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A primer for Sukkot

(article, Leah Koenig)

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The Jewish holiday of Sukkot tends to get a bit overlooked. Immediately following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the Jewish calendar’s most sacred and profound days — people tend to feel a little holiday'd out by the time Sukkot rolls around. 

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That’s a shame, because this weeklong celebration (held this year during the week of September 22-29) is filled with beautiful traditions that connect to the agricultural harvest, entertaining friends and family, and, of course, great food. 

Here's a quick primer introducing the most important — and delicious — aspects of the holiday.

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#(clear n1). Roots. Sukkot is a holiday with several layers of meaning and significance. It's one of the three annual “pilgrimage festivals,” when the ancient Israelites made the trip to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is also an ancient harvest festival, a time to rest and rejoice over the bounty that follows a long season of agricultural work. Fittingly, the holiday’s biblical name is “The Feast of Ingathering.” Over time, Sukkot was also imbued with historical significance, commemorating the Israelites' 40 years of wandering in the desert after their exodus from Egypt.

#(clear n2). [%image reference-image float='clear right' width=350 caption="Sukkot food evokes the abundance of the fall harvest."]The hut. Sukkot’s most physically defining feature is the sukkah (Hebrew for “booth”), a temporary dwelling structure built outside for use as a dining room, living room, and even bedroom during the week of Sukkot. Think a glorified tree house, but on the ground.  

Traditionally, the sukkah commemorates the temporary structures the Israelites built and dwelled in while wandering in the desert. They also resemble the huts that farmers once built in their fields during the fall, to be close to their work during the busy harvest season. 

While a contemporary sukkah can take many shapes and forms, Jewish law states that it must have at least three walls and be made from materials sturdy enough to withstand the elements. 

#(clear n3). Shade and stars. According to Jewish law, the roof of a sukkah must be made from a natural material like bamboo, branches, or palm leaves — anything that grew in the earth but is no longer attached to it. The material, called s’chach in Hebrew, must be dense enough to provide shade and comfort during the day, but woven loosely enough so that sukkah dwellers can see the stars peeking through at night.

#(clear n4). Decoration. The inside of a sukkah is decorated to feel festive. It is meant to serve as a temporary home, after all, so it might as well be beautiful and welcoming. The range of decorations varies widely, from posters depicting famous Jewish figures to Christmas lights and old compact discs dangling from the ceiling like disco balls. Most families also incorporate natural materials like gourds, miniature pumpkins, dried corn stalks, and strings of threaded cranberries to bolster the harvest theme.

#(clear n5). Dwelling. Throughout the week of Sukkot, families are commanded to dwell in their sukkah — essentially treating it like an alternate al fresco home. Weather permitting, many people spend as much time as possible inside their sukkah, eating meals, studying, relaxing with friends, and even sleeping. As a result, the foods eaten during Sukkot must be fairly easy to transport outside from the kitchen.

#(clear n6). The four species. One of the central commandments on Sukkot is to gather together “the four species” and shake them at various times throughout the holiday as a means of physical rejoicing. The four species include three green branches — from the date-palm tree, myrtle tree, and willow tree — and the fruit of a citron tree, called an etrog in Hebrew. 

At the end of the holiday, some families stick cloves into their etrog and use it as potpourri for their home. Others candy the peel, use it as a base for marmalade, or steep it in alcohol to make a citrus-infused perfume or liqueur.

#(clear n7). Guests. Sukkot is a wonderful holiday for people who like to entertain. Welcoming guests into one’s sukkah, especially for a meal, is an important part of the holiday. People typically invite their family and friends and, traditionally, are also mandated to extend the invitation to needy members of the community. Many people give charity around Sukkot as a symbolic way of extending their hospitality to the less fortunate. Some families also hold an ushpizin (Aramaic for “guests) ceremony, where they symbolically invite historical Jewish icons — such as Moses, the three Patriarchs, and King David — into their sukkah as honored guests.

#(clear n8). Feeling stuffed. Like Thanksgiving, the foods eaten on Sukkot are meant to evoke the richness and abundance of the fall harvest. Many families celebrate by serving dishes based on seasonal produce: everything from roasted squash and sweet-potato kugel to salads dotted with jewel-toned pomegranate seeds and earthy [/recipes/collections/Culinate+Kitchen/Desserts/strudel "apple strudel."] Stuffed foods, like cabbage filled with sweet-and-sour ground beef, or rice stuffed into hollowed-out pumpkins, peppers, or zucchini, are also popular Sukkot dishes. They're a delicious symbol of abundance.

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p(bio). Leah Koenig is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.


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