Sukkot, the fall festival

If it’s four days after Yom Kippur, it’s Sukkot (starts on the eve of October 13 for 7 days). Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot, are Pilgrimage festivals (Shelosh Regalim). Sukkot originally had agricultural significance, it played a role in Temple ritual, and symbolized national unity. It recalls when the harvest was completed; grapes gathered for wine making; olives pressed for oil; and fruits dried for winter. Jews were told, “When ye have gathered in the fruits of the land, ye shall keep the feast of the Lord 7 days.”

Sukkot, like other Jewish holidays, has several names: Festival of the Ingathering (Hag Ha’Asif) and Festival of the Tabernacles or Booths (Hag Ha’Sukkot). The latter refers to the structures which the Jews fleeing from Egypt set up on route to ancient Israel. As written in the Torah, “You shall dwell in booths for seven days … so that your generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them out of Egypt … ” (Leviticus 23:42-43). Many Jews build a temporary sukkah where they eat, sleep, and study the Torah.

Once again, seasonal, symbolic foods are enjoyed during this holiday. According to the Talmud, the sukkah should be made with “branches of fig trees, on which there are figs, vines with grapes, palm branches with dates, wheat with ears.”

Lulav and Etrog

The arbah minim, the four species, are central to the celebration. “And you shall take for yourselves on the 1st day the fruit of the goodly tree (etrog, hadar), a bouquet of willow branches, green myrtle, and palm leaves bound together (lulav), the myrtle branch (hadassim), and the willow of the brook (avaroth); and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for 7 days.” (Lev 23:40). They are waved symbolically in all four directions of the compass and up and down.  Holding the Four Species together symbolizes that all Jews are bound together as one people.

Sukkot myrtle on door post,
Ioannina, Greece, 1984

The etrog or citron (Citrus medica) is an ancient citrus fruit that is larger than a lemon and generally inedible.  Some people make a conserve with the peel. The lulav was kept by some to light the ovens to bake the Pesach matzah. The lulav and etrog are among the most ancient Jewish symbols along with the shofar and the menorah. Images of etrogim are found on coins and synagogue mosaics from the time of the 2nd Temple.

Sukkot falls at harvest time. Stuffed foods take different formats, both savory and sweet. Kreplach, stuffed noodle dumplings, are featured in Ashkenazi meals. Stuffed cabbage leaves or stuffed vine leaves have different names in different countries: galuptze, Russia; holishkes, Eastern Europe; sarmali, Romania; dolmas, Armenia and Balkans and stuffed grape leaves. Fluden or fladen, a layered dessert of dough and fruits, is the strudel traditional for Sukkot. This dish which uses apple, poppy seed, cherry, or cabbage may have originated in Austria, or perhaps it was perfected by Hungarians and Romanians. Pumpkin-filled borekas were prepared by Sephardim.

My own pumpkin borekas

Many of Sukkot dishes reflect the diasporic nature of the Jews, especially how culture is shared with neighbors. Examples of shared Sukkot foods are cabbage-meat borsht (Russia), goulash (Hungary), kibbeh, wheat coated and stuffed fried ground meat patties, (Middle East), and meatless moussaka (Greece).

Other dishes include casseroles (easily carried from kitchen to sukkah) and stews. A less common Eastern European specialty at Sukkot was roasted beef udder cooked with wine. The Sukkot challah has the same symbols as at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; the ladder is a favorite.

The traditional foods from the High Holy Days continue to appear in Sephardic homes including sweets made with apples, quinces, grapes, and pumpkin. Seasonal Sephardic traditions included omelettes filled with green vegetables, symbolic of wishes for a plentiful year.

This week-long festival ends with two other celebrations. Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, is the last day that God can change inscriptions for a good year. On this day, a sheaf of 7 willow twigs was beaten on the floor to symbolize renewal of life. On Shemini Atzereth, the eighth day of Sukkot, special prayers are recited for winter rain to insure the spring planting, especially in Israel. The final meal eaten in the sukkah is on Shemini Atzereth.

With Simhat Torah (Rejoicing with the Torah), the ninth day of the holiday, the annual cycle of the Torah reading is ended and begins again. Traditionally, children carry apples with Israeli flags in them in synagogues and homes. They also eat honey to “taste” the sweetness of the Torah.

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