Five days after Yom Kippur, the Jewish calendar shifts from somber reflection to joyous festivity with the holiday of Sukkot. Often referred to as Zeman Simhateinu (Season of our Rejoicing), Sukkot is an eight-day celebration of the Earth's harvest. In the days of the Temple, Jews flocked to Jerusalem to take part in a water ceremony as well as numerous grain and animal sacrifices. Today, we traditionally participate in a number of rituals that bring us in contact with the wonders of the world around us:
Under the Stars
Rather than eating in our homes, it is customary on Sukkot to eat all meals in a temporary structure called a sukkah. Symbolic of the biblical Jews' temporary dwellings in the desert, the sukkah is made with fragile walls and a makeshift roof of leaf-covered branches or bamboo, and is the central focus of Sukkot. Sometimes, more adventurous people even sleep in their sukkah! But however much time one spends in the sukkah, it certainly allows for a deeper connection to the natural world.
Beautifying Our Space
While eating in the sukkah can help us connect to nature, artistic souls will have equally as good a time decorating this temporary house. Decorating the sukkah is a fun custom that can greatly add to the festive atmosphere of Sukkot. Colorful streamers, Jewish artwork, and holiday banners are only a few of the creative ways to beautify the sukkah. Some people also use fruit as decorations to reflect the abundance of this harvest season.
The Natural World and Our Prayers
The rituals of Sukkot do not end with building and decorating the sukkah. Another ritual with strong connections to the natural world, the arba'ah minim (four species) are an integral part of Sukkot traditions as well. Representative of the land's fertility and our desire for rain, the species include a lulav (a palm branch), hadassim (myrtle branches), aravot (willow branches) and an etrog (citron). Each day of the holiday, in the synagogue, congregants use the arba'ah minim in the Hoshanot ritual. Hoshanot entail holding the four species aloft and marching in a circle around the synagogue while reciting hymns.
Shemini Atzeret & Simhat Torah
Along with Shemini Atzeret, Simhat Torah immediately follows the eight days of Sukkot, marking the close of the "Season of our Rejoicing." But instead of ending quietly, on Simhat Torah this happiest of seasons goes out with a bang, as the holiday is one of the more lively and festive days on the Jewish calendar. Round and round, people dance, singing with joy for the Torah that they hold in their hands.
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Simhat Torah is a whirlwind of a festival. Synagogues are filled with dancing and song. Young children ride on their parents' shoulders, waving flags or toy Torahs. In more adventurous communities (especially in Israel), the dancing often travels outdoors so that congregants can rejoice under the stars.
Simhat Torah is the day that marks the end and beginning of the Torah reading cycle. During services, the Ark doors are opened and all of the congregation's Torah scrolls are brought out. It's at this point that the dancing begins. With the Torah scrolls in hand, members of the community join together in hakafot, or processions around the synagogue in honor of the Torah.
Together, we sing and dance to express our love for the Torah and commitment to its values. The focal point of all the excitement is the Torah scroll itself and most synagogues give everyone an opportunity to hold the scroll during the dances. By the holiday's end, the goal is to have every Jew feel more personally connected to the Torah and the community as a whole.
Hadassah wishes everyone a hag sameah (happy holiday).