Welcome to the year 5769. No matter how long I have been out of school, the beginning of the Jewish New Year always makes me feel like I am a freshman in college. At the same time as I celebrate the High Holidays, I begin a new school year on campus, meet many new faces, eat a lot of food, and then finally comes Sukkot. Sukkot is the time when we as Jews move into our new "dorm" and create a new space.
But what is the significance of Sukkot falling at this time of year on the Jewish calendar? Why are we celebrating outdoors? Is there a reason Sukkot comes immediately after the High Holidays?
Before we can tackle these questions, we need to figure out what a sukkah really is:
A sukkah is a booth which Jews are commanded to dwell in during Sukkot, the Festival of the Tabernacles, as stated in Leviticus (23: 42-45), "You shall in live in sukkot, booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt, I am the Lord your God."
Modern biblical scholars explain the origins of the holiday of Sukkot as deriving from the ancient harvest festivals, when farmers would erect booths as temporary dwelling places in the fields during the harvest season. The Jewish tradition then adapted the celebration, so that the practice of building sukkot continued, however the purpose shifted from honoring the new harvest, to the commemoration of the Jewish journey in the wilderness.
The standard explanation for the tradition of constructing sukkot is that structures are intended to be reminiscent of the transportable tents which the Israelites lived in as they traveled through the wilderness. By recreating these booths and making them into our temporary homes for one week, we relive the experience of our ancestors and connect with our history.
Rabbi Akiva, a second-century Jewish scholar cited frequently in the Talmud, offers an alternative explanation for the purpose of sukkot. He explains that the word sukkah does not mean "booth," but "covering," and the sukkot we build are not intended to reference the temporary dwellings of the Israelites, but another fixture in the Jewish journey - the "cloud of glory" which was said to have covered and surrounded the Israelites in the wilderness and provided them with divine protection from the hostile elements.
When we leave the permanent dwelling of our home and enter the temporary dwelling of the sukkah we leave behind the physical protection provided by the house and instead honor the metaphysical protection which God gave to the Jews in the wilderness and continues to offer us. This is not to say that Judaism frowns upon material possessions. However, by leaving the home and entering the sukkah, we declare that it is the spiritual side of existence that brings true joy in life. Once we have experienced the sukkah and the return to nature, we are then able to return into our homes with a heightened appreciation for both the spiritual and physical comforts we have been given.
Sukkot is a festival of religious joy. Jewish mystical tradition teaches that to dwell in the sukkah is to be under the shadow of faith. A Chasidic rabbi once said, "The sukkah is unique in that while all other precepts are carried out by only part of the body, in the sukkah it is the whole body that enters into the precept"
The Sages teach, in Ethics of the Fathers "Completing one mitzvah leads to completing another mitzvah" (4:2). After our intense period of self-reflection and repentance during the Days of Awe, we take all of our positive thoughts and hopes for the new year, and we create a physical and spiritual space within the sukkah in which we house these thoughts and allow them to flourish.
We at Hillel can take this message and extend it beyond ourselves. Students walk into school each year thinking and hoping that this year will be greatest one yet. We need to create spaces that reflect and honor those thoughts and feelings. The meaning of Sukkot is to help us take the next step and create a strong foundation from which those ideas and emotions will be able to grow and develop throughout the year.
Written by Rebecca Kaplan, Director of Jewish Student Life, Hillel at Hunter College.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Sukkot at MyJewishLearning.com.