Build it and they will come. Family and friends gather in the sukkah and over food, as Jewish people remember the years that the ancient Hebrews spent in the desert on their way to Canaan after being freed from 400 years of slavery in Egypt, and take part in a Thanksgiving-like celebration for the harvest.
On Sunday, the Jewish holiday of Sukkot begins. Celebrated for eight days — this year from Sept. 23 to 30 — also known as the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, Sukkot is one of the three biblically-based pilgrimage holidays — Passover and Shavuot are the other two — when the ancient Israelites would go to the Temple in Jerusalem, a Torah commandment, and took part in festivities and ritual worship with the service of priests at the Temple.
Sukkoths, a temporary dwelling, are erected to remember how God protected the Jewish people during difficult times in the desert. The sukkah represents the fragility of existence, and Sukkot is a time to appreciate the shelter of our homes and bodies.
“The holiday of Sukkot, we are told in the Torah that it is to remind us that the Almighty presented huts as a protection after the exodus from Egypt,” said Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, from the Chabad of the Five Towns that celebrated its 24th Rosh Hashana in the community this year. “Commentators explain that this refers to the clouds of glory to protect the Jewish people during their stay in the desert.”
Rabbi Nochem Tenenboim, from the Chabad House of Hewlett, said that the holiday is “all about recognition, appreciation, joy and unity.” “No matter if it’s astonishing miracles — such as God provided the Jews in the desert — or a natural or regular miracle, we should always be thankful and recognize all the good we have by celebrating it with joy, love and unity.”
The holiday’s biggest symbol — the sukkah — especially a kosher one — is expected to have at least three walls, and each wall must have a minimum length of 28 inches, based on Jewish law. The walls of the sukkah must extend at least 40 inches high, and the walls may not be suspended more than nine inches above the ground.
Other Sukkot symbols are the Four Species: the lulav — a dried branch of a palm tree; the etrog — a citrus fruit native to Israel. It resembles a lemon; the hadasim, three myrtle branches; and the aravot, two branches of a willow tree.
The lulav is bound together with the two plants below to signify harmony. Because of its shape, the etrog symbolizes the heart. The hadasim symbolize the eyes, because of the leaves shape. The aravot represents a person who has no learning or does good deeds.
Rabbi Claudio Kupchik of Temple Beth El in Cedarhurst noted that Sukkot connects Jews to the past, present and future. “ [It] reminds us of our agricultural past in the land of Israel, when people would build Sukkot (booths) in the fields to sleep there as the harvest progressed,” he said. It relates to our present, requiring us to leave the comforts of our secure, sturdy homes to eat and dwell in ramshackle booths for a whole week. Sukkot also connects us to the hope for a better future for all.”