The essence of the celebration
Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, is in Jewish tradition the celebration of the end of the harvest. In the Jewish calendar, it is a sort of successor to the dramatic Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”, when, according to tradition, God writes everyone’s name in the book of the “good”, the “mediocre” or the “wicked” based on their deeds of the previous year.
Yom Kippur is an opportunity to repent of mistakes, wrongdoings and bad deeds, to review them, to change the bad for the good. Disputes must be settled, those we have wronged reconciled, debts repaid, differences settled.
On the seventh and final day of Sukkot, the so-called day of Hosannah (Hosannah Raba), there is one more opportunity to “make amends”. This day is also known as the “great day of asking for help”, because it is the last day to “reverse God’s unfavourable decision”. As a symbol of repentance, religious Jews circle around the Torah table seven times and say prayers for help, then strike willow branches, which symbolise sins, to the ground.
The origins of the construction of the canopy are obscure, but it is likely that in the past the farmer spent the nights of the harvest in a temporary tent.
According to biblical tradition, the Tabernacle symbolizes two things: on the one hand, the scene of family life, where the most intimate, hidden life of the family takes place; on the other, the scene of communion with God.
Symbolically, each day a different important historical figure (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David) is “invited” to this tent for a meal.
A characteristic feature of the holiday is a bouquet (arba mínim) of three kinds of plants, date palm leaves (lulav), myrtle (hades) and weeping willow (aryah), which religious people hold and go around the synagogue saying blessings on all Sukkot days except Saturday. On the seventh day, they repeat the blessing and make the same journey seven times.
Joy and happiness
Traditionally a festival of joy, dancing, gaiety and fun, the seven days of Sukkot are a bustling community experience, complete with autumnal delicacies.
The reason for the joy and merriment is understandable, as the message of the Feast of Tabernacles revolves around two events: the annual harvest, when people gave thanks for the harvest; and a long-ago event: the time of the wilderness wanderings, when Jews miraculously freed from Egypt wandered the deserts of the Sinai Peninsula for forty years, ‘enjoying God’s supernatural nourishment’.
What a sad and terrible event in 2023!
A beautiful, communal, outward-looking and inclusive element of the Sukkot service is the custom, dating back to the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, of the people gathered to say a blessing for the 70 nations of the world (the number of nations in the world according to Jewish tradition). Blessings were said for ten nations each day, the last one, on the seventh day, being the Jews.
Part of the celebration was the act of ‘water immersion’, now a thing of the past, in the hope of bringing the rainfall needed for a good harvest. The Talmud writes: “Whoever has not seen the festival of immersion in Jerusalem has not seen true joy in his life…”.
The ethrog (citrus medica) is a delicate, aromatic citrus fruit from the Mediterranean basin, with a thick white peel and relatively little flesh. Only intact, unblemished ethrog can be used in ceremonies.
During the ceremony it is held in the left hand, stem upwards. On the first day, when the blessing (sehecheianu) is pronounced, the etrog is turned over and the bouquet is waved towards the four cardinal points as a sign of God’s presence.
There are also festive ethrog and honey pots, the former being made especially for Sukkot, usually from silver. It resembles a refined, elaborate bonbonniere or sugar bowl, and can be either square or round.
Unlike other Jewish holidays, there are no strict rules on the dishes to be served on Sukkot, but of course the focus is on freshly harvested autumn vegetables, fruits and seeds, which symbolize abundance and fertility. In addition to family traditions and cultural background, the richness of the offer is also determined by the region and climate: Jewish tables from Europe, the Mediterranean or North Africa feature local specialities.
A couple of favourite dishes on the Sukkot menu: cream of pumpkin soup, cream of carrot soup, broth with macaroni dumplings, salad with cranberries and pomegranate seeds, gefilte fish, stuffed vegetables, eggplant with meat and cheese, fried aubergine rolls, potato knis (potato noodles), honey-apple/honey-plum chicken, Lokshen kugel (cottage cheese cake), braided scones, apple-cinnamon strudel, baked fruit, compotes, etc.
Compiled by a Győr Collector
Cover photo: Sukkot accessories – bouquet of plants, silver ethrog holder and etrog, Gilabrand
Másmetélt/Kultúrmetélt, 19 10 2019
Hetek, 10 10 1998