The word "Sukkot" means booths or tabernacles, and refers to the temporary dwellings in which we are commanded to live during this holiday. Sukkot, often translated as the Feast of Tabernacles, is one of the three pilgrimage festivals (the other two are Passover and Shavu'ot). The festival of Sukkot begins on the eve of the 15th day of Tishrei, just five days after Yom Kippur. It lasts for seven days and is a time to reconnect with the natural world.
Sukkot is celebrated for seven days as both an agricultural festival and a reminder of the years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness of Sinai. Also, autumn was when the crops were gathered, and often men erected temporary shelters to sleep in next to the fields so they could bring in the harvest faster. Sukkot serves a double celebration: we are grateful that we were no longer wanderers in the desert, and we offer thanks to God for the gathering of crops.
The sukkah is a temporary structure put up for use during Sukkot. In Leviticus 23:42-43, we are taught: "You shall live in booths seven days, 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." It has three sides made of wood or canvas, and a roof from twigs, palm fronds, sticks or such so that you can see the sky through it. The sukkah is decorated with themes of nature and harvest, like fall fruit, gourds, and flowers.
Some Jews take the words in Leviticus 23, "You shall live in booths ... " literally and eat and sleep in the sukkah. Many just eat their meals in the sukkah. There is also the custom of ushpizin, welcoming of guests into the sukkah. Each meal is an opportunity to invite people into the sukkah.
Leviticus 23:40 tells us to take "the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees (myrtle branches), and willows of the brook, ad you shall rejoice before your God seven days." During Sukkot, we wave the etrog, a citrus fruit native to Israel, and lulav (the myrtle, palm, and willow together) up, down, left and right to symbolize that God is all around us, and we are indebted to God for the bounty we have. Symbolically, the four species represent qualities we should strive for: the etrog is shaped like a heart (that we should have a kind heart), the lulav represents the backbone (that we be firm and brave), the myrtle looks like a mouth (that we will speak Jewishly by studying the Torah, praying, and offering good counsel), and the willow looks like an eye (that can see the good in others).
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