Sukkah / Sukkot – Basic Judaism

The holiday in the Bible

Sukkot is the third of the pilgrimage festivals on which all Israelite males were required to make pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. The celebration of this festival begins on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Tishrei). In the Bible Sukkot lasts seven days plus an additional eighth day of Shemini Atzeret; but in the course of time its duration was extended to nine days in Diaspora communities. (This was due to the fact that a new month had to be declared in Jerusalem when the moon was sighted, and there was worry that the news might not travel fast enough for those outside Israel to receive it in a timely fashion. For this reason, most Jewish holidays were celebrated on both possible days in case of doubt.) In the Bible it is called: The Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. xxiii. 34; Deut. xvi. 13, 16; xxxi. 10; Zech. xiv. 16, 18, 19; Ezra iii. 4.; II Chron. viii. 13) The Feast of Ingathering (Ex. xxiii. 16, xxxiv. 22) The Feast (I Kings viii. 2; Ezek. xlv. 23; II Chron. vii. 8) The Feast of the Lord (Lev. xxiii. 39; Judges xxi. 19). In later Hebrew literature it is called chag (“[the] festival”)

It was agricultural in origin; this is evident from the name the “Feast of Ingathering,” from the ceremonies accompanying it, and from the season and occasion of its celebration: “At the end of the year when you gather in your labors out of the field” (Ex. xxiii. 16); “after you have gathered in from your thrashing-floor and from your wine-press” (Deut. xvi). It was a thanksgiving for the fruit harvest (comp. Judges ix. 27). Coming as it did at the completion of the harvest, it was regarded as a general thanksgiving for the bounty of nature in the year that had passed.

Hoshanah rabbah

The seventh day of Sukkot is known as Hoshanah rabbah. While the name arose comparatively late, the idea of this day as distinct from the rest of Sukkot may date back to the days of the Temple in Jerusalem. The joyousness of the Feast of Booths, as it gathered around the “drawing of water” and developed in music and torchlight processions (Suk. iv. 5), attained its height on the seventh day. Many of the exercises were in conflict with the Sabbath or even with a feast-day (Suk. v. 1, “the flute-playing lasts five or six days”); but although with the destruction of the Temple nearly all these exercises had fallen into disuse, yet in framing the new Calendar, about 361, the patriarch Hillel and his advisers deemed Hosha’na Rabbah so important and so much in conflict with the Sabbath that, to prevent Hosha’na Rabbah falling on a Sabbath, they would not allow the New-Moon of Tishrei to occur on a Sunday. All the ceremonies or services of praise or prayer which belonged to the other middle days of the feast while the Temple stood, or which belong to them now, such as Hallel and the swinging of the “lulav,” or the sitting in the booth, belong also to Hoshana Rabbah. The bunch of five willow-twigs in no way supersedes the two willow-twigs in the lulav. Abudarham speaks of the custom of reading the Torah on the night of Hosha’na Rabbah, out of which has grown the modern custom of meeting socially on that night and reading Deuteronomy, Psalms, and passages from the Zohar, of reciting some Kabbalistic prayers, and of eating refreshments. Before the regular morning service among Sephardim (Jews of Spanish descent), prayers known as “selihot” (forgiveness) are recited. (These are the same prayers recited before the “High Holidays”.) In Amsterdam and in a few places in England, America, and elsewhere they also sound the shofar in connection with the processions. (Likewise; this is presumably in recognition of Hoshana Rabba as the end of the high holiday season when the world is judged for the next year.) In both rituals, in the early part of the morning service, the Sabbath psalms are inserted, and the fuller “kedushah” is recited in “Mussaf” (the “additional” service) just as on true festival days. After this prayer all the scrolls are taken out of the Ark (on the six preceding days only one or two; none on the Sabbath); the reader, in making the circuit round the platform, is followed by men bearing scrolls; after them come others carrying the lulav. On this and the preceding days they begin: “Hoshana! for Thy sake, our God! Hoshana! for Thy sake, our Creator!” etc. Then come the seven processions (on the other days of Sukkot, there is only once). The compositions chanted in these are quite different in the two rituals, and much changed from those given in the Mahzor Vitry (dated 4968 = 1208); the Sephardim refer successively to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Phinehas, and David. Later on the lulav is laid aside, every worshiper takes up a small bunch of willows, and all join in the hymn, “kol mebasser, mebasser ve-omer” (A voice brings news, brings news and says), expressing thus their Messianic hopes. The compositions recited during or after the processions generally consist of twenty-two versicles each, alphabetically arranged, “Hoshana” being repeated or implied after each.


The Torah (five books of Moses) directs Jews to use four species of plants to celebrate the holiday: The Etrog (citron, a large yellow citrus fruit), Lulav (palm branch), myrtle branches, and willow branches. The etrog is handled separately, while the other three species are bound together, and are collectively referred to as the lulav. The Tosher Rebbe of Montreal, Canada shaking the four species while praying HallelA commandment in the book of Leviticus states “And you shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly (meaning of Hebrew uncertain, but modern Hebrew “citrus”) trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook” (Lev. xxiii. 40). The use to which these branches are to be put is not indicated; this gave rise to divergent interpretations at a later time. The Sadducees and Karaites maintained that they were meant for building the booth, as would appear from Neh. viii. 14-18, while their opponents contended that they were to be carried in the procession. Originally these branches may have been used in the festal dances, when it would be natural for those taking part in them to adorn themselves with sprigs and garlands; and here also their purpose was probably to be carried in the hand as was later the lulav.

Jewish observance after the exile

After the Jews returned to Israel from exile in Babylon, they resumed the observance of Sukkot. Mention of its observance is made in Ezra iii. 4; and a description is presented in Neh. viii. 14-18. Here it is said that the feast was observed in obedience to the command to dwell in booths. The people gathered “olive-branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle-branches, and palm-branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written,” and they “made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim”. While no mention is here made of the sacrifices, the dwelling in booths is given special prominence, the writer adding that “since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so” (Neh. viii. 17). The inference is that with the transfer of the festival to the Temple, the ancient practise had lost all significance, until revived with the historical meaning, and referred to the tents in which Israel had dwelt in the wilderness. According to Nehemiah’s account of the celebration, the Law was read every day; the eighth day was duly celebrated as a solemn assembly. According to Zech. xiv. 16-19, Sukkot in the messianic era will become a universal festival, and all the surrounding nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast there. (A modern interpretation of this resulted in a recent holiday celebrated in Jerusalem by non-Jews, “The Feast of Tabernacles”.) Sukkot is here associated with the granting of rain, an idea further developed in later Jewish literature.

As a name for a location

The name sukkot appears in a number of places in the Hebrew Bible as a location. It is the first encampment of the Israelites after leaving Ramses (Exodus 12:37); the civil name of Pithom. It is a city on the east of Jordan river, identified with Tell Dar’ala, a high mound, a mass of debris, in the plain north of Jabbok and about one mile from it (Josh. 13:27). Here Jacob (Gen 32:17, 30; 33:17), on his return from Padan-aram after his interview with Esau, built a house for himself and made “booths” for his cattle. The princes of Sukkot refused to afford help to Gideon and his men when they followed one of the bands of the fugitive Midianites after the great victory at Gilboa. After routing this band, Gideon on his return visited the rulers of the city with severe punishment. “He took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness and briers, and with them he taught the men of Succoth” (Judg. 8:13-16). At this place were erected the foundries for casting the metal-work for the temple (1 Kings 7:46).

See also: Jewish holidays.