History of Sukkot

Coming on the heels of the Jewish High Holy Days is Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. Unlike the somber highest holy day of Yom Kippur that precedes it, Sukkot is characterized by rejoicing and celebration, commemorating the 40-year period that the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, living in temporary shelters after fleeing their slavery in Egypt, and all the ways God took care of them. “Sukkot” means "booths," and the holiday is also often called the "feast of booths," the "feast of shelters" or the "feast of tabernacles."

Biblical mandate

In the Book of Leviticus, the Torah instructs Jews: "You shall dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths" (Leviticus 23:42). One of three pilgrimage festivals, the Israelites would travel to the holy city of Jerusalem to make sacrifices at the temple.

On the first day of the holiday and the eighth (last) day, work was forbidden. Instead, there was to be a sacred assembly. In between those two days they were to present food offerings to the Lord. Other offerings included burnt and grain offerings, also drink offerings. They did this after they had gathered their crops, celebrating their abundant harvest and giving thanks to God for his generous provision.

According to Jewish tradition, the first American Thanksgiving was modeled after the Jewish Sukkot. As the pilgrims who had come to this country searched for a way to express their thanks to God for their survival and for a bountiful harvest, they were inspired by the ancient Israelites' thanksgiving harvest celebration.

Sukkot traditions

Because this is a feast of booths or shelters, a Jewish family traditionally builds a “sukkah,” which is singular for "sukkot." It can be made from any type of material—wood and canvas with metal poles (like a tent) or even plastic lattice. The roofing material is branches or foliage, from corn husks to palm fronds, and left loose, not tied together or tied down. Also, the roof must have open spaces so that one can see the stars in the heavens. It’s customary to eat meals in the sukkah, and sometimes people sleep in them overnight.

As with many Jewish holidays, hospitality is stressed. In the book of Genesis, Abraham welcomed three strangers into his tent, so too Jews open their homes and invite guests to join them in their sukkah. Another Sukkot tradition is performing a welcoming ceremony (“ushpizin”) to symbolically invite ancestors to share in a meal. Also, to commemorate the bounty of the Promised Land, a blessing is said while shaking cuttings from four of plants: palm, myrtle, willow and citron.

Food is always part of Jewish holidays, and the foods of Sukkot are reflective of autumn harvest foods—squash, pumpkin, apples, dried fruits and nuts. Lots of yellow, gold and orange-colored foods.

Sukkot is a festive, communal holiday, celebrating God’s blessings to the people of ancient Israel and their descendants today.

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