For forty years, as the Children of Israel traveled the Sinai Desert prior to their entry into the Holy Land, miraculous “clouds of glory” surrounded and hovered over them, shielding them from the dangers and discomforts of the desert. Ever since, it is customary to commemorate G-d’s kindness, and reaffirm trust in His provision by living in a sukkah, a temporary hut with a roof of branches, during the autumn Sukkot festival. For seven days and nights, meals are taken in the sukkah – reciting a special blessing – and it is otherwise regarded as home.
Another mitzvah that is unique to Sukkot is the taking of the Four Species: an etrog (citron, similar to a lemon), a lulav (palm tree frond), at least three hadassim (myrtle branches) and two aravot (willow branches). The Midrash tells us that the Four Species represent the various types of personalities and spirituality that comprise the community, whose intrinsic unity is emphasized on Sukkot.
On each day of the festival (except Shabbat) it is customary to take the Four Species, recite a blessing over them, then bring them together in one’s hands and wave them in all six directions: right, left, forward, up, down and to the rear. (The Four Species are also an integral part of the holiday’s daily morning service.)
Sukkot is also called The Time of Our Great Joy; a special joy permeates the festival. Every night there are Water-Drawing Celebrations, recalling the evening-to-dawn festivities held in the Holy Temple in preparation for the drawing of water for use in the festival service. Celebrants fill the synagogues and streets with lively music, singing, and dancing until the early morning.
Sukkot runs from the fifteenth day through the twenty-first day of Tishrei. Throughout the world the first two days of this festival are a major holiday (in Israel only the first day). Most forms of work are prohibited. Each evening women and girls light candles, reciting the appropriate blessings, and festive meals are enjoyed every night and day, accompanied by the Kiddush.
The next days of the festival are Chol Hamoed, “intermediate days,” when most forms of work are permitted, but it is good to try to avoid going to work, writing, and other activities. This is a popular time to enjoy fun family outings.
Every day of Sukkot the complete Hallel, Hoshanot, and Musaf, are recited and the Torah is read during the morning service.
The seventh day of Sukkot is Hoshanah Rabbah, “Great Salvation.” According to tradition, the verdict for the coming year – written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur – is handed down by the Heavenly Court on Hoshanah Rabbah. On this day the people circle the bimah, synagogue table where the Torah is placed for reading, seven times while holding the Four Species and offering special prayers for prosperity during the upcoming year. During the morning prayers, it is also traditional to take a bundle of five willow branches and beat them against the ground five times.