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Succot, the Festival of Booths

The Jewish community has recently celebrated Yom Kippur, holiest day of the year in Judaism, Rosh Hashana, and now Succot. To celebrate these festivities Levi J Attias has written a series of articles about these annual events, with today’s being the last on Succot.

By Levi J Attias
The festival of Succot, this year began on the evening of Monday, September 20. It comes hot on the heels of Rosh Hashana (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) when a serene and introspective ambience has shrouded Jewish communities at this pivotal annual juncture. We undergo a dramatic transition from the most solemn of Jewry’s holy days to one of the most joyous festivals. Succot is known as the ‘Feast of Booths’ and the ‘Feast of Tabernacles’ though locally, it is better known by its more evocative nickname, ‘la Cabaña’. The festival has its roots in Leviticus 23:42 “You will dwell in booths for seven days...” Agriculturally, Succot is attached to ancient agricultural Israel when Jews would construct booths adjacent to the edges of their fields during the harvest season. Farmers in ancient Israel would gather for the autumn thanksgiving period. The booths are called ‘succot’ in its plural form and ‘succa’ in the singular. These temporary dwellings provided more than shelter. They allowed farmers to maximize their time out in the fields, harvesting their grains. Succot is one of the three pilgrim festivals, together with Passover (early spring) and Pentecost (summertime) when pilgrimages were made to the Temple in Jerusalem. Succot conveys historical and agricultural resonance. Our present-day contact with agriculture is sadly limited to vegetables and fruits we buy at supermarkets. Contact with nature is, possibly, just as limited. The festival of Succot brings us an annual re-acquaintance with outdoor life. We move, whenever possible, into a booth, a hut-like structure, in our uncovered terraces and patios where the fresh scent of autumn prevails.

Spending quality time in the booths during a week of festivities, we are reminded in a most vivid way of Jews’ forty years trek in the Sinai desert on their way to the Land of Israel freed from Egyptian slavery. During the festival of Succot, we erect these temporary booths, which can be seen mushrooming across Gibraltar. We sleep, eat and socialize in them, so long as the seasonal weather permits. Jewish communities pray for rain during the festival but, a popular myth has developed locally. While we do pray for rain as part of the Festival’s synagogue liturgy, we do not pray for rain to fall during the festival itself. We would prefer if rain fell after Succot. And if it does shower during the festival, we find our al fresco meal marred by rainfall followed by a half-discontented, half-giggly stampede indoors!

The booths are conscientiously decorated by children exhibiting an assortment of pictures. Building a booth is an all-inclusive family project. Its walls do not have to be solid. Its roof is comprised of material which grows on the ground such as palm leaves and green boughs. The density of the roof covering must be such that there is more shade than sunlight in the booth but, at the same time, that we are able to see stars at nighttime.

Another indelible tradition during Succot is the waving of a ‘lulav’ and ‘etrog.’ The Book of Leviticus (23:40) prescribes: “And you shall take the fruit of a pleasant tree, and palm branches, and thick leafy boughs, and willows of the brook, and rejoice before your Lord, God.” The etrog is a type of citron (“the fruit of a pleasant tree”) used for Succot. It is fragrant, yellow, much like a lemon with an unusual beige tip at the top. The lulav is made up of palm fronds, myrtle and willow twigs which are tied together. We recite blessings holding the four species closely and we wave these in six geographic directions, symbolic of God’s omnipresence. We recite Psalms clutching the four species and a procession of swaying palm branches follows around the altar accompanied, depending on synagogue traditions, by soulful chanting or animated dancing as we recite prayers with the refrain “Hosha na!” (‘Please save us’).

The festival’s closure, at the end of a week of joyous festivities, takes us to ‘Simchat Torah’ (the Rejoicing of the Law). On this day, we complete the annual cycle of reading the Five Books of Moses. As the last sentences of Deutronomy are recited, we re-commence, without missing a beat, the opening lines of Genesis. And so, the cycle rolls on as Torah scrolls are paraded around synagogues.

The frail booths are a reminder of life’s vulnerability. Our earthly existence is transitory. Perhaps one of the few certainties we can be certain of is that life is uncertain. We are current witnesses to mankind’s vulnerability with the wretched virus from China. The virus brought the mighty to its knees, killing millions, affecting hundreds of thousands. Yet, regular household cleaning and disinfecting products will effectively eliminate this vicious virus. How bizarre that such a virus, vulnerable itself to simple, good old-fashioned soap and water has shown-up mankind’s own vulnerability. The virus from China exemplifies how ephemeral, transitory and insecure is our life. More than most, Jews have known insecurity. Our abode has been temporary, fragile and precarious. The booths represent a depository of trust, the faith in Faith of Jewish communities who embarked on ancient, perilous and episodic journeys holding tenaciously to an innate state of nomadic vitality. We learnt to traverse the valley of the shadow of death holding steadily to the ancient promises of hope, which percolated to our inner recesses, inspiring us to live one day at a time, relishing the day. We still gather beneath the boughs of our perishable booths to worship, celebrate, sing and be merry. Succot compellingly hyphenates daily routines and nature’s majestic throb.

And with the culmination of a period of four weeks from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur to Succot, we try to unpeel those deeper inner vistas we may need to help us confront and address life’s issues because we are forever evolving even as we wobble on shifting sands. “Years may wrinkle the skin,” said General Douglas MaCArthur “but to give up interest, wrinkles the soul.” And so, Succot teaches us to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Ken Keyes wrote in ‘Handbook to Higher Consciousness,’ “A loving person lives in a loving world. A hostile person lives in a hostile world.” Succot animates us to find happiness and comfort even in the depth of vulnerability and impermanence; to learn to dance on a shifting carpet. A pervading faith reassures us, “it will be alright, it will be alright.”

‘Hag sameach’ — a joyful Succot!

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