Magic Jewball

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Jew & A: Sukkot

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism
On October 20, 2008
At 11:00 am
Comments : 6

As I mentioned yesterday, this week is the holiday of Sukkot (it began last week, actually) and we have a timely question on the topic. Actually, if you would like me to handle your question without a months long delay, this is an excellent method of making that happen. And away we go!

Irishcardinal asks:

Tell me about Sukkot. I saw a family on campus the first day of Sukkot. The father and small son wore embroidered yarmulkes,and had strings showing below their vests. The mom was carrying what looked like a wooden spear,about the size of a baseball bat,with some greenery attached at the bottom of it–is that anything related to Sukkot? In past years, I have seen a Sukkot hut on campus, but it wasn’t in plain sight this year. My sister wants to know what do people in big cities living in high rise apts. do for Sukkot huts?

The first year I wrote this blog, I described most of the holidays to an extent and then didn’t really want to repeat myself but of course, no one who was reading the blog on day one is still here (I believe they all shot themselves) and most of my regular readers now weren’t around the first year. I have no scientific proof of this but everyone knows that 78% of people like to make up statistics.

Anyway, if you would like to read the first year Sukkot post, it is here but if you don’t, I’m happy to expand upon it in this space plus answer your specific questions.

So! First things first. Sukkot is an eight day (seven in Israel) holiday that commemorates the time spent in the desert after the exodus from Egypt and before reaching the land of Israel. During that time, the Israelites lived in sukkot, or temporary booths. Like the other two main festivals (this doesn’t include the high holidays), Passover and Shavuot, it also has an agricultural component. Sukkot is a time of special rejoicing and is also called the “Festival of Joy.” One reason for this is that there was much trouble when the Israelites reached the promised land and they looked back at the time in the desert as a simple life and a more innocent time.

The yarmulkes and strings are actually daily things and probably had nothing to do with Sukkot. Some yarmulkes do have embroidery. They come in all kinds of fun designs. For instance, the one at left. The strings were probably Tzitzit, which is a four-cornered garment with strings attached at the end that Jews are commanded to wear to remind them of the commandments (all 613, not just the ten big ones). Most denominations that follow this commandment interpret that to mean just men, so few women do this. Most do it just during prayers, as a kind of shawl (Tallit), but many more religious people wear it as an undergarment even outside daily services. Many people let the strings hang out, Modern Orthodox businessmen tend not to. This allows me to tell Brothers 1 & 2, “you have a tzitz hanging out.”

The strings have all kinds of special knots that mean special things. Too many to list here but if you are interested, here is a description from Wikipedia.

The wooden baseball bat spear was probably a lulav and was no doubt accompanied by a baseball sized fruit (OK, it’s smaller but I wanted to carry along the analogy, forgive me) which looks like a lemon and is called an etrog. Together, these constitute the four species (the lulav has some other species attached) which are used in various ceremonies and for certain blessings on Sukkot. The four species are: palm, willow, myrtle, and citron (that’s the etrog). This is based on the Biblical verse, “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook (Leviticus 23:40).” The Talmud, which is the place where the Rabbis asked all the “but what does the Torah mean by blah blah?” questions, is where we learn which plants that line means exactly. The palm branch, or lulav, is the biggest and why the whole thing is called a lulav. The branches of myrtle (hadasim) and willow (aravot) are attached at the bottom and tied together with strands of palm. The citron (etrog) is separate.

As always, there’s the “because the Torah says so” aspect and the, “but what could be the meaning behind this?” question. There are a couple of different common interpretations, other than the fact that, as I mentioned, Sukkot is an agricultural celebration. The first is that the four species represent parts of the body:

Palm (that’s the tall, straight one) = spine
Myrtle (oval shaped leaf) = eye
Willow (long oval shaped leaf) = mouth
Citron = heart

This is interpreted to mean that all parts of the body must come together in the worship of the Lord.

The second is that each represents a different kind of Jew:

Citron, which has a good taste and a good smell, is the person who is both learned in Torah and performs Mitzvot (commandments), i.e., is a good person.
Palm, which has a good taste but no smell, is the person who is learned in Torah but performs few Mitzvot.
Myrtle, which has a strong smell but no taste, is the person knows little Torah but still performs Mitzvot.
Willow, which has neither taste nor smell, is the person who knows no Torah and performs no Mitzvot

All the species are held together closely so as to represent the unity we desire for the Jewish people – all types. But both of these demonstrate essential themes of unity and interdependence. If you’ve ever built a sukkah, you know that this theme is pretty important. I used to hold the nails. The other available job was sitting on the roof and throwing branches onto the top of the sukkah. Yes, I doled out the nails.

So, good segue for the next topic: the hut, which is called a Sukkah and why the whole holiday is called Sukkot. It’s the other main thing about the holiday; the title role, shall we say. As I said, it represents the temporary dwellings in which the Israelites lived in the desert on the way to the promised land. In balmy Israel, it’s a lovely outdoor thing. In the Northeastern US, it’s a reason to buy leggings and a new sweatshirt. The requirement is that you eat every meal possible in the sukkah and even sleep there if you are able. If you live in a big city, there are several options.

1. Some buildings do have sukkahs. Pious B’s does. If you have a courtyard or roof garden and a willing building management, it can be done. You see them quite often.
2. You go away to your friends and family who live in the suburbs. If not for the whole holiday, than the holy days at the beginning and end or the sabbath in the middle. That’s what I did!
3. Most synagogues and many Kosher restaurants have sukkahs. Since there’s pretty much a synagogue on every other block in Manhattan, this isn’t very difficult. Other large cities like, say, Dublin, may not have this convenience.

In conclusion, Rays in six.

Thanks for asking!

Peter, Paul & Mary – Lemon Tree