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Albert Tours Blog-  A Licensed Tour Guide - Israel

The festival of Sukkot and its hidden symbols

Those who visit Israel during the festival of Sukkot will not fail to notice that tents have been erected on many houses and terraces and are decorated with tree leaves, fruits, colours, and other items. They can also find these tents located in national parks, like below in Caesarea. So here is a little guide that explains this joyous festival in Israel and elsewhere.

Sukkah erected in Caesarea national park

Sukkot is one of the three religious holidays established in the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) and is commanded by God:

You shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 23:42-43)

The name Sukkot (סוכות in Hebrew) comes from the plural of the word Sukkah (סוכה) which was the name of the tents (or booths) in which the Hebrews lived during the 40 years in the desert. The religious festival also has other names: Feast of Tabernacles (reference to the tents, but also to the holy place of the Tabernacle which was the Tent of Meeting), Festival of Harvest (because Sukkot falls at the end of the wheat harvest, which marks the end of summer), Festival of Water (because we are entering the rainy period, in the Land of Israel, and we pray that God would send us this rain necessary for survival). It is a festival which is entirely dedicated to Mitzvot (sanctifications), without any particular prohibition, which is therefore very much in contrast to the festival of Pessah and its well-known prohibitions (on eating leavened bread, cereals, etc.)

The festival begins on 15 Tishri (marked by a full moon) and lasts 7 days in the Land of Israel (8 days in the Diaspora). In 2021, all the holidays of Tishri (Rosh Hashana, Kippur, Sukkot) fell in the same Gregorian month, September 2021, which is not common because these holidays usually fall between September and October. Other dates relating to Sukkot are: Hoshana Raba (the 7th day of Sukkot) and Shemini Atzeret (the 8th day, counted from the 1st day of Sukkot). Then comes Simha Torah, the date from which we re-start the weekly reading of the Torah from the beginning (Bereishit, Genesis).

During Sukkot, we read the book of Kohelet (the Ecclesiastes in English) which opens with the famous maxim: vanity of vanities, everything is vanity! For those who wish, click on this link for the online text in English and in Hebrew. This text, 'sad' in appearance, seems in total contradiction with the predominant 'joy' for the festival of Sukkot. But this is not the case: Kohelet is exactly what Sukkot means, namely the 'potential' that we can give to life which would otherwise be all 'material' and therefore 'vain' (vanity). Because throughout the year we normally reside in a house built of brick & mortar (made solid to 'last', but it is an illusory and vain way) and under a roof (which 'separates' us symbolically from above, therefore from the divine) whereas, during Sukkot, one resides in a tent (fragile construction and therefore temporary in nature) which has no roof (which must be open towards the divine). Man, who in Hebrew is called Adam (name taken from Adama, the earth, therefore the materialistic life) is nothing (because he is destined to return to the dust of the earth from which he was taken). Therefore he is only temporary vanity, at first glance, but he has everything to realize his immense potential because, unlike plants and animals which also come from the earth and return to it when they die, only man was created in the image of God. So, in this sense, Kohelet is a text of hope and not of despair. It fits completely with the meaning of Sukkot.

Sukkot is also the festival where we use 4 species of plants in the prayers: citron (Etrog, a very fragrant fruit), palm (Lulav), myrtle (Hadas), and willow (Arava).

Checking the lulav (Leopold Pilichowski, 1869-1933)

The citron is kept separately while the 3 plants are tied together, with their respective quantities: 1 palm + 2 willows + 3 myrtles = 6 days of Creation. But 3 species x 6 units = 18 which is the numerical value of Life in Hebrew (חי = 10+8). Thus, while the 3 species of plants symbolize the created Life, the citron is the fruit which represents the 'fragrance' of life, an immateriality symbolizing the spiritual, like Shabbat which is 'spiritual' in relation to the 6 days of the 'material' Creation of the world.

On the Gematria side, the word Sukkah (סוכה) has the numerical value 91 (=60+6+20+5) which is equal to 65 + 26. The number 65 is the numerical value of the divine name Adonai (1+4+50+10), which is associated with the attribute of justice (judgment), and 26 is the numerical value of the tetragrammaton (the 4 letters of God's timeless name) which is associated with the attribute of mercy (forgiveness). So, the festival of Sukkot fits very well as the 'conclusion' of the 2 other festivals of this Hebrew month of Tishri: Rosh Hashana (judgment) and Yom Kippur (forgiveness). Moreover, the numerical value 91 of Sukkah is also equivalent to the numerical value of the word Amen (אמן) which is the ‘conclusion’ of all prayer.

Albert Benhamou

Private Tour Guide in Israel

September 2023, Tishri 5784


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