Know Your Neighbour: Sukkot

Know Your Neighbour: Sukkot

This week sees a bumper edition of our Know Your Neighbour series as three major faith festivals take place in four days. Both Eid-al-Adha and Yom Kippur are taking place on 23rd September before Sukkot starts on 27th September.

This Know Your Neighbour blog will be all about the Jewish festival, Sukkot.

What is Sukkot?

Sukkot is a Jewish festival that commemorates the years that the Jews spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, and celebrates the way in which God protected them under difficult desert conditions.

When is Sukkot?

Sukkot falls on the 15th -21st of the Jewish month of Tishri. Because the Jewish calendar doesn’t align perfectly with the Gregorian calendar, the dates of Sukkot change each year.

In 2015 Sukkot will take place between 27th September and 4th October.

Why is Sukkot celebrated?

The festival is centred on the time that the Jews spent travelling in the desert between leaving Egypt and arriving at the Promised Land.

The word Sukkot means huts or booths and the festival recognises that, whilst the Jews were travelling through the desert, they lived in sukkots.

This can be seen in Leviticus Chapter 23, verse 42,

“You shall dwell in sukkot seven order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.”

How is Sukkot celebrated?

To celebrate this festival, Jews will build their own sukkots to live in during the holiday.

The essential thing about the hut is that it should have a roof of branches and leaves, through which those inside can see the sky, and that it should be a temporary and flimsy thing.

“Dwelling” in the Sukkah covers a lot of different things but generally it means that one needs to eat all meals (if possible) in a Sukkah and spend a fair amount of time just relaxing in the Sukkah, with some people even sleeping in the Sukkah (though in the UK this is usually not the practice). Exceptions are made owing to the weather and if it rains you are allowed to move inside so that it doesn’t spoil your enjoyment of the festival.


                                                            A Sukkah at the home of one of friends at the Council of Christians and Jews.

Each day of Sukkot sees a celebration held which includes four types of symbolic plants; palm, myrtle, willow, and a special citrus fruit called an etrog. These plants are heavily associated with Sukkot in the minds of many Jews. 

There are various different interpretations the Rabbis gave the plants over the centuries from symbolising 4 different parts of the body to symbolising different aspects/communities among the Jewish people that all need to be held together, though no actual reason is ever given in Tanakh for having them. It is a Mitzvah (commandment) to wave them every day of Sukkot except Shabbat and they are shaken in sequence to the front, right, back, left, up and down.

In the UK (and rest of the diaspora) the first 2 days are specified as Holiday that no work can be done, almost identical to Shabbat. The rest of the holiday is known as “chol hamoed” (literally translated as the profane days of the festival) during which restrictions on work are eased but there is still a festive spirit (and the requirement to shake the 4 species and dwell in the Sukkah).

Sukkot is a joyous celebration that allows Jews to live close to nature and know that God is taking care of them. Another name given to Sukkot is “Zman Simchateinu” – the time of our happiness. There is particular emphasis placed on enjoying the festival that also extends into Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah at the end of the week to do with closeness to God and to other people by having the Sukkah as an open space to share meals and enjoy time together.

Author: Mr Tim Burton-Jones

Date: 18 September 2015