The Mothers Circle Guide to Sukkot
Sukkot (pronounced “sue-coat”), which literally translates to “booths,” pays homage to the temporary shelters inhabited by the Israelites during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Beginning on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (five days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), Sukkot is a seven- or eight-day celebration (seven in the Reform movement and in Israel) that also marks the last of the three harvest festivals, preceded by Passover and Shavuot. Four days after the solemn observance of Yom Kippur, Sukkot marks a return to celebration. In the liturgy, we often refer to the holiday as “Z’man Simchateinu,” or “Season of Our Rejoicing.”
Beyond the sukkah (the Hebrew word for a singular booth, pronounced “sue-kah”), Sukkot’s most prominent symbol is the collection of the “Arbah Mineem,” or “Four Species.” We refer to the Four Species in shorthand as the lulav and etrog. Why? The Four Species are comprised of three bound branches collectively know as the lulav: the palm (‘lulav’ in Hebrew), the willow (‘arava’), and myrtle ('hadas’), in addition to the etrog, a citrus fruit. You will see the lulav and etrog held together for the shaking of the lulav (See in ‘How We Observe.’) Together, these four species, all with varied taste and fragrance, represent the unity of the people of Israel.
How We Observe:
There are two main traditions associated with Sukkot: (1) dwelling in the sukkah and (2) shaking the lulav and etrog (the “Four Species”).
- Dwelling in the sukkah: The sukkah is not just meant to be constructed; it is meant to be enjoyed! In the book of Leviticus, God commands the Israelites to “dwell” in the sukkah... "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.” (Leviticus 23:42-43) We fulfill this joyfully by eating meals in the sukkah (weather-permitting). Some daring families or individuals even spend the night in it!
If you are looking to “dwell” in a sukkah, there are often community sukkahs hosted by local Jewish organizations that will be happy to welcome you. Should you choose to build your own sukkah, the Torah (Five Books of Moses) outlines very specific parameters to make a sukkah. You can use any type of sturdy material to build it, and today, you can even purchase ready-to-assemble sukkah kits! The sukkah must have at least 2.5 walls, and the roof must be covered in “sechach,” branches, bamboo, or straw that has been recovered from the ground. The laws of the sukkah help us appreciate nature around us: the sechach must cover the roof enough to block the sun, but not enough so you cannot see the stars through it.
In addition to these and other criteria, it is customary to decorate the sukkah as a way of beautifying the commandment (“hiddur mitzvah”). To beautify the commandment is to go beyond simply following the prescribed outline for building the sukkah to making it unique and pleasing to the eye. Traditional decorations include harvest fruits, paper chains, and lights. For ideas on how to beautify your sukkah, see “Sukkot Activities to Do with Your Children” below.
- Shaking the lulav and etrog: On each day of this weeklong festival, we take the“Four Species” and ritually wave them in every direction, symbolizing the traditional Jewish acknowledgment that God is everywhere. This can be a fun activity to share as a family, with everyone taking turns at doing the “lulav shake.” Since the lulav is quite large, young children might do better with a stuffed lulav and etrog set! Click here for a how-to on the specifics of performing this mitzvah.
Activities To Do with Your Children:
- Decorate the sukkah: The tradition of beautifying the sukkah is a fun and creative way for children to be involved in its construction and truly make your sukkah special. You can share in this mitzvah together with crafts such as sukkah lanterns and stained-glass leaves.
- Cook traditional harvest plates: Sukkot celebrates the fruits of the fall harvest. In this spirit, why not experiment with some new autumnal recipes? Try The Shiksa in the Kitchen’s unique and delicious recipes like Pumpkin Challah, Grilled Lemon Butter Zucchini and Autumn Apple Crisp.Once the food is prepared, bring it outside to eat in the sukkah!
- Invite guests for a multicultural potluck: Sukkot, like most Jewish traditions, is an experience meant to be shared. The patriarch Abraham was said to regularly invite strangers into his tent, which helped to set a standard of welcoming as a Jewish sacred obligation. Open your “tent” by inviting guests of all religious and ethnic backgrounds for a potluck meal in your sukkah, and encourage them to bring a traditional cultural dish or old family recipe that speaks to their heritage.
- Create a collage of guests: A Jewish mystical tradition suggests that, in inviting guests, we are also inviting the presence of revered Jewish figures from the past known as the “ushpizin.” Combine this spirit of welcoming with the tradition of beautifying the sukkah by creating a visual depiction of all the guests you wish to invite who are not able to be there in person. Brainstorm a guest list with your children; this could include Jewish celebrities, historical figures, or family members who have passed. Discuss why these people inspire you, and what you would ask them if they were to “dwell” in your sukkah. Once the list is complete, depict it in a collage to erect in your sukkah, or a local community sukkah.
- Organize a sukkah sleepover: While most fulfill the mitzvah of “dwelling” in the sukkah with a meal, take it a step further by pulling out the sleeping bags and spending the night inside the sukkah! Challenge your children to find the Big Dipper or the North Star as you star gaze at the night sky through the sechach. Don’t forget the bug spray!
- Start an Ecclesiastes jam session: Traditionally, on the Shabbat that falls during the seven or eight days of Sukkot, we read from the book of Ecclesiastes. You may not know the book by name, but you may be more familiar with the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds, which uses excerpts from this sacred writing as its lyrics. The words speak to the ever-changing nature of life, and remind us to be appreciative of everything we have as we move forward in celebrating the New Year. Gather friends and family to rock out to this classic in your sukkah, and have your children pull out their air guitars!
Books to Read with Your Kids:
Deborah Bodin Cohen, Engineer Ari and the Sukkah Express
Kar-Ben Publishing, 2010
Follow Engineer Ari around Israel as he searches for materials to build his sukkah and his lulav and etrog. This book provides great visuals for these ritual items as it teaches children about Sukkot in Israel.
Jamie S. Korngold, Sadie's Sukkah Breakfast
Kar-Ben Publishing, 2011
Join Sadie and her brother Ori as they “dwell” in the sukkah and search for guests to invite to their early-morning Sukkot meal. Its vivid illustrations and playful tone will have your kids laughing as they learn about the mitzvah of welcoming guests.
Susan Axe-Bronk, The Vanishing Gourds: A Sukkot Mystery
Kar-Ben Publishing, 2012
Gather clues with Sara as she tries to figure out why her sukkah decorations are disappearing! Children will be engaged by this charming story and its illustrations as they learn about Sukkot traditions.