The Festival of Sukkot (Sukkos in Ashkenazic Hebrew) begins on Tishri 15, the fifth day after Yom Kippur, or starting on the evening of September 27 this year. It is a drastic transition from one of the most solemn holidays in the Jewish year to one of the most joyous. Sukkot is such a happy holiday that it is commonly referred to in Jewish prayer and literature as Z’man Simchateinu, the Season of our Rejoicing.
Sukkot is the last of the Shalosh R’galim (three pilgrimage festivals). Like Passover and Shavu’ot, Sukkot has a dual significance as both historical and agricultural. Historically, Sukkot commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Agriculturally, Sukkot is a harvest festival and is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering.
The word “Sukkot” means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings in which Jews are commanded to dwell during this holiday, in memory of the period of wandering. The name of the holiday is frequently translated “Feast of Tabernacles,” which, like many translations of Jewish terms, isn’t very useful. This translation is particularly misleading, because the word “tabernacle” in the Bible refers to the portable Sanctuary in the desert, a precursor to the Temple, called in Hebrew “mishkan.” The Hebrew word “sukkah” (plural: “sukkot”) refers to the temporary booths that people lived in, not to the Tabernacle.
Sukkot lasts for seven days. The two days following the festival, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, are separate holidays but are related to Sukkot and are commonly thought of as part of Sukkot.
The festival of Sukkot is instituted in Leviticus 23:33 et seq. No work is permitted on the first and second days of the holiday. (See Extra Day of Holidays for an explanation of why the Bible says one day but we observe two). Work is permitted on the remaining days. These intermediate days on which work is permitted are referred to as Chol haMo’ed, as are the intermediate days of Passover.
You will dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths. -Leviticus 23:42
In honor of the holiday’s historical significance, Jews are commanded to dwell in temporary shelters as their ancestors did in the wilderness. The temporary shelter is referred to as a sukkah (which is the singular form of the plural word “sukkot”).
The sukkah is great fun for the children. Building the sukkah each year satisfies the common childhood fantasy of building a fort, and dwelling in the sukkah satisfies a child’s desire to camp out in the backyard. The commandment to “dwell” in a sukkah can be fulfilled by simply eating all of one’s meals there; however, if the weather, climate, and one’s health permit, one should spend as much time in the sukkah as possible, including sleeping in it.