Sukkot, chag ha-asif, ‘the feast of ingathering’, is the concluding autumn festival of the ‘three feet’ festivals (shalosh r’galim), when our ancestors would go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem with their offerings (Exodus 23:14-17, Deuteronomy 16:16). The first is Pesach, chag ha-matzot, ‘the feast of unleavened bread’, in the spring. The second is Shavuot/Weeks, yom ha-bikkurim, ‘the day of first fruits’, also known as chag ha-katzir, ‘the feast of the harvest’, in the early summer

In the Torah‘s accounts of the festivals, there is also another cycle of three: the sacred days of the seventh month (Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28 and 29). The cycle consists of the first day, Yom T’ru’ah, a ‘Day of Blasting’ (Num. 29.1), which later became the New Year for years (Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 1.1), the tenth day, Yom Kippur, referred to in the Torah as Yom Ha-Kippurim (Lev. 23.27), and the seven-day festival of Sukkot (followed by Sh’mini Atzeret, the ‘Eighth day of Closure’), beginning on the fifteenth day of the month (Lev. 23.23-36; 39-43; Num. 29.12-39).

Sukkot is the connecting link between the two cycles. Both cycles inaugurate a time of renewal: the renewal of the Israelites at Pesach, in the first month of the year, originally known as Aviv, ‘Spring’ (Exodus 13.4); the call to renewal, individual and collective, with the ‘blasting’ of the shofar, the ram’s horn on the first day of the seventh month in the autumn (Lev. 23.24). But the two cycles resonate differently. While the ‘three feet festivals’ are rooted in the earth, in the seasons and the cycles of nature, and in the history of journeying, the sacred days of the seventh month inhabit the realm of eternity. 

The particular orientations of the two cycles are reflected in the festival that links them. Sukkot both concludes the agricultural cycle, and draws on and expands the themes of the first ten days of the seventh month. One of the ways it does this is through the reading on Sukkot of the biblical Book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, a work of wisdom literature that teaches about the fleeting nature of Life. The message is also conveyed more directly by the principal mitzvot of Sukkot: the sukkah and the lulav.

The two mitzvot connected with the sukkah concern ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’ in the fragile ‘hut’ that is open to the sky and to the elements (Mishnah Sukkah, chapters 1-2). Although a practical ritual, the meaning of the sukkah is complex. On the one hand, the sukkah represents the shelters used during agricultural labour in the fields once the people settled in the land beyond the Jordan, demonstrating a connection between the sukkah, and Sukkot as the late harvest festival. On the other hand, the passage in Leviticus 23 places the sukkah in the wilderness narrative: The people shall ‘dwell in sukkot so that your generations know that I made the Israelites dwell in sukkot, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt’ (Lev. 23.43). At first sight, this statement is straightforward. However, according to the Exodus narrative, the people dwelt in ‘tents’ (ohalim), not in ‘huts’ (sukkot) in the wilderness (Exodus 33.8). This suggests that the phrase in Leviticus 23.43 is a metaphorical reference to the refuge provided by God during the wilderness wandering years, a reading supported by a phrase in Isaiah concerning the future time when the presence of YHWH in cloud smoke and fire over Mount Zion will be accompanied by ‘a sukkah for a shadow in the day-time from the parching heat’ (Isaiah 4.6).

Alongside remembrance of the autumn harvest, the sukkah also signals the fragility of life, our vulnerability and dependence, which is why offering hospitality is a special obligation at Sukkot. Hospitality, especially to strangers and those in need remains a vital issue today. Traditionally, hospitality includes the invitation to seven special ‘guests’ – ushpizin (masculine) – from the Jewish past, a practice with its origins in the sixteenth-century kabbalistic mystical commentary on the Torah, the Zohar, ‘Book of Splendour’. In recent years the practice has extended to inviting seven significant ushpizot (feminine: see Inviting people into the sukkah is both an opportunity to share the fruits of our labour with them, and a way of acknowledging the precariousness of existence, and our responsibility to offer refuge to others.

Turning to the lulav. The lulav has its origins in the reference in Leviticus to ‘taking’ on the first day of Sukkot, ‘the fruit of a tree of splendour, branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook’ and ‘rejoicing’ (Lev. 23.40). No reason is given in the passage in Leviticus for the particular selection of these four species. Nor are there any details of how the ‘rejoicing’ is to be conducted. The careful selection of the items, and the guidelines for shaking the lulav, made up of a palm branch, two willow and three myrtle branches, together with a citrus fruit, known as the etrog, is outlined in tractate Sukkah in the Mishnah and Talmud and in later codes (Mishnah Sukkah 3.1ff., Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 37b-38a; Shulkhan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 651).

Although the emphasis is on practical details, it is clear from the instructions that, like the sukkah, the lulav is freighted with symbolic meaning. For example, the requirement to shake the lulav in the directions of the compass, East, South, North and West, and towards the heavens and towards the earth, is in recognition of ‘the One to Whom everything belongs’ (Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 37b). Holding the lulav and etrog together with our hands, and shaking it in the prescribed manner, provides a tangible reminder to give thanks for our material blessings and the bounty of the Earth. At the same time, shaking the lulav reinforces our awareness that we live our finite material lives in the context of the infinite and eternal, in which context everything passes, however hard we grasp