Sukkos in a Nutshell
For forty years, as our ancestors traversed the Sinai Desert prior to their entry into the Holy Land, miraculous “clouds of glory” surrounded and hovered over them, shielding them from the dangers and discomforts of the desert. Ever since, we remember G-d’s kindness and reaffirm our trust in His providence by dwelling in a sukkah–a hut of temporary construction with a roof covering of branches–for the duration of the Sukkos festival. Another Sukkos observance is the taking of the Four Kinds: an etrog (citron), a lulav (palm frond), three hadassim (myrtle twigs) and two aravot (willow twigs). More on these two mitzvot below.
Sukkos is also called The Time of Our Joy; indeed, a special joy pervades the festival. Nightly Water-Drawing Celebrations, reminiscent of the evening-to-dawn festivities held in the Holy Temple in preparation for the drawing of water for use in the festival service, fill the synagogues and streets with song, music and dance until the wee hours of the morning.
What: A sukkah is a hut built to provide shade. That’s why it must sit beneath the open sky—not under a patio deck or even the branches of a tree. The walls can be made of any material, as long as they are secure and don’t flap about in the wind. The roof, however, (we call it s’chach), must be of unprocessed materials which have grown from the ground. Bamboo poles, thin wooden slats, and evergreen branches are popular choices. Just make sure to use enough s’chach so that the inside of your sukkah will have more shade than sunlight. Click here for info on how to build a Sukkah. Those living in the fast lane can buy a prefab sukkah and bamboo mats. Inquire at your local Judaica store.
How: For eight days, make the sukkah your official home. Don’t panic: As long as you eat your meals there, you’re okay. But try to include anything else that you would normally do in the house—like reading a book or talking with a friend. We sit in the sukkah from sundown on the 14th of Tishrei through nightfall of the 22nd of Tishrei.
It is a mitzvah to eat all meals in the sukkah (a “meal” is defined as more than two ounces of grains — e.g. bread, cake, pasta). Some people have the custom of eating snacks in the sukkah as well. Before eating in the sukkah, the following blessing is recited:
Blessed are you, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to dwell in the sukkah.
This blessing is made when your meal or snack includes a grain-based food.
Raining? If it’s really uncomfortable, there is no duty to sit there. Come back when the weather improves.
Who: This beautiful mitzvah is traditionally fulfilled by the whole family, though, as with all time-related mitzvot, the obligation to eat in the sukkah applies to men over the age of 13.
Why: The sukkah commemorates the Clouds of Glory which surrounded and protected our ancestors during the forty-year desert sojourn which followed the Egyptian Exodus. Our willingness to leave the security of our homes and spend eight days in a flimsy outdoor hut demonstrates our faith in G‑d and His benevolence.
The Four Kinds
Every day of Sukkos (except Shabbat) we take the Arba Minim, aka “Four Kinds.”
What are the four kinds? A palm branch (lulav), two willows (aravot), a minimum of three myrtles (haddasim), and one citron (etrog). The first three kinds are neatly bundled together—your Arba Minim vendor can assemble it for you. (Or, click here for info on how to bind the Four Kinds yourself.)
Not all sets of Arba Minim on the market are kosher. Check with your rabbi. And treat your set with TLC—they’re fragile goods!
Arba Minim is a man’s obligation. For women, it’s optional but encouraged. Best place for doing this mitzvah is the sukkah, the outdoor holiday booth.
Hold the lulav in your right hand (unless you’re a lefty) with its spine facing you. Face east and say:
Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d King of the Universe who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded regarding taking the Lulav.
Pick up the etrog in your left hand.
[On the first day of Sukkos (or the first time on Sukkos you get to do this), at this point say:
Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d King of the Universe who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.]
Bring the lulav and etrog together and wave them—you’ve done the mitzvah!
Nevertheless, the custom is to wave the Arba Minim in all six directions—South, North, up, down, East and West.
Take along your Arba Minim to the synagogue for the morning services. We wave them again during the hallel prayer and then parade them around the synagogue during the hosha’anot ceremony.
Jewish unity is one of the central themes of Sukkos. The four kinds you are holding symbolize four types of Jews, with differing levels of Torah knowledge and observance. Bringing them together represents our unity as a nation—despite our external differences. So in this spirit of unity, be sure to share your Arba Minim with your Jewish friends and neighbors!
Other Holiday Observances
Light Festival (and Shabbas) Candles
Girls and all women that are in the house (or if there isn’t a woman in the house, the head of the household), light candles to usher in each night of the holiday and Shabbat. See this link for information regarding when exactly the holiday candles should be lit.
Blessings for Monday and Tuesday, October 13 & 14:
1) Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to light the candle of the Holiday.
Ba-ruch a-tah Ado-nai e-lo-hei-nu me-lech ha-olam asher ki-deshanu be-mitzvo-tav ve-tzvi-vanu le-hadlik ner shel Yom Tov.
2) Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.
Ba-ruch a-tah Ado-nai e-lo-hei-nu me-lech ha-olam she-heche-ya-nu ve-ki-yi-ma-nu ve-higi-a-nu liz-man ha-zeh.
Blessing for Friday, October 17:
Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to light the candle of the holy Shabbat.
Ba-ruch a-tah Ado-nai e-lo-hei-nu me-lech ha-olam asher ki-deshanu be-mitzvo-tav ve-tzvi-vanu le-hadlik ner shel Shabbat kodesh.
It is a mitzvah to rejoice on Sukkos in commemoration of the joyous “Water Drawing Celebrations” that were held in the Temple.
Click here for more on rejoicing.
The seven days of the festival of Sukkos consist of two days of “Yom Tov,” followed by five days of “Chol Hamoed” (“weekdays of the festival”; also called “the intermediate days”). This year, Chol Hamoed starts Wednesday night, and continues through the following Monday.
On Yom Tov all creative work is forbidden as on Shabbat, except for the tasks involved in food preparation (e.g., lighting a fire from a pre-existing flame, cooking, carrying “from domain to domain”); on Chol Hamoed, work whose avoidance would result in “significant loss” is permitted. Otherwise, all the mitzvot and customs of Sukkos apply: eating in the sukkah, taking the Four Kinds, etc. The Yaale V’yavo prayer is included in all prayers and Grace After Meals. Hallel, Hoshaanot and Musaf are recited following the Shacharit (morning) prayers.
It is the Chabad custom not to put on tefillin during Chol Hamoed, as on Shabbat and the festivals.
The seventh day of Sukkos is called “Hoshana Rabbah” and is considered the final day of the divine “judgment” in which the fate of the new year is determined. The Psalm L’David Hashem Ori, which has been added to our daily prayer since the 1st of Elul, is recited for the last time today. Other Hoshanah Rabbah observances include:
It is customary in many communities to remain awake on the night preceding Hoshanah Rabbah and study Torah. We recite the entire Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Psalms. In some congregations it is a custom for the Gabbai (synagogue manager) to distribute apples (signifying a “sweet year”) to the congregants.
Willow and Hoshaanot
In addition to the Four Kinds taken every day of Sukkos, it is a “Rabbinical Mitzvah”, dating back to the times of the Prophets, to take an additional aravah, or willow, on the 7th day of Sukkos. In the Holy Temple, large, 18-foot willow branches were set around the altar. Today, we take a bundle of five willow twigs and carry them together with the Four Kinds around the reading table in the synagogue during the “Hashaanot” prayers, of which we recite a more lengthy version today, making seven circuits around the table (instead of the daily one). At the conclusion of the Hoshaanot we strike the ground five times with the willow bundle, symbolizing the “tempering of the five measures of harshness.”
See The Willow, on the deeper significance of the mitzvah of aravah.