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What is Sukkot?

Ami Farkas building his sukkah

Jews celebrate Sukkot, also called the Feast of Tabernacles or Festival of Booths, in the fall, four days after Yom Kippur. It is a joyous celebration of the harvest and a time to remember Israel's wandering in the Sinai desert before entering the Promised Land.

Sukkot is instituted in Leviticus 23:33–34, "The LORD said to Moses, 'Say to the Israelites: 'On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the LORD's Feast of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days.'" This holy day is one of the three festivals that were celebrated (until 70 C.E.) with mass pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Sukkot lasts eight days outside of Israel and seven days in Israel. It engenders a spirit of joy, gladness, and celebration, in stark contrast to the somber, introspective High Holy Days that directly precede it.

Like many Jewish holidays, Sukkot commemorates a number of religious and historical motifs. It has its roots as a fall harvest festival. In Israel, the harvest of grapes, olives, and other crops ends at this time of year. It is a time when Israel's farmers wait in hope for the first rain and the start of a new and fertile planting year.

Sukkot also commemorates the Jews' wanderings in the wilderness for forty years under Moses. Today, in the days between Yom Kippur (which marks the end of the High Holy Days) and Sukkot, Jews erect sukkot, booths for temporary dwelling that resemble the structures in which the Israelites lived in the desert after their exodus from Egypt.

The sukkah (the singular form of sukkot) consists of four walls made of wood, canvas, or other material. The roof is made of branches or leaves thatched loosely so that one may glimpse the stars in the sky above. It is decorated with flowers, fruit, and paper chains. We eat meals in the sukkah, which becomes a colorful gathering place for family and friends and some even sleep there to fulfill the biblical command to "dwell" in the sukkah for seven days.

On Sukkot, Jews give thanks for the Israelites' redemption from Egypt and for God's provision during their many years of wandering through the desert. By dwelling in an exposed, insecure hut, Jews are reminded that true security comes from God.

Paradoxically, at the same time that Jews offer thanks to God for material blessings, they take refuge in the sukkah and recall the frailty, vulnerability, and transitory nature of human existence. Thus they are called to reaffirm their ultimate dependence on God alone instead of material goods for happiness and spiritual fulfillment.

Interestingly, the American Pilgrims were, in all likelihood, inspired by the biblical account of Sukkot when they instituted the holiday we now know as Thanksgiving.