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Lessons and Symbolism of the Sukkah and the Four Species

Sukkot (Leviticus 22:26-23:44 )

by Avi Geller

Mr. Jack finally arrived in the village of Radin, Poland. After a five-hour train ride from Warsaw, and a two-hour horse and buggy excursion, Jack concluded the last leg of his trip by foot. Upon arriving in the village, he immediately inquired as to the whereabouts of its most famous resident, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagen, author of "Chafetz Chaim" (on the laws against gossip) and "Mishneh Brura" (on laws of daily observance).

With trepidation, Jack knocked on the door and it was opened by an old, bent-over man who asked him to please enter. Mr. Jack explained that he was visiting from America and strongly desired to meet the world famous authority. Looking around, Jack noticed that the house was bare of furniture as if it had been hit by a hurricane. There was just one table, two chairs, a bookcase and a bed.

"Rabbi, may I ask a question?"

"Certainly, my son."

"I don't notice any furniture in your home. Where is all your furniture?"

The rabbi, unaffected by the guest's chutzpah, asked in turn, "And may I ask you a question, young man?"

"Certainly," came the reply.

"Where is all your furniture?"

Taken aback by the response, Jack cried out, "I have a custom kitchen, oak dining room set, and beautiful bedroom set - all at my house in New York. Do tourists generally take such possessions along in a moving van? I'm only passing through!"

To which the rabbi replied, "And I also am only passing through."

This world is only a temporary stop. A person on a journey must consider his priorities - the true destination - and not only his comfort during the short trip.


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The Torah bids us to leave the comfort of our warm homes and to live for a week in a sukkah, a temporary dwelling with an open roof, covered with branches that allow the wind and rain to enter. This teaches us that life is temporary and we should not become too comfortable in this world.

When a person dies, he is buried in shrouds with no pockets. "You can't take it with you!" A certain lady wrote in her will that when she passes away, she wants included in her coffin her tattered prayer book, Psalms book, and all the receipts for charity she had saved up during her lifetime. That is the only way to "take your money with you!"


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During the 40 years that the Israelites journeyed in the wilderness, they were surrounded by "Clouds of Glory" in all four directions, and above and below. These supernatural clouds protected them from the wind, rain and sun, as well as snakes and scorpions. The sukkah commemorates this great miracle that endured for 40 years.

Question: Since the clouds appeared as soon as the Jews left Egypt, why don't we sit in a Sukkah at Passover time?

Answer #1: If we would enter a sukkah during the springtime, it would seem as if we are doing so only to enjoy the fresh warm weather. Only in the fall, when it begins to get chilly, is it clear we sit outside for the purpose of performing a mitzvah.

Answer #2: When the Israelites worshiped the "Golden Calf," the clouds left, only to return after Moses had achieved the final atonement on Yom Kippur. Therefore, we commemorate the clouds after Yom Kippur.

Question: Why does the Torah only commemorate the Clouds of Glory and not the other miracles of the desert, such as the manna and the Well of Miriam?

Answer #1: The manna and the well had other, negative connotations. The Jewish people had complained about the manna and the well - and were punished on both accounts. Also, Moses was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel, on account of an incident at the well (see Numbers ch. 20). The clouds, on the other hand, were always welcome and the people never complained about them.

Answer #2: The water and food supplies were necessities of life, without which the Jews could not have survived. However, the clouds' protection from the elements was a luxury - demonstrating the Almighty's love for His people.


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According to the Zohar (classic book of Jewish mysticism), on each day of Sukkot we welcome a spiritual guest into our sukkah. They are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. We say a special prayer to welcome them and try to relate to the themes they represent.

Question: What is the specific connection between these great people and Sukkot?

Answer: The sukkah represents the idea of exile (galut). If it so happened that on Rosh Hashana we were decreed to receive exile, then instead of ending up in Siberia we fulfill the decree by exiling ourselves from our homes for one week.

Each of the above-mentioned personalities experienced exile in some form. Abraham was sent by God from his birthplace to a foreign land with no clan protection. Isaac wandered to the land of the Philistines when there was a famine and was mistreated there. Jacob was the classic "wandering Jew," running from Esav and Lavan, and who in his old age was forced to leave the Land of Israel for Egypt. Joseph was sold as a slave by his brothers. Moses had to flee the wrath of Pharaoh. Aaron wandered in the desert for 40 years with the entire nation. David had to flee from King Saul and then from his own son. In spite of this, these great men trusted in God - and that is the lesson of the sukkah. (Eliyahu Kitov)


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On Rosh Hashana we blow the shofar. One aspect of the shofar is the ability to break down walls. When Joshua sounded the shofar, the walls of Jericho fell down.

In a metaphysical sense, we do the same thing on Rosh Hashana. Every time we make a mistake, it adds a brick to the wall we construct between ourselves and the Almighty. That's why we often find it difficult to relate to God. But when we blow the shofar, the wall falls down and we find ourselves face-to-face with God. This is the experience of the High Holidays.

After Yom Kippur, however, we don't want to be distracted by the world around us that entices us to abandon our newfound relationship. Therefore we now proceed to build a wall between ourselves and the outside world. We sit in the shade of the Almighty for seven days with the Ushpizin as our guests. This intensive connection has the power to keep us close to God for the entire year to come. (Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe)

Sukkot is also the "harvest festival." The grain that was left in the field to dry during the summer is now gathered into the storage bins. The rich man with a full bin, who may feel the pride of his own accomplishments, is commanded by the Torah to leave his warm and comfortable home and sit in the little sukkah. He gazes at the stars through the cracks in the "s'chach" (covering of the sukkah) and remembers the Almighty, who took us out of Egypt and provided all of our needs in the desert. So don't take all the credit for your success!

On the other hand, the poor man (whose bin is far from full) is worried how he will feed his family in the cold winter. The Torah also commands him to leave his home and sit in the sukkah, see the stars and remember: Just as God provided for us in the wilderness, He won't forget us now, either. (Rabbi S.R. Hirsch)


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Sukkot is referred to as the "season of our joy." What is there to be so happy about on Sukkot?

On a historical level, we rejoice over the Exodus from Egypt - prompted by the reminder of sitting in the sukkah. Materially, we just reaped our harvest and rejoice with the land's bounty.

In a deeper metaphysical sense, the joy of Sukkot is connected with Yom Kippur. The main cause of depression is the mistakes we make in life. We constantly tell ourselves, "If only I could do that again or this again, then life would be different." Yom Kippur is the day we clean the slate and throw off the heavy pack of misdeeds that we have carried around all year long. Isn't that cause for celebration?!


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The Torah commands us to take four specific species on the first day of Sukkot. (Today we take them all seven days.) The oral tradition defines exactly which species are required: etrog (citron, a lemon-like fruit), palm branch, myrtle and willow branches. We bind the myrtle (three branches) and willow (two branches) to the palm branch. We take the lulav (palm) in the right hand, etrog in the left, recite the blessing, and then shake them together in all four directions and up and down.

Our sages offer different explanations of the symbolism of the four species.

(1) One explanation is a reference to the body parts. The etrog is the shape of a heart, the lulav is like a backbone (spinal cord), the leaves of the myrtle resemble the eyes, and the willow leaves are the mouth. These are the organs that can be misused for negative behavior. The eyes see, the heart desires, the body reacts, and the mouth speaks. We dedicate all our activities to serving the Almighty - above and below and in all four directions.

(2) Another explanation is that the four species correspond to the various types of Jews. The etrog contains a good smell and taste (when made into jelly) and symbolizes the Jew with Torah knowledge and who performs good deeds. The palm tree that grows dates (not coconuts) has a good taste but no smell - i.e. one with Torah knowledge but lacking good deeds. The myrtle has a beautiful aroma, but no taste - symbolizing one who always does good deeds, but lacks Torah knowledge. The willow has no taste and no smell - representing the Jew lacking both knowledge and deeds.

We put all types of Jews together and wave them in all directions, because every Jew can relate to the Almighty no matter where he is coming from. The etrog (in the left hand) rubs against the willow (on the left side of the lulav) and some of its beautiful aroma is absorbed by the willow. This symbolizes the tzaddik, reaching out to spread Torah among the masses. As the aroma rubs off, when you smell the willow, it smells like an etrog.

(3) Rabbi Hirsch explains the symbolism of the four species as follows: The etrog gives sustenance and has an aroma. This symbolizes things in nature that require no finishing touches by man - such as air, light and beauty. The lulav is sustenance without aroma. The myrtle is aroma without sustenance. The lulav and myrtle symbolize things in nature that man has to extract benefit from, such as food. The willow has no aroma and no sustenance. This symbolizes things that man must exercise mastery and skill, as nature supplies only the raw materials, such as dwelling, clothing and utensils. We take all these resources before God and acclaim that God gives us all that is good in life. Cling to them as a means of living in the presence of God according to His will. Rejoice in them before God as a means of fulfilling your duty.


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The sukkah negates the idea of material possessions as an ultimate value. It teaches us not to appraise worldly goods too highly. The lulav teaches us to raise our property to God, to value them at their true worth. The sukkah prevents us from becoming too earthly, from being debased by our wealth. The lulav reminds us not to soar too highly above the earthly and to cherish our possessions and dedicate them to holy pursuits. It makes no difference how much you attain, as long as you lived dutifully with your possessions and joyfully fulfilled God's will on Earth. This is the ultimate happiness. When we shake the lulav in all directions, we proclaim that everything in the universe is God's creation. The blessing of God is everywhere and at all times. (Horeb)


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During Sukkot in the Holy Temple, water libations were placed on the altar, as a prayer for rain. The rejoicing was so great that the Sages proclaimed: "He who never witnessed the Simchat Beit Hasho'eva, never saw joy in his life!" The Talmud describes a golden Menorah in the courtyard that shed so much light that every courtyard in Jerusalem was lit up to the extent that people could sort grain by its light.

At this celebration, the righteous people would dance to the music of the Levites playing their instruments. The Levites would sing the 15 psalms entitled "Shir Hama'alot" (a song for the ascension) and blow the shofar as they filled their vessels with water. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel would juggle eight lit torches. Levi would juggle eight knives, Shmuel eight glasses of wine, and Abaya eight eggs. They would dance all night long, (after a full day of offerings, prayer and Torah study!). Today in Jerusalem and Jewish communities throughout the world, there is dancing and music during the week of Sukkot as a reminder of these Temple celebrations.


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The last day of Sukkot is called Hoshana Raba. In Temple times, they would surround the altar with the four species every day of Sukkot, and on the last day of Sukkot a special encircling with the willow alone. Today we surround the bima where the Torah is read, since our reading is in place of the offerings brought on the altar.

The significance of the willow is that it grows on the riverbank and symbolizes rain, which we pray for on Sukkot. As we circle the bima with the willows, we say the prayer "Hoshana" which means "Save us, please!" As a result, the custom is to call the willows "Hoshanot."

On the night of Hoshana Raba, many stay up all night learning Torah and praying. In the morning, the chazan wears a kittel (special white robe also worn on Yom Kippur) and we return to the "High Holidays" mode. This is because the Sages say that although our judgment is "written on Rosh Hashana and sealed on Yom Kippur," the angel doesn't receive the k'vittel (piece of paper with the final verdict) until Hoshana Raba - so this is one last chance to repent. (Tradition also says that the angel doesn't actually carry out the sentence until the last day of Chanukah.)

We take the willow in our hands, which symbolizes the Jew without Torah learning and good deeds, but also symbolizes the mouth which means we only have one mouth to pray to God. The word "aravah" (willow) also means sweet, so that our prayers should be sweet before God. Today's guest is King David, the author of Psalms, the source of our prayer book.

We have a kabbalistic custom to beat the willow on the floor five times. We intend to banish evil decrees, and awaken the love between God and the Jewish people. It also hints to the atonement of our sins and the "g'mar chatima" (final decree).

On Hoshana Raba, we eat a festive meal, and before the day ends we eat a small meal to say "goodbye" to the sukkah. We pray to merit in the future to be in the sukkah of the "Leviathan" - the legendary giant fish that God will feed the righteous in the World to Come, and will make a sukkah out of its skin.


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Immediately following the seven days of Sukkot is Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. The Talmud says that Shmini Atzeret is a separate holiday which relates to Sukkot, just as Shavuot relates to Passover. After receiving our freedom in Egypt (Passover), we accepted the Torah seven weeks later (Shavuot). So too, following the pure joy of Sukkot, we immediately rejoice with the Torah (Simchat Torah). After experiencing the holiness of living with God in our Sukkah for an entire week, we simply cannot just return to our mundane weekday life and must first experience the holiness of a holiday in the house. This continues the process of bringing the spiritual growth of this holiday month into the year ahead.

In the Temple during Sukkot, 70 bulls were offered for the 70 nations of the world (who, had they known how beneficial the Temple was for them, would have surrounded it with a UN contingency army to prevent its destruction!). On Shmini Atzeret we offer only one bull for the Jewish people. The Sages offer this analogy: A King married off his only daughter and the festivities lasted an entire week. When all of the guests left, the king made a small party just for the bride and groom, to express how difficult it is for him to separate from his only daughter. After rejoicing with all mankind on Sukkot, the Jewish people have a private encounter with God on Shmini Atzeret.


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In the Diaspora, since there are two days of the holiday, we call the first day Shmini Atzeret, and the second day Simchat Torah. (In Israel, Simchat Torah is the same day as Shmini Atzeret.) Simchat Torah is the day when we finish reading the Torah and start reading from the beginning (Genesis) anew. When we end the Torah we immediately begin it again, to symbolize that it never ends. The Jewish people are above time and so is Torah. With that in mind we are ready to face the year ahead.

This is accompanied by great singing and dancing in celebration of the Torah. We hope that not only do we rejoice with the Torah, but also hope that the Torah rejoices with us!


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We find a clear continuation between the month of Elul, the High Holidays, Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret. During the preliminary supplications (slichot), we open up the holy ark only once. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, many times. On Sukkot we take out one Torah and march around it with our lulavs. On Hoshana Raba we take out all the Torah scrolls and march around them seven times. On Simchat Torah, we sing and dance with all the Torah scrolls. The next step, of course, is to actually study the Torah in the year ahead! (Rabbi Osher Weiss)


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