Rabba, or Great Help. In traditional synagogues on this day, the congregation takes the lulav and etrog in a procession of seven circuits, singing prayers for salvation. Some Jews call this day the "little Yom Kippur,'' one more chance to gain God's favor.
The last day of Sukkot is Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly. It is a time to pray for rain in the Holy Land to assure good crops. It is also one of four times during the year for Yizkor memorial prayers honoring the dead.
Yet another event is sometimes celebrated on the same day in many synagogues: Simhat Torah, the jubilant Rejoicing Over the Law. On Simhat Torah, the last lines are read from the giant pulpit Torah scroll in each synagogue. Then the scroll is rewound for another annual cycle of readings — and the rabbi carries it in procession around the synagogue, amid singing and dancing.
— James D. Davis