The ABC’s of Sukkot, the most festive of all the Jewish Holidays
Guidelines for the joyous Jewish outdoor festival of Sukkot.
Following on the heels of the High Holidays is Sukkot, a seven-day festival (8 days in the Diaspora) characterized by the outdoor Sukkah-huts that we sit in, and the “Four Species” of plants waved together each day.
Sukkot is a holiday of immense joy, where we express our complete trust in God, and celebrate our confidence in having received a “good judgment” for the coming year.
Throughout the week of Sukkot, we eat, sleep and socialize in a Sukkah, reminding us that:
- The Israelites lived in huts during the 40 years of wandering in the desert.
- God is our ultimate protection – just as He protected the Israelites in the desert with the Clouds of Glory (Exodus 13:21).
The Four Species
On Sukkot, we are commanded to wave the Four Species, each noted for its special beauty:
- Esrog – the citron, a fragrant fruit with a thick, white rind. It is often picked from the tree while green, and then ripens to a bright yellow.
- Lulav – the palm branch, which is defined in beauty by having a straight shape and leaves tightly bound.
- Hadas – the myrtle branch, which has a beautiful plated pattern of three leaves coming out from the same point in the branch.
- Arava – the willow branch, which should have oblong leaves with a smooth edge.
We bind all the branches together: two willows on the left, one palm branch in the center, and three myrtles on the right. Say the following blessing, then lift them together with the Esrog and shake it in all directions, as a symbol of God’s mastery over all Creation.
The Four Species are waved each day (except for Shabbat) in the synagogue, during the recitation of the Hallel prayers of praise. Hallel is followed by Hoshanot, where everyone circles a Torah scroll held on the Bima.
It is a special tradition to “beautify” this mitzvah by getting the nicest species available. At the very least, there are specific requirements to be valid for the mitzvah. Since the details are many and technical, it is not recommended to search through the forest on your own for these species! (Particularly the Esrog, which can easily be confused with a lemon.) Purchase a complete set from a reliable distributor; your local Jewish bookstore should have a “Four Species Set” with a rabbinical seal certifying their validity.
After the holiday, some have the custom to recycle the esrog as a “spice box” for use at Havdalah. In this way, the esrog goes “from one mitzvah to another.” Here’s how to do it: Buy a package of whole (not ground) cloves. Use an awl to make the holes, then place the cloves painstakingly into each hole. (Yes, this is a great way to keep kids occupied for hours on end.) Keep the cloved esrog in a box, to preserve the beautiful scent of the pungent citrusy etsrog mixing with the sweet ‘n spicy cloves. (A plastic container carries a higher risk of mildew.)
The Sukkah Hut
Building your own Sukkah is a great activity to share with your family and friends. The Sukkah must be at least 27×27 inches square. It can be built in a yard, apartment balcony, or even on the back of an elephant.
Your Sukkah needs at least three walls. The walls can be of any material, as long as they are sturdy enough to withstand a normal wind. The walls should be at least 38 inches high (96 cm), but not higher than 30 feet (9.6 m).
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