Sukkot, the Jewish Feast of Booths, begins at sundown on Oct. 16, 2016. It is one of three festivals celebrated by ancient Jews with a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem and a feast. The other two are Pesach and Shavuot, the Passover and Feast of Weeks.
All three are connected to the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land of Canaan. They are mandated in Exodus 23:14-17 and Leviticus 23:4-43. Shavuot and Sukkot also have meanings rooted in the agricultural life in Canaan.
Sukkot closely follows the “Ten Days of Awe,” as the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are often called. It is a welcome transition from the solemn reflection on individual and collective shortcomings to a focus on more pleasant thoughts.
Sukkot recalls two. One is the end of 40 years wandering in the desert before entering the Promised Land of Canaan. The second is celebration of the autumn harvest. Reaping the benefits of the “Land of Milk and Honey” replaced the rigors of moving through the bleak mountains and desert of Sinai.
During Sukkot, Jews remember the 40 years their ancestors wandered in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land. During this time, they dwelled in temporary shelters — booths or tabernacles — as they moved from place to place.
Some Jews today erect temporary sukkot at their homes, while others enjoy the festival in a sukkah (singular for sukkot) at their synagogue or temple.
‘The Four Things’
Central to the festivities both in the home and at congregational prayers are the Arba Minim, or "four things," used in ceremonies. These are listed in Leviticus 23:40, and are symbolized by a date palm frond, branches from myrtle and willow trees, and a citron.
During a special prayer, the citron — a large, lemon-like fruit — is held in the left hand, while the other three things are held in the right.
The prayer is the Hallel, Psalms 113-118, praises and thanksgivings recited throughout the year.
As the prayer is said, the Arba Minim are held together and waved to the east, south, north and west, then up and down.
There are various interpretations of this ceremony, but a popular one is that the frond of the date palm symbolizes four types of people: There are some who have knowledge of the Holy Law and good deeds, some who have one without the other, and some who have neither.
The Lord, who is everywhere — in all four directions as well as above and below — binds all four together in brotherhood and sisterhood so that all benefit from the strong points of each.
The model for Thanksgiving
The theme of giving thanks for the fall harvest is closely related to the Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts for their first harvest in the New World in 1621. They were close readers of the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament and recalled the ancient holiday of Sukkot.
There were various days for this festival until Abraham Lincoln’ declaration in 1863 that the fourth Thursday of November would be a national holiday of Thanksgiving.
As the shopping season between Thanksgiving and Christmas became important to the economy, the few months with five Thursdays became a problem by shortening the shopping season. In 1939, Franklin Roosevelt set Thanksgiving for the fourth Thursday in the month.
American Jews are fortunate in having two Thanksgivings every year! Our neighbors are invited to join us for an early Thanksgiving.
Daniel E. Spector is a member of Temple Beth El in Anniston. He has a doctorate in history, focusing on Jewish history and the Middle East.