This week is the Jewish festival of Sukkot. Also called the Feast of Tabernacles, it’s considered the most joyous festival of the Jewish year.
Sukkot begins five days after Yom Kippur, and so began this year at sundown on Sunday. It lasts 8 days, and is one of Judaism’s three central pilgrimage festivals, along with Passover and Shavuot.
Sukkot is both an agricultural festival marking the end of the harvest in Israel, and a religious observance commemorating God’s protection of the Israelites during their escape from Egypt. It recalls the 40 years the Jews spent in the wilderness on the way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. One of the central customs during Sukkot is to dwell in a sukkah, a temporary hut topped with branches.
The sukkah is representative of the temporary structures lived in whilst in the wilderness. It‘s used for eating meals, for visits, and socialising. Many Jewish families build this before the festival in their garden or on a balcony, as most or all of its roof should be directly under the sky. Some people construct a new sukkah each year, while others have a foldable one, which is stored carefully for future years.
If made traditionally, the roof of a sukkah is made of plant material, such as palm branches, bamboo poles, reeds or even corn stalks. The inside may be decorated with extracts from the Torah, real or imitation fruit, and shiny decorations. Traditionally, Jewish people are expected not to consume any food or drink outside of the sukkah during the festival period. Some spend most or all of Sukkot in the sukkah and may even sleep in it, although this is less likely in cooler climates like ours.
In the UK, the first 2 days of Sukkot are considered special, and it is forbidden to work and a range of other restrictions apply. A typical meal on these days includes challah bread dipped in honey. In the evenings, candles are ceremoniously lit. Other than this, there are traditional Sukkot foods, except for kreplach, which are stuffed dumplings. Sukkot meals are often based on the harvest origin of the holiday, and so include fresh fruits and vegetables.
Following the last day of Sukkot, another festival is celebrated. This is Simchat Torah. On this day, Jewish people may still use the sukkah but they are not expected to carry out any rituals. Simchat Torah literally “rejoicing in the Torah”, and is a holiday that celebrates both the end and renewal of the annual cycle of reading the Torah – the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible.