The Festival of Sukkot
Celebrates the Jewish festival of Sukkot, 16-23 October 2016
by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2009)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To consider the importance of the festival of Sukkot for Jewish people.
Preparation and materials
- You will need a leader and two readers.
- Optional: you may wish to show images of people living in temporary shelters, in which case you will also need the means to show these during the assembly.
Leader: I would like you to think of all the things that protect you from the elements. Now that we are in October, the nights are getting longer and the weather is getting worse! We all need things to protect us from the wind, rain and cold. I am sure that you are grateful for your coats, umbrellas and houses.
The Jewish festival of Sukkot, which is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, commemorates the years that the Jewish people spent in the desert without much protection, as they made their way to the Promised Land.
These Jews were the ones who were part of the exodus, and had left Egypt with Moses. They spent 40 years in the wilderness, without a permanent home. While they were in the desert, the Jews had to build temporary homes, made from things that they could find in the desert.
A modern example of a temporary home can be seen in the refugee camps that we sometimes see on the television, or in tent villages that are erected after a natural disaster such as an earthquake. The shelters are very basic, and the Jews built such shelters to protect themselves, not only from the weather, but also from their enemies and any bandits who might attack them, and from wild animals.
The special shelters that the Jews built in the desert are known as ‘sukkot’ (the singular form is ‘sukkah’), and it is this time in the history of the Jews that is remembered in the festival of Sukkot. Temporary shelters are not very strong, as many of you will know from camping, or from building your own dens when you were younger. The rain can get in, the wind can knock them down and they are not very good at keeping out the cold. When the Israelites were travelling in the desert, it would have been very hot during the day, but at night-time, it would have been freezing! The Jews knew, however, that God was also there to give them added protection.
So how can a modern Jewish family celebrate this festival and remember the time that the Jewish people spent in the wilderness? Well, Jews build modern sukkot, or shelters, in their gardens, or they may choose to help build one at the synagogue if they do not have a garden or outside space.
There are very strict rules about what a sukkah can be made of, and how it must be made. Our readers will now give you a step-by-step guide to building a sukkah.
Reader 1: A sukkah should have four walls. The side of a building could be considered a wall, so some Jews will build their sukkah on the back wall of their home.
Reader 2: These walls must be built from any material that will withstand a normal wind. Canvas is a good modern example. This material can be borrowed, but not stolen.
Reader 1: The area of the sukkah can be any size. It must be large enough for you and your family to live in.
Reader 2: The roof, or covering, must be made from any material that grows from the earth. This includes branches and sticks. You can also use leather and any type of metal. Growing trees cannot be used, so you can’t just go and put your shelter under the large tree that grows in your garden, and neither can you take anything from that tree.
Reader 1: The roof must also be left loose. It must be sparse enough to be able to see the stars, but not so sparse that there is more sunlight than shade. It must be put on last.
Leader: Judaism is a religion in which you are expected to be active; you must ‘live’ your religion. The festival of Sukkot is a good example of that. The aim of reliving or re-enacting the past is for Jews to understand fully and empathize with their ancestors and the struggles that they encountered to reach the Promised Land.
The commandment to the Jews to live in the sukkah, or shelter, for the whole seven days of the festival is found in the Torah.
Reader 2: Leviticus 23.42-43 states, ‘You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days . . . in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’
Leader: In Israel, Jews still take this commandment literally and live in their sukkot for seven days. However, the weather in Israel is very different from the weather in the UK in October, the month in which the festival of Sukkot falls. Therefore, exceptions are made: if the weather and climate are not suitable for living in sukkot, Jews fulfil the commandment by at least having all their meals there.
Another ritual in the festival of Sukkot is to take four types of tree branch and process with them every day during the festival. The four species are citron, palm, willow and myrtle. These branches are waved and shaken about during these processions while a blessing is said. They are shaken up and down, and to the four corners of the earth – north, south, east and west – to show that God is everywhere.
This idea that God is everywhere is essential to the heart of the festival. Nowadays, many people live in houses or apartments that have strong walls and a decent roof, so they rarely have to worry about shelter. The festival of Sukkot, and the commandment to live or spend time outside in a flimsy and temporary shelter, provides the experience of being exposed to the world. It also reminds Jewish people of the only true shield from all things, the protection that is given to them by God.
Time for reflection
Think of those who are living as refugees at the moment. (You may wish to project some images of people living in temporary shelters.)
Spend a few moments being grateful for the home that you have.
Thank you for the reminder that the festival of Sukkot gives to us - that you are always there to protect us.
Thank you that you made the world and everything in it.
Thank you for giving us the protection that we need by providing the shelter that our homes give us.
Help us to remember those who, today, do not have a home of their own. Please show us how we can help them.
‘Father, hear the prayer we offer’ (Come and Praise, 48)