The Festival of Sukkot
The festival of Sukkot is on 4-11 October 2017
by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2010)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To explore the importance of the festival of Sukkot for the Jewish people.
Preparation and materials
You will need two readers.
Optional: you may wish to show images of refugee camps during the ‘Time for reflection’ part of the assembly, in which case you will also need the means to do so. Examples could include:
- rows of tents in a refugee camp, available at: https://tinyurl.com/gms5us2
- a large refugee camp, available at: https://tinyurl.com/ybp5w43f
Think of all the things that protect you from the elements. As we go into October and the nights are getting longer, and the weather is getting worse, I’m sure that you are grateful for your coats, umbrellas and homes.
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 on their way to the Promised Land.
The people had been slaves in Egypt, but Moses had led them out of Egypt: this was the great escape known as the Exodus. After the Exodus, the people spent 40 years in the wilderness, without permanent homes. They had to build temporary homes, made from things that they could find in the desert, so these homes were very basic. Some modern examples of this type of home could be the tents we see in refugee camps, or tent villages that are put up after a natural disaster such as an earthquake.
The Jewish people needed shelters to give them some protection, not only from the weather, but also from their enemies, bandits and wild animals. These temporary shelters are known as sukkot (this is a plural Hebrew word; the singular is sukkah) and that is why the festival that remembers and celebrates this time in the history of the Jews is called 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. The Jews believed, however, that God was also there to give them added protection.
Modern Jewish families celebrate the festival of Sukkot to make sure that they remember the time their ancestors spent in the wilderness. One of the ways in which they do this is by building modern sukkot, or shelters, in their gardens, or, if they don’t have a garden or outside space, by choosing to help build a sukkah at the synagogue.
There are strict rules about what a sukkah can be made of, and how it must be made. Our readers will now take you through a step-by-step guide to building a sukkah.
Reader 1: A sukkah should preferably have four walls, but may have three walls. The side of another building could be considered a wall, so some Jews will build their sukkah on the back wall of their home.
Reader 2: The walls must be built from any material that will withstand a normal wind. Canvas is a good modern example. This material may be borrowed, but not stolen.
Reader 1: The sukkah should be large enough for you and your family to live in.
Reader 2: The roof, or covering, must be made from any material that grew 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 up your shelter under the large tree that grows in your garden, nor can you take anything from that tree.
Reader 1: The roof must be put on last of all and must be left loose. It must be sparse enough for you to be able to see the stars, but not so sparse that there is more sunlight than shade.
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 practice of reliving or re-enacting the past means that the Jews are better able to understand and empathize with their ancestors and the struggles that they went through in the desert.
The Torah (the Jewish law) commands the Jews to live in the sukkot, or shelters, for the seven days of the festival.
Reader 2: Leviticus 23.42–43 states: ‘You shall live in booths [sukkot] for seven days . . . so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths [sukkot] when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’
In Israel, Jews will take this commandment literally and live in their sukkot for seven days. Israel, however, is very different from the UK in October, the month in which the festival of Sukkot falls. So, exceptions are made: if the weather and climate make it difficult to live in the sukkot, Jews fulfil the commandment by at least having all of their meals there.
Another ritual in the festival of Sukkot is known as the ‘four species’. In this ceremony, three types of branch and one type of fruit are fastened together (these are a frond from the date palm tree; a bough with leaves on it from the myrtle; branches with leaves from the willow; and an etrog, which is a type of citron fruit). Each day during the festival, Jews join in a procession, waving their branches and fruit. While prayers are said, they shake their branches up and down, and towards the four corners of the earth – north, south, east and west – to show that God is everywhere.
The idea that God is everywhere is essential to the festival. Most people nowadays live in houses or flats with strong walls and a decent roof. The festival of Sukkot, and the commandment to live or spend time outside in a flimsy and temporary shelter, gives the experience and understanding of being exposed to the world. It is also a reminder of the protection that is given by God, who is the true and real shield and guard from all things.
Time for reflection
Think of those who are living as refugees at the moment. (Optional: show the images of refugee camps.)
Spend a few moments being grateful for the homes that we have.
You made the world and everything in it.
Thank you for giving us the protection that we need, in the shelter that our home provides.
Thank you for the reminder that the festival of Sukkot gives us.
Help us to be grateful and to think of those less fortunate than ourselves.
‘Father, hear the prayer we offer’ (Come and Praise, 48)