By Ozzie Nogg

Hot on the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur comes Sukkot – Z'Man Simchateynu – our Festival of Rejoicing! And for hands-on, get-up-out-of-your-pew-and-participate Judaism, it can't be beat.

Sukkot (a.k.a. Hag ha-Osif, the Festival of Ingathering) is one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals – those times when the Israelites traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem bringing harvest gifts in gratitude to God. Of the three Festivals (Pesach and Shavuot being the other two), Sukkot was, by all accounts, the most popular.

Directions for celebrating Sukkot are given in the Torah. "After the fall harvest," says Leviticus, "take the fruits of goodly trees (etrog), branches of palm (lulav), boughs of thick trees (myrtle) and willows from the brook, and rejoice before the Lord seven days." We are also told to "dwell in booths" as did the children of Israel when they came out of Egypt. In other words, the Torah tells us to celebrate Sukkot by observing three mitzvot:

  1. Rejoice during the holiday
  2. gather the "four species" and
  3. live in the sukkah.

Our early ancestors observed the "rejoice" mitzvah to the fullest. They gathered in the Sanctuary at Shiloh on Mt. Ephraim, danced in the vineyards and drank more than a little of their harvested grape. (Now we understand why those provincial sanctuaries were called the "high places" …)

Eventually, the villagers gave up their unbridled revels and went, en masse, to the Temple in Jerusalem, to celebrate Sukkot in a slightly more sober fashion. They came in camel caravans from Egypt. By boat from distant cities in the Mediterranean. They came on donkeys and in chariots. But those who traveled on foot won the most points, and it is said that Rabbi Hillel, himself, hoofed it all the way from Babylonia.

Once in Jerusalem, the pilgrims were dazzled! There were wooden booths in every courtyard and on every roof. Thousands of men paraded in the streets, each one carrying his very own lulav. At dawn, silver trumpets blew and priests with golden pitchers poured water on the altar.

At night, the flames from enormous golden menorahs – 150 feet tall – lit up the Temple area. All of Jerusalem glowed! Learned men juggled flaming torches. They somersaulted and sang with harps and cymbals. Nobody could sleep during the entire week of Sukkot! Was it any wonder that the rabbis said, "Whoever has not witnessed this celebration has not seen true rejoicing."

Now, to the mitzvah of the four species.

In the early days, our ancestors simply carried around bunches of fruit and tree limbs in thanksgiving to God for his bounty. But that agri-business mentality didn't suit the rabbis, so they invested the lulav and etrog with great mystical significance. They decided that the four species represent the human body: the lulav is the backbone, the etrog is the heart, the myrtle leaves are the eyes and the willow is the mouth. Therefore, said the rabbis, one should use all of oneself to study Torah, to speak the truth and do good deeds.

Now, before a lulav can be given a five-star rating, it must meet excruciatingly high standards for size, freshness, the way the willow and myrtle are wrapped to the palm, etc., and a lulav of dubious character needs rabbinic inspection and approval before it can be used. The etrog must be gorgeous, too. Free from any blemish and with a stem that is just so. An etrog with even the slightest ding in it, is pasul – invalid! – and condolences to the man whose etrog's stem falls off before Sukkot is over.

Now, once you get your hands on the perfect lulav and etrog, they must be used – not just admired – and there are specific ways to hold them and circle the synagogue with them, plus a strict pattern for shaking them and pointing them in all directions.  This practice, some say, is left over from a pagan attempt to summon the four winds or bring rain. Pagan or not, the lulav and etrog are essential to the celebration of Sukkot.

And now the mitzvah of the sukkah, itself.

According to tradition, we live in booths during Sukkot because the Israelites lived in booths during their Exodus wanderings. Wrong! say pragmatic scholars who are quick to point out that desert nomads live in goatskin tents, not in wooden lean-tos with leafy roofs. Therefore, they say, living in booths at Sukkot cannot be connected to our wanderings in the desert. Rather, it's just another echo of our agricultural past, when harvesters lived in temporary huts in the fields.

Well, pooh on scholars with no souls. To paraphrase Theodore Gaster, the myths woven around traditions – even when historically inaccurate – still have validity if people choose to believe them. And most of us do choose to believe that the sukkah symbolizes God's protection of our people in the wilderness. Furthermore, we also believe the sukkah symbolizes the protection God continues to give us.

So how do we turn this metaphor into a real structure? The Torah doesn't tell us, but the rabbis (bless their hearts) give us blueprints.

According to the Talmud, the sukkah must be so many handbreadths by X number of cubits with this many planks and beams. It can be no higher than 30 feet (we shouldn't become haughty). It must be portable (we shouldn't become set in our ways and inflexible) and have at least three walls. The sukkah must also have a roof of leaves or branches that allows more shade than sun and through which the stars can be seen (since all blessings come from heaven). The Talmud also gives opinions on building a sukkah on top of a wagon, on the deck of a ship, on a camel's back and – believe it or not – under an elephant. It gives decorating tips, advice on how to sleep and eat in the sukkah plus procedures to follow in rotten weather. A sukkah, remember, is to rejoice in – not to suffer in. Hence the rabbinic maxim, "He who eats in the sukkah when it is raining is nothing but an ignoramus" – or words to that effect.

So how can we – today – observe the three Sukkot Mitzvot?

We can (1) build our own sukkahs and enjoy them with family and friends. If that's not an option, then let's go to the sukkah at our temple or synagogue and have kiddush there with family and friends. We can (2) buy our own lulav and etrog and learn how to wave and point them appropriately. No? Then let's go to our temples or synagogue and use the lulav and etrog available there. And (3) we can be joyous for a week. Let's not argue over this one, okay? There's no need to somersault or juggle flaming torches, but for seven days we can smile and be positive and thankful for what we have. (Any one who wants to act grumpy after Sukkot is free to do so.)

May the stem of your etrog stay put.
May God spread His sheltering sukkah of peace over us and over all Israel.
And over Jerusalem.