Sukkot - etrog
Etrog, silver etrog box and lulav, used on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.Gilabrand (Wikipedia Commons)

Sukkot, an important Jewish festival known for rejoicing and celebrating life, begins on 8 October and will continue for the next eight days.

Sukkot was originally a Jewish harvest festival, sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif. However, over time it was given a new significance to commemorate the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering the desert and living in temporary shelters.

The festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, which usually varies between late September and early October, and five days after Yom Kippur. It then lasts for seven days within Israel and for eight days for those in diaspora (those outside Israel), with no work permitted on the first two days.

The festivals of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah immediately follow, and are considered to be connected to the spiritual aspects of Sukkot, yet separate festivals in their own right. Within Israel, they are celebrated on the same day, and outside Israel, on two separate days.

Sukkot is also one of three pilgrimage festivals known as Shalosh Regalim, along with Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), when the Israelites would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.

History

The original purpose of Sukkot is believed to be a harvest festival. It is commonly referred to in the bible as the 'festival of ingathering', meaning harvest, and probably evolved from ancient agricultural and religious practices.

The holiday's new significance came from the story of the Israelites, when they were released from slavery and began the Exodus from Egypt, to find their new homeland.

The story, taken from the book of Leviticus, states that God gave the command to Moses that his people should build sukkahs, small shelters covered in plant materials (of which Sukkot is the plural).

"On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook," it states.

"You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt".

On their journey, the Jewish people had a pillar of cloud to protect them during the day from the sun, and a pillar of fire to guide them at night.

It is believed the story of the Israelites' journey became part of Sukkot, when the tabernacle, the mobile sanctuary that Moses built for the Ark of the Covenant, arrived in Jerusalem during the month of Sukkot.

Modern Customs and Traditions

In modern times, Sukkot is observed by building a sukkah out of any material, such as wood or metal, just as long as the roof is made of organic material, known as s'chach, which can be things such as leaves or branches.

Special prayers are said inside the sukkah every day of the holiday, including reading from the Torah, and all meals are to be eaten there. The men will often sleep in the sukkah as well, but this is no longer a requirement if it is raining.

The inside of the sukkah is decorated with the four species, the four plants used to celebrate the harvest festival: etrog (a citrus fruit native to Israel); lulav (a palm branch); hadas (a branch from a myrtle tree); and arava (a willow branch).

Each day there is a waving ceremony, where the four species are bound together and waved in all directions, north, south, east, west, up and down. This is to symbolise that God is found everywhere and not just in one place.

Sukkot is known to heavily contrast with Yom Kippur, which takes place five days before. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, where Jewish people cleanse themselves of their sins from the previous year. Sukkot is about rejoicing and celebrating life, and all great things that can come from harvesting and growing crops.