Originally published on JewishBoston.com.
Most of our holidays commemorate specific events: Passover recalls the exodus from Egypt, Hanukkah the rededication of the Temple following a military victory against the Greeks, Yom Ha’atzmaut the founding of the modern State of Israel, and so on. But Sukkot is different. Sukkot reminds us of the time between the Exodus and our ancestors’ entry into the promised land of Israel.
Jews remember this time of wandering in the dessert by building temporary dwellings, little booths called “sukkot” (singular: sukkah) from which the holiday draws its name. As with most Jewish practices, there’s wide variety in how people interpret what it means to “dwell” in the sukkah during the week. Some people eat big meals in their sukkot. Others will only eat in a sukkah and refrain from eating anything more than a snack outside of one. Some people will sleep in their sukkot as well, which can either be super fun or cold and miserable depending on your location and the vagaries of the weather.
Because the holiday is eight days long (including its concluding days of Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret), there are lots of other rituals and customs for Sukkot. There are the “four species,” aka the lulav and etrog, the former being a palm frond lashed together with a willow branch and a myrtle branch, the latter being the lemon-like fruit better known as a vodka flavor. Each day of the holiday (except Shabbat), these plants are held together and waved in all directions (north, south, east, west, up and down) during services in a rite that feels as old as religion itself. On the sixth day of the holiday (known as Hoshanah Rabbah), the willow branch is removed and beaten to a pulp in an act symbolizing beating our whatever last remnants of sin made it through Yom Kippur. Continue reading