“You will dwell in booths for seven days;
all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths."
The Sukkot celebration begins on the 15th day of Tishri. The word Sukkot is the plural of Sukkah which means “booth” or “hut.” The hut referenced here commemorates the type the Israelites built and lived in during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after their Exodus from Egypt. In Israel and Reform communities, the holiday is celebrated for the full week with the first day as a celebratory festival. Simchat Torah is celebrated in the Reform calendar as the eighth day of Sukkot. This entire period is a celebratory break after the solemnity of Yom Kippur.
Many celebrate Sukkot by eating, entertaining, and sleeping in a sukkah. To fulfill the requirement of building and living in a sukkah, the structure must have at least two and a half walls with a roof made of natural materials. This covering is meant to leave enough space to see the stars, but should create more shade than let light in. Commonly, the sukkah is decorated with harvest vegetables, but some people use artwork.
Sukkot is one of the many harvest festivals, so we are commanded to take four plants, an etrog, a lulav, a hadas, and an arava, and hold them while we say prayers each morning of Sukkot and during processions around the bimah. After these processions, we are told to beat the willow branches against the floor five times so that some of the leaves are shaken loose. This practice coincided with the beginning of the rainy season in Israel and symbolizes our hope for rain and a fruitful harvest season.
Following the seven days of Sukkot, we celebrate Simchat Torah (rejoicing in the law). On this day, all the Torah scrolls are taken from the ark and are paraded in the synagogue. The annual reading of the Torah is completed and the cycle is immediately renewed in a celebration that is said to parallel a wedding ceremony, in which we “marry” the Torah in an everlasting bond.
In addition to inviting friends and family into your sukkah, there is a custom of inviting seven biblical guests. Traditionally, these guests are the Patriarchs of Judaism. Be sure to add significant Jewish women to this list of guests: Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, and Ruth.
Help children make decorations for your sukkah: draw on gourds or miniature pumpkins, or decorate paper plates with images of trees, flowers, and fruits. For older youth, consider hosting a late- or overnight party in the sukkah.
Organize a cleanup of synagogue grounds or a local park with your sisterhood, congregation, or community. Alternatively, organize a flower- or tree-planting. Use this experience to teach the importance of the environment, and as a celebration of the benefits of public parks.
Discuss with your sisterhood, congregation, or community: Simchat Torah means “rejoicing in the law.” Do you think of study as a form of rejoicing? How is this phrase significant or meaningful to us as Jews?