Sukkot, a Hebrew word meaning “booths” or “huts,” refers to the annual Jewish festival of giving thanks for a bountiful fall harvest and commemorating the forty years of Jewish wandering in the desert after Sinai. Beginning five days after Yom Kippur. Sukkot is one of the three Jewish Pilgrimage Festivals (Shalosh R’galim) where the people would bring a portion of their harvest’s first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. There, it would be offered as a sacrifice to God by the High Priest. As part of the celebration, Leviticus 23:40 commands: “On the first day, you shall take the fruit of a goodly tree [etrog[, palm branches, myrtle boughs, and willows [lulav], and rejoice before Adonai.“
The sukkah symbolizes the frail huts in which the Israelites lived during their forty years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. It also serves to remind Jews of the biblical account of how God protected them, provided for their needs in the wilderness, and by implication, still watches over us today.
Leviticus (23:42–43) portrays God as commanding: “You shall dwell in booths for seven days…that your generations may know that I made the Children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
A sukkah is to have at least three walls with a superstructure, while the fourth may be open. The walls may be constructed of any material, generally canvas, wood, or metal. The roof is to be temporary, covered with loose branches from trees or anything that grows out of the ground, and has been cut off from the ground. According to tradition, this roof covering, s’chach, should give shade and yet allow those in the sukkah to see the stars through the roof at night.
Tradition calls for one family to enter the sukkah, recite the Motzi prayer over the meal to be eaten, and then add a special blessing:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu leishev basukah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us through Your mitzvot and commanded us to dwell in the sukkah.
Another custom of Sukkot involves extending hospitality, especially to the needy. Tradition tells us that there are certain guests of the festival, ushpizin, who are present in spirit in every sukkah: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and David. In addition, many Jews will invite guests outside of their families to join them for a holiday meal.
Rich in significance, replete with special rituals, the lulav and the etrog are central to this joyous harvest and historical festival. Lulav is a Hebrew word meaning “palm branch” and refers to a unique ceremonial object associated with the holiday of Sukkot. Lulav is also a generic term, describing a three-sectioned holder with a single palm branch in the center, two willow branches on the left, and three myrtle branches on the right. Etrog is a Hebrew word meaning “citron,” and refers to the special lemon-like fruit used in conjunction with the lulav in the Sukkot ritual. Over the centuries, the combination of citron, palm, myrtle, and willow also became known as the arbaah minim, or “four species.”