Sukkot is the harvest festival. It was – and still is – a time for gladness and celebration at the gathering of the earth’s bounty. At the same time, for our ancient ancestors, it was also a time of anxiety as they looked to the skies in anticipation of the rain that they needed to enable them to plant their seeds for the following year.
Sukkot falls on the full moon of the seventh Hebrew month – exactly six months after the celebration of the festival of Pesach – the two festivals are always connected in this way.
The festival therefore occurs shortly after Yom Kippur.
There are several elements to the celebration of Sukkot. The first is the building of a sukkah – a temporary shelter – using branches and leaves, and then decorated with fruit. According to the Torah, this is a reminder of the journey the Israelites made through the wilderness, though a more likely explanation is that the ancient Israelite farmers constructed such shelters in their fields to enable them to maximise the time they could spend gathering their harvest and also protect their crops from theft. A second element is the waving of a lulav – a combination of three branches (palm, willow and myrtle) plus a citron. These are waved during the psalms of Hallel (praise) and may well be a relic of an ancient rainmaking ritual. Finally, services are held on the first day of Sukkot when the moon is full, though in our modern world these lack the excitement and joy that was present on this occasion in biblical (and pre-biblical) times.
An interesting recent development is that with the advent of so many Jewish schools, the school calendar is usually adapted to ensure that Sukkot coincides with half-term. Consequently, for many modern Jews, Sukkot is celebrated by taking a family holiday, though it could be argued this is probably not quite what the biblical lawmakers had in mind…
Apart from observing the festival for its biblically ordained seven days rather than adding an extra day, there is nothing unique about Liberal Jewish observance.
The fruit in the sukkah is decorated, though this is more for decorative purposes.