CNEWA works in places with many different cultures, faiths and traditions — and during this time of year, we are reminded in a particular way of the rich religious and cultural traditions of the Jewish people.
In the fall — starting with Rosh Hashanah, moving through Yom Kippur and ending with Sukkot — Jews mark the ”high holidays” and issue in the New Year of their calendar with prayers and celebrations. This week, Jews throughout the world celebrate the feast of Sukkot, sometimes referred to in English as the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, the latter from the Latin tabernaculum, “tent.”
Sukkot is one of the three great pilgrim festivals in the Old Testament: Passover, the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost and Sukkot. Long before the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Sukkot was an agricultural festival celebrating the end of the harvest. This is clear in Exodus 34:22 where it is called the Feast of the Ingathering (ha’asîf) at the end of the year and is paired with the Feast of Weeks, which is earlier in the year at the wheat harvest.
Sukkot runs for seven or eight days depending on whether one is in Israel or in the diaspora. The festival is outlined in detail in Leviticus 23:33-36, 39-43. It is to last seven days and the first and eighth (!) days are to be a “sacred assembly” on which no work is to be performed. It is a feast of celebration: “On the first day you shall take choice fruits, palm branches, boughs of leafy trees…and you shall rejoice in the presence of the Lord.” It is required that the people live in sukkot, “huts, shelters, booths,” made from branches of palm trees and other leafy trees. This is perhaps the most obvious practice that a non-Jew would notice. Jews throughout the world will build sukkot for the week. In major cities such as New York, it is not uncommon to see sukkot popping up on balconies of high rise apartments. For seven days, Jews will take their meals in the booths and some will even sleep in them. According to Leviticus, the booths are to remind the Israelites that their ancestors lived in shelters such as these during the Exodus.
During one of the central days of Sukkot, there is the ceremony of drawing water, reminiscent of the purification ceremonies at the Temple. This ceremony is specifically mentioned in the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel and may have provided the occasion for Jesus’ exclamation: “If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me! Let the one come and drink, who believes in me” because he is “living water” (John 7:37-38).
Also during Sukkot, Jews will display the etrog and the lulav. The etrog is a large citrus like a lemon but considerably larger, while the lulav is palm fronds which are often artfully woven in ways familiar to what some Christian cultures do with palms on Palm Sunday.
Depending upon where one lives—in Israel or the diaspora—there are two different endings to the week of Sukkot. The first is Shmini Atzeret, the “eighth assembly/congregation” which closes the festival. The second, for those in the diaspora, is the festival Simhat Torah, “the joy of the Torah.”
Perhaps most significantly, though, the ending of Sukkot signals, in fact, a beginning — the start for Jews of a new year, full of promise and possibility.