Sukkot at PBJC

“After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival… for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.” (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)

Sukkot is indeed a happy holiday. In Hebrew it is called z’man simhateinu — the season of our joy.  Also called the Harvest Festival, it is a time to celebrate the fall season and all that the summer harvest has brought us. Historically, it reminds us of the journey through the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Sukkot is also a time for thanksgiving to God, the Source of the earth’s bounty. In ancient times, our people brought the first portion of their harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, we celebrate by thanking God for the harvest of food available to us. At the same time, we are mindful of those in need.

Throughout the ages, we have celebrated the holiday by building sukkot (booths). The sukkah represents the temporary dwellings used by our ancestors as they wandered through the desert. It also served as a dwelling in the fields at harvest time. Finally, the sukkah represents the fragility of our lives and our dependence on nature. The roof of the sukkah has branches and greenery across it, yet it is purposely left with openings.

The Sukkot holiday is rich in symbolism that connects us to our history while providing joy, meaning and beauty to our lives today.

The Torah commands us to gather four species during Sukkot: We are asked to take the etrog (a citron), the lulav (branches of palm trees), hadas (myrtle) and aravah (willow) and rejoice with them for seven days. Except for the Sabbath, these four symbols are held together during portions of the morning worship service throughout the seven days of Sukkot. They are waved in all directions in acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty over all of nature. That the four plants are to be held in the way they grow — upward, not downward — has been understood as a hint that the Torah does not wish to thwart human growth, but to encourage us to reach our full potential.

We are taught that the tent of Abraham and Sarah had an opening on each side so that wayfarers — from whichever direction they came — would feel welcome to partake of their hospitality. Hakhnasat Orhim, welcoming guests, is a time-honored tradition among Jews. The invitation to “all who are hungry” in the Passover Haggadah is well known. Less familiar is the ceremony known as “ushpizin,” in which we extend to our ancestors an invitation to join us in our sukkot. Each day of the holiday, a different guest is featured. The origin of the ushpizin ceremony is found in the Zohar — a primary source of Jewish mystical traditions. It is our hope that accompanying these guests will be the Shekhinah, God’s spirit, which shelters and protects us.

The eighth and ninth days of the fall festival (as celebrated in the Diaspora — in Israel they are combined on the eighth day) are called Sh’mini Atzeret (The Eighth Day of Assembly) and Simhat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah). On Sh’mini Atzeret, we introduce the seasonal prayer for rain, thus marking the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. On Simhat Torah, we mark the end of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah, finishing the book of Deuteronomy and immediately beginning to read from Genesis. Both in the evening and the morning, there is prolonged dancing and singing while carrying the Torah Scrolls around the synagogue in a joyous procession.

The first two days of the holiday and the last two days are considered festival days, yamim tovim, with restrictions similar to those observed on the Sabbath.

Simchat Torah at PBJC

There are several reasons Jews rejoice with the Torah. First, we are reminded that God did not send us out into the world without a road map, but rather provided us with a detailed and comprehensive guide to living a productive and praiseworthy life. When we physically embrace the Torah, we acknowledge its primacy in our lives and reject any implication that it is simply a museum piece, worthy of admiration but not of application. Even more, with this symbolic act we personally accept the obligation to live in accordance with its dictates. We do not struggle under its weight, but rather dance to show the world that — far from being a burden upon us — the Torah presents a source of joy and enrichment.

Second, we rejoice in the very fact that God trusted us enough to give us the Torah at all. We have all seen the look of unabashed pride and happiness in the face of a child who is entrusted with an important task. So too do we radiate feelings of pleasure at having been given so significant a mission. Third, we rejoice in having successfully completed another year of life — full of new experiences and new ideas — and having entered immediately into a new year, filled with hope and possibilities.

Joy is a very positive emotion in our lives. From the beginning of Elul through Yom Kippur, we have looked into our souls, repented of our wrongdoing, and pledged to set things right. Now it’s time to savor the moment and appreciate God’s bounty. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mark a unique spiritual journey. Having survived that journey, we celebrate on Simhat Torah. We sing, we dance, we hold hands, we wave flags, we affirm life and — at the same time — we assure the continuity of our religious tradition.

While the pilgrimage festivals — Pesah, Shavuot, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret — are listed several times in the Torah (e.g., Lev. 23:1-44; Num. 29:16-39), the term Simhat Torah does not appear.  It does not even appear in the Talmud. What, then, is the origin of this popular holiday which every Hebrew school child knows as a day of singing, dancing, flags, and some degree of chaos?

On the most basic level, Simhat Torah is the second day of Shemini Atzeret. As with every Yom Tov, diaspora Jews traditionally celebrate an additional day to that prescribed in the Torah. Shemini Atzeret is, itself, a bit of a hybrid. On the one hand, it is shemini (literally, the eighth) and concluding day of the fall pilgrimage festival (i.e., Sukkot). On the other hand, the Talmud relates that it is regel bifnei atzmo, a holiday unto itself. Still, the second day of every other festival (Pesah, Shavuot, Sukkot) simply bears the name of that festival. How did the second day of Shemini Atzeret get its own special designation?

Initially, in ancient Palestine, the Torah was divided into many more portions than the 54 we now use. However, in the first diaspora community of Babylonia, it became the custom to read the entire Torah on an annual cycle. This has become the universal custom, i.e., beginning in Genesis and completing the Five Books of the Torah in one year. Sometime during the Talmudic period (i.e., before 500 C.E.), it became customary to both end and immediately thereafter begin that annual cycle on Shemini Atzeret (or on the second day, in the diaspora).

While today it is accepted practice to have seven hakafot (circuits) on Simhat Torah before the Torah is read, the Mishnah Berurah notes: “There are those who circle three times, there are those who circle seven times… each locale acts in accordance with its own custom.” Simhat Torah also has one other distinction: It is the only time we take out and read the Torah at night.

It is certainly fitting and, perhaps, inevitable that Shemini Atzeret is the day on which we finish and begin again the reading of the Torah. Sukkot has a certain universal aspect to it. We move out of our homes to dwell in temporary booths (sukkot) and are visible to the entire world. In a way, Sukkot is like a week of prewedding celebrations. We are outside, and everyone is invited to join us. On Shemini Atzeret we move back inside with the immediate family for the wedding.

Indeed, much of the symbolism of Simhat Torah is that of a wedding ceremony. The special title given to the honorees called for the last aliyah in Deuteronomy and the first aliyah in Genesis — Hattan (groom) / Kallat (bride) Torah and Hattan / Kallat Breishit, respectively — remind us of this. Similarly, particularly for these aliyot, it is customary to read the Torah under a huppah, or wedding canopy. In a larger sense, the food, song and dance help us to celebrate the marriage between God and the Jewish people. The Torah is the ultimate ketubah or wedding contract


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