Rabbi Aaron Kotler and his family celebrate the holiday of Sukkot with prayer and a meal in the families sukkah. The prayer is performed with the Lulav and Etrog, a ritual meant to symbolize unity of people around the world.
This year, the holidays are already looking different as many families prepare for a Halloween that lacks trick-or-treating and a Thanksgiving that doesn’t have a large indoor gathering. However, there is one Jewish holiday that can be observed during a pandemic with surprisingly little adjustment.
Sukkot, the week-long fall harvest festival which starts Friday evening, has been honored outside for thousands of years. The primary way to celebrate: To build and dwell in a man-made hut called a “sukkah.”
Although the holiday has long been overshadowed by the Jewish high holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the “symbolism of the sukkah this year feels particularly rife,” says Rabbi Andrea London of Beth Emet synagogue in Evanston, Illinois.
So what is Sukkot and what makes it special this year? Let’s take a look:
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What is Sukkot all about?
The holiday commemorates the Israelites’ nomadic life in the desert after escaping slavery in Egypt.
“We were wandering for 40 years, we were in temporary shelters and we built temporary huts,” says Becky Sobelman-Stern, the chief program officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
It is also an agricultural holiday connected to the fall harvest.
“This is really the Jewish Thanksgiving,” adds London. She says it’s a time to be thankful for our food and and pray for rain to bring a good harvest next year.
Already dining outdoors? On Sukkot, you’re supposed to eat in a sukkah (hut)
Becky Sobelman-Stern uses palms from an on overgrown tree for the roof of her the sukkah in Sherman Oaks, California. (Photo: Becky Sobelman-Stern)
Observant Jews make sukkot (that’s the plural of sukkah and also the holiday name) out of materials found in nature — Sobelman-Stern uses palms found in her yard — and sometimes with the help of sukkah kits that can have steel tubing and wooden panels. The sukkah is supposed to have three walls and a roof that provides shade but also allows guests to see through it to the stars.
The sukkah is meant to be a place for outdoor dining. It is also customary to sleep in the sukkah all week, though “not everyone does the sleeping part, especially here in Chicago,” London says.
People who don’t have the space or ability to erect a temporary hut outside can use porticos and overhangs to get into the spirit of the holiday. The holiday “is outside. It’s about decorating. It’s about being creative,” Sobelman-Stern says.
Why Sukkot feels more meaningful this year
With the holiday encouraging Jewish people to eat and socialize in open outdoor structures, “in some ways, Sukkot seems made for COVID world,” says Rabbi Sarah Krinsky of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.
“It does go deeper than that, too, though: Sukkot is about recognizing the places of fragility in our lives. It reminds us of what is temporary,” she says.
The holiday also serves as a reminder of what’s important in life, London adds. “And how do we pursue those things? How do we be people who live with compassion and justice? How can our faith in God support us in times of trials and tribulations in crisis?”
Sukkot is meant to inspire thought and discussion around those questions, and also this one: “Who else, deceased or alive, would you like to have in the sukkah this year?”
On Sobelman-Stern’s list is the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died at the start of Rosh Hashanah.
It’s a Jewish holiday that requires joy
Sukkot is the only Jewish holiday in which there is a commanded emotion, Krinsky explains. “In this case, profound joy,” she says.
Orthodox men in Israel pick branches to make lulavs on Sukkot. (Photo: Uriel Sinai, Getty Images)
Stepping outside, enjoying nature, decorating a sukkah and sharing food with friends (though likely fewer this year than on any other year, because of the threat of COVID-19) is meant to “lead us to a deeper sense of presence, gratitude and even joy,” says Krinsky. Finding joy on the holiday feels particularly important this year, she says, when doing so can be feel like a “profound challenge and opportunity.”
And if the aforementioned activities don’t put a smile on your face, one specific tradition should: The shaking of the lulav and etrog.
The lulav, which is meant to symbolize the body, is made from binding the frond of a palm tree to myrtle and willow branches. The etrog, which is meant to symbolize the heart, is a citron fruit that looks like a large lemon. Both are shaken in all directions as a way to recognize God’s presence. It’s OK to treat the ritual as a dance.
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