How To Observe Sukkot

How is Sukkot Observed?

For forty years, as our ancestors traversed the Sinai Desert prior to their entry into the Holy Land, miraculous “clouds of glory” surrounded and hovered over them, shielding them from the dangers and discomforts of the desert. Ever since, we remember G‑d’s kindness and reaffirm our trust in His providence by dwelling in a sukkah – a hut of temporary construction with a roof-covering of branches – for the duration of the autumn Sukkot festival. For seven days and nights, we eat all our meals in the sukkah – reciting a special blessing – and otherwise regard it as our home.

Another mitzvah that is unique to Sukkot is the taking of the Four Kinds: an etrog (citron), a lulav (palm frond), at least three hadassim (myrtle branches) and two aravot (willow branches). The Midrash tells us that the Four Kinds represent the various types and personalities that comprise the community of Israel, whose intrinsic unity we emphasize on Sukkot.

On each day of the festival (except Shabbat), during the daytime hours, we take the Four Kinds, recite a blessing over them, bring them together in our hands and wave them in all six directions: right, left, forward, up, down and to the rear. (The Four Kinds are also an integral part of the holiday’s daily morning service.)

Sukkot is also called The Time of Our Joy; indeed, a special joy pervades the festival. Nightly Water-Drawing Celebrations, reminiscent of the evening-to-dawn festivities held in the Holy Temple in preparation for the drawing of water for use in the festival service, fill the synagogues and streets with song, music, and dance until the wee hours of the morning.

Sukkot runs from the fifteenth through the twenty-first of Tishrei. The first two days of this festival (in Israel only the first day) are a major holiday, when most forms of work are prohibited. On the preceding nights, women and girls light candles, reciting the appropriate blessings, and we enjoy nightly and daily festive meals, accompanied by the Kiddush.

Celebrations fill the streets with song and dance until the wee hours of the morning
The remaining days of the festival are Chol Hamoed (“intermediate days”), when most forms of work are permitted. We try to avoid going to work, writing, and certain other activities – many families use this time to enjoy fun family outings.
Every day of Sukkot, including Chol Hamoed, we recite the complete Hallel, Hoshanot, and Musaf, and the Torah is read during the morning service.

The seventh day of Sukkot is called Hoshanah Rabbah (“Great Salvation”). According to tradition, the verdict for the new year – which is written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur – is not handed down by the Heavenly Court until Hoshanah Rabbah. On this day we encircle the bimah (synagogue reading table) seven times while holding the Four Kinds and offering special prayers for prosperity during the upcoming year. During the course of the morning prayers it is also traditional to take a bundle of five willow branches and beat them against the ground five times.

Sukkot is immediately followed by the independent holiday of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah.

The Sukkah: The Holiday Hut

What: A sukkah is a hut built to provide shade. That’s why it must sit beneath the open sky—not under a patio deck or even the branches of a tree. The walls can be made of any material, as long as they are secure and don’t flap about in the wind. The roof, however, (we call it s’chach), must be of unprocessed materials which have grown from the ground. Bamboo poles, thin wooden slats, and evergreen branches are popular choices. Just make sure to use enough s’chach so that the inside of your sukkah will have more shade than sunlight. Those living in the fast lane can buy a prefab sukkah and bamboo mats. Inquire at your local Judaica store, or click here.

For eight days, make the sukkah your official home
How: For eight days, make the sukkah your official home. Don’t panic: As long as you eat your meals there, you’re okay. But try to include anything else that you would normally do in the house—like reading a book or talking with a friend. We sit in the sukkah from sundown on the 14th of Tishrei through nightfall of the 22nd of Tishrei.
It is a mitzvah to eat all meals in the sukkah (a “meal” is defined as more than two ounces of grains — e.g. bread, cake, pasta). Some people have the custom of eating snacks in the sukkah as well. Before eating in the sukkah, the following blessing is recited:

Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to dwell in the sukkah.

This blessing is made when your meal or snack includes a grain-based food.

Raining? If it’s really uncomfortable, there is no duty to sit there. Come back when the weather improves. Nevertheless, many chassidim will eat in the sukkah no matter the weather. It’s too great and rare a mitzvah to squander…

It is particularly important to eat at least one k’zayit (approx. 1 oz.) of bread or challah on the first evening of the festival in the sukkah, between nightfall and midnight.

Who: This beautiful mitzvah is traditionally fulfilled by the whole family, though, as with all time-related mitzvot, the obligation to eat in the sukkah applies to men over the age of 13.

Why: The sukkah commemorates the Clouds of Glory which surrounded and protected our ancestors during the forty-year desert sojourn which followed the Egyptian Exodus. Our willingness to leave the security of our homes and spend eight days in a flimsy outdoor hut demonstrates our faith in G‑d and His benevolence.

The Four Kinds: The Lulav and Etrog

Every day of Sukkot (except Shabbat) we take the arba minim, a.k.a. “Four Kinds.” Sukkot is a seven-day holiday starting on 15 Tishrei and concluding on 21 Tishrei.

Raining? If it’s really uncomfortable, there is no duty to sit there. Come back when the weather improves. Nevertheless, many chassidim will eat in the sukkah no matter the weather. It’s too great and rare a mitzvah to squander…

It is particularly important to eat at least one k’zayit (approx. 1 oz.) of bread or challah on the first evening of the festival in the sukkah, between nightfall and midnight.

Who: This beautiful mitzvah is traditionally fulfilled by the whole family, though, as with all time-related mitzvot, the obligation to eat in the sukkah applies to men over the age of 13.

Why: The sukkah commemorates the Clouds of Glory which surrounded and protected our ancestors during the forty-year desert sojourn which followed the Egyptian Exodus. Our willingness to leave the security of our homes and spend eight days in a flimsy outdoor hut demonstrates our faith in G‑d and His benevolence.

The Four Kinds: The Lulav and Etrog

Every day of Sukkot (except Shabbat) we take the arba minim, a.k.a. “Four Kinds.” Sukkot is a seven-day holiday starting on 15 Tishrei and concluding on 21 Tishrei.

What are the four kinds? A palm branch (lulav), two willows (aravot), a minimum of three myrtles (hadassim) and one citron (etrog). The first three kinds are neatly bundled together—your arba minim vendor can assemble it for you. Click here for a guide to binding the lulav.

Not all sets of arba minim on the market are kosher. Check with your rabbi. And treat your set with TLC—they’re fragile goods!

Arba minim is a man’s obligation. For women, it’s optional but encouraged. Best place for doing this mitzvah is the sukkah, the outdoor holiday booth.

Hold the lulav in your right hand (unless you’re a lefty), with its spine facing you. Face east and say:

Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us regarding taking the lulav.

Treat your set with TLC—they’re fragile goods!
Pick up the etrog in your left hand.
[On the first day of Sukkot (or the first time on Sukkot you get to do this), at this point say:

Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.]

Bring the lulav and etrog together—you’ve done the mitzvah!

Nevertheless, the custom is to wave the arba minim in all six directions—south, north, east, up, down and west. Click here for an illustrated guide to shaking the Four Kinds.

Take along your arba minim to the synagogue for the morning services. We wave them again during the Hallel prayer, and then parade them around the synagogue during the Hosha’anot ceremony.

Jewish unity is one of the central themes of Sukkot. The four kinds you are holding symbolize four types of Jews, with differing levels of Torah knowledge and observance. Bringing them together represents our unity as a nation—despite our external differences. So in this spirit of unity, be sure to share your arba minim with your Jewish friends and neighbors!