Two weeks ago, I found myself explaining the upcoming Jewish holidays to my Unit Coordinator at Uni. I proceeded to highlight why I couldn’t have my finance test on multiple days in September and that finding a suitable test date may be an issue. Most Jewish holidays are easy to explain to non-Jews. Many know about Passover and whilst Yom Kippur may not be the most engaging festival for non-Jewish people to hear about, it is the easiest to explain. Then when he asked me why I couldn’t sit the test on the 21st or 22nd of September, I was stumped trying to explain Sukkot. I began with our next Jewish holiday is known as the Festival of Ingathering where we build/sit and eat in huts in our backyard for a week, take more days off work and shake a bundle of willows, myrtles, palms, and a citron.
He must’ve thought I was crazy here…
This then prompted me to think about why explaining Sukkot to people who are unfamiliar with it is so difficult and how may I do so.
In a message given by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Z”l on Sukkot in 5774 titled ‘The Festival of Insecurity’, he furthers my view by suggesting that our inability to give a concise view of what Sukkot is, is hindered by the conflicted identity of Sukkot and a Sukkah. This conflict is portrayed by the disagreement between two Mishnaic sages, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer over what a Sukkah represents. Firstly, Rabbi Eliezer suggests that a Sukkah is representative of the “clouds of glory” which protected the Israelites during the 40 years in the desert and is a reminder that God will always provide protection. On the other hand, Rabbi Akiva suggests that Sukkot is merely a reference to the actual huts that the Israelites built in the dessert and nothing else. By following the former, we recognise that celebrating Sukkot is to remind us of this miracle, however, following Rabbi Akiva’s view presents a problem. More specifically, if building huts is not an unusual practice, why do we have a festival dedicated to celebrating this?
These two thoughts can be combined to attain the main message of Sukkot. The sukkah symbolises the actual booths created and represents an ultimate sense of insecurity. It reminds us of a time in our history in which we were not as protected as we are now and serves to put our lives in perspective and be grateful for what we have in life.
Lastly, going forward I will describe Sukkot to people unfamiliar to it in the following way. Sukkot is a weeklong Jewish holiday that comes five days after Yom Kippur. It celebrates the gathering of the harvest and commemorates the miraculous protection God provided. We celebrate Sukkot by dwelling in a booth (known as a Sukkah and by collecting and shaking the four special species of vegetation (arba minim).
Chag Sameach everyone!!