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By Rabbi Gershom Barnard
Rabbi Emeritus of NHS

Observance | Eruv Tavshilin | Hol Hamoed | The Sukkah | Guests
Four Species | Synagogue | Shmini Atzeret & Simhat Torah

When the Talmud speaks of “hag”, or “the Holiday” without any other designation, the reference is generally to Sukkot, for this holiday was in ancient times the most joyous of all. Indeed, today while our prayers describe Pesah as “the time of our freedom” and Shavuot as “the time of the giving of the Torah”, they refer to Sukkot as “the time of our rejoicing.” In an agricultural society, of course, the autumn is the time of the main harvest; and the people are thankful and glad at being able to gather the produce, their food for the coming months.

While an agricultural festival probably lay at the basis of Sukkot, and the harvest element is strong in its historical and present observance, the festival prescribed by the Torah recalls another aspect of Jewish existence, the long trip through the desert from Egypt to the Land of Israel. During this period of forty years, travelling through a barren area, the people were sustained by Divine protection, while they lived in huts (sukkot). In the Talmud (Sukkah llb), we find two opinions concerning the “original” Sukkot.

According to Rabbi Akiva, they were the actual shelters in which the people lived, while, according to Rabbi Eliezer, they were the clouds of glory, which represented the Divine Presence which accompanied them. Thus, on Sukkot we are concerned with both our physical and our spiritual welfare. In the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote in Horeb:

If you are wealthy, you will become aware of this fact: it is neither riches nor property - and certainly not man’s talents, of which he is so proud - that are gods which make his life more secure. It is God alone, God who sustains even in booths those who surrender themselves to Him in complete faithfulness. Remember, then, to thank God alone for your wealth, your distinction, your treasures; for you possess these only so long as God wills it. Remember, too, that every acquired aptitude may change and that the ancestors of the rich grand-children one lived in booths in the wilderness for forty years.

So you will learn not to be a slave to your wealth and not be led away from God . . . And if you are poor, my fellow Jew, if you are poor and in despair, move, I pray you, into the foliage-topped booth! Depart from under your sheltering roof and of your own accord live the poorer life and learn the lesson: God sustained your forefathers in the wilderness in booths. That same God still lives and He is your God, and as the twinkling of the stars shines through the roof of foliage, so does He with His watchful eye embrace you in loving kindness, behold your suffering, behold your tears, hear your sighs and know your cares . . . from the idolization of possessions and of man’s talents may our submission to the sukkah release us, and instead may it lead us to God as the only basis of our life, may it teach us to put our trust in God, to rely only upon God: emunah.


The first two days of Sukkot and the last two,Shemini Atzeret, and Simhat Torah, are full Festival days, to be observed negatively by abstaining from work, and positively by holiday rejoicing. The prohibition of work (melakhah) on the Festivals (Pesah, Shavuot, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simhat Torah, as well as Rosh Hashanah) is based on the prohibition of work on the Sabbath, the details of which are given in the Mishnah, Tractate Shabbat. In the Mishnah, chapter 7, thirty-nine basic categories of prohibited work avot melakhah are given.

Traditionally, these types of activity are seen as those needed in the construction and operation of the Tabernacle. We might note that they are the kinds of activities involved in providing food, clothing, and shelter. Dependent on these avot melakhah are various tol’dot melakhah, functions which involve the same activity as avot melakhah, but in a different context. The third type of activity prohibited on the Sabbath is one which rabbinical tradition has proscribed as resembling, leading to, or being associated with melakhah. The application of these principles to today’s situation may be the subject of debate, but it should be understood that the 39 avot melakhah form an intrinsic part of the concept of Shabbat.

Some examples of common activity in which we should not engage on Shabbat are: gardening, grinding food, cooking, cutting hair, cloth, paper, or other materials, doing laundry, sewing, writing or erasing, building (i.e., changing the physical configuration of things to make some use of them), kindling or extinguishing a fire, adjusting any complex mechanism, and carrying articles outside.

All of the above applies to the Sabbath. On a Festival, the situation is somewhat different. Whereas with regard to the Sabbath we are told “You shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:10) with regard to the Festivals the rule is “No work at all shall be done on them; only what every person is to eat, that alone may be prepared for you.” (Exodus 12:16).

Thus certain activities, prohibited on the Sabbath, are permitted on a Festival. It is permitted to carry things out of doors on a Festival (this permission is derived from the necessity of carrying food from the house to the sukkah on Sukkot). One may also cook and prepare food, and make other use of fire on a Festival. In order to safeguard the sanctity of the Festival, certain restrictions are placed on the preparation of food and the use of fire:

1. Fire may not be started fresh, but must be transferred from another fire, which was burning before the beginning of the Festival. Thus, one may light a gas stove if it has a pilot. Some authorities who do not permit the use of electrical devices on Shabbat do permit such use on Yom Tov, on the theory that the electric current is always available.

2. Fire may not be extinguished on a Festival (unless, of course, there is danger to life).

3. Food may be prepared on a Festival day only for that day itself. In case the Sabbath immediately follows a Festival, we do eruv tavshilin.

In Deuteronomy 16:14 we read “you shall rejoice in your Festivals,” and simhah, joy, is an intrinsic part of Festival observance. We wear our best clothes on Yom Tov, eat large meals, say the appropriate kiddush over wine, and chant the joyful Hallel psalms at the synagogue.


Although it is permitted to cook on a Festival day (see Exodus 12:16), this permission applies only to cooking food to be consumed on that day itself. (see Talmud Betzah 15b and 17a) If a Yom Tov falls on Thursday and Friday, or Friday and Saturday, the problem arises of how to prepare food for the Sabbath which immediately follows. The solution to this problem is to be found in the enactment of eruv tavshilin (mixture of dishes). On the day before the Festival one sets aside some bread and a cooked dish saying:

Barukh atta Adonai, Eloheinu melekh
ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav,
v’tzivanu al mitzvat eruv.

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of
the universe, who has made us holy with
His commandments, and commanded us
to make an eruv.


By means of this eruv may we be permitted to bake, cook, keep dishes warm, kindle lights, and prepare, during the Festival, all who needs for the Sabbath, we and all the Jews who live in this town.

The idea is that, having begun the preparations for the Festival and for the Sabbath which immediately follows it, before the Festival begins, all our ensuing preparations may be considered also as one act. The eruv, or food set aside, is saved until the Sabbath and eaten then.


The third through the seventh days of Sukkot are semi-holidays. It is permitted to do work on them, but, if one has work which can be delayed until after the holiday, then it is better to do so than to do the work on hol hamoed. The synagogue services for Hol Hamoed Sukkot are described in the section on Sukkot in the Synagogue.


What is the Jewish answer to the Christmas tree? The sukkah! Building a sukkah is one of the best and most fun projects that a Jewish family can undertake. Sitting in the sukkah, and especially eating in the sukkah, during the holiday of Sukkot, remind us that all our material possessions are only temporary, like the sukkah, and that our real protector is God.

Historically, the sukkah recalls the days when our ancestors passed through the wilderness, when, lacking permanent homes, they were entirely at God’s mercy. According to the Talmud, Sukkah 11b, Rabbi Akiva held that the sukkah represents the temporary huts in which people lived at that time, while Rabbi Eliezer held that the sukkah represents the clouds of divine glory which accompanied the people on their way.

The specifications for a sukkah in the halakhah (Jewish Law) are:

1. The sukkah must have at least 2 complete walls and a partial third wall. It is best to make the sukkah with four complete walls (A door way is included as part of a wall).
2. The sukkah must be out in the open, not under a roof or a tree.
3. The minimum size of the sukkah is 28” x 28”, a partial wall must be at least 4” long.
4. The minimum height of a sukkah is 39”, and the maximum height is 37’.
5. The walls may be made of any material.
6. The roof must be of vegetatation which has been detached from its growing place. Evergreen boughs are especially good for this purpose.
7. Roofing material must cover the greater part of the sukkah area: the traditional designation for this condition is tzilatah merubah al hamatah (Its shade is greater than its sun) However, the s’khakh (roof) should not form a complete heavy covering.
8. If possible, the s’khakh should not be supported by anything made of metal.
9. It is customary to decorate the sukkah.

When we take a meal in the sukkah or, according to some authorities, whenever we carry out any of our normal activities in the sukkah, we say the b’rakhah:

Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitsvotav vitzivanu leshev basukkah.

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has made us holy with His commandments, and commanded us to dwell in the sukkah.

On the first two nights of Sukkot, we add the b’rakhah:

Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, she-he heyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.

Some people recite the following prayer on entering the sukkah:

May it be Your will, Lord our God, God of our ancestors, that Your presence dwell among us. Spread over us Your shelter of Peace, and surround us with the pure and holy radiance of Your glory. Grant sufficient food and drink to those who are hungry and thirsty and give us the privilege of living out a long life in the Holy Land so that we may serve You with reverence, praised be the Lord forever, Amen, Amen.

Some people recite the following prayer on leaving the sukkah for the last time on Shemini Atzeret:

May it be Your will, Lord our God, God of our ancestors, that just as we have fulfilled the commandment of the sukkah this year, so may we be worthy to sit in the sukkah of peace, made from the skin of the Leviathan, in the world to come.


Some people observe the practice of ushpizin, “inviting” great figures of Jewish history to join them in the sukkah. The following formula may be used:

“I invite exalted guests to dinner - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David.” On the first night, “Oh Abraham, my honored guest, may it please you to have all the exalted guests sit with us, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David.”

On the second night:

“Oh Isaac my honored guest, may it please you to have all the exalted guests sit with us: Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David”

and so on for seven nights. Thus we are reminded that we should try to be worthy of entertaining such personages. Some people today include women among the famous guests, for example: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Ruth, and Deborah. We are reminded, as well, that the mitzvah of hakhanasat orhhim (hospitality) applies especially to the Sabbath and holidays.


One of the most beautiful of all Jewish observances is the mitzvah of taking up the four special (“arbaah minim”) on Sukkot. All of our senses come into play in this observance, which may be approached on several levels of meaning.

We read in the Torah (Leviticus 23:40):

On the first day you shall take the produce of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.

According to rabbinic tradition, found in Tractate Sukkah 32b and 33a, these species are, respectively, the citron (etrog), palm branch (lulav), three myrtle branches (hadassim), and two willow branches (aravot). These three groups of branches are bound together in a bundle to be taken in one hand, while the etrog is taken in the other.

On each day of Sukkot, except Shabbat, we take the lulav bundle in our right hands, and the etrog in the left (left-handed people reverse the hands) and holding them together, we say the b’rakhah:

Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat lulav.

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to take up the lulav.

On the first day that we take up the lulav, we add:

Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha-olam she-he-heyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanyu laz’man hazeh.

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.

The lulav is taken up before Hallel (the psalms of praise), and pointed east, south, west, north, up, and down, and shaken three times in each direction. We also point and shake the lulav when we say “hodu” and “ana” toward the end of Hallel, and we carry it in the hoshanot, processions around the synagogue, which follow musaf.

Although we have described the use of the lulav and etrog in the synagogue service, the taking up of the lulav is a separate commandment which may be observed at home as well. Traditionally, women as well as men recite the b’rakhah and take up the lulav and etrog.

One interpretation of the taking up of the four species is that each of the four represents one of our senses, (the lulav - sight, the etrog - taste, the hadassim - smell, the aravot - sound, because they rustle in the wind) and the taking of them in our hands represents touch. We are thus reminded that all our senses must be dedicated to God’s service.

Another interpretation begins with the observation that some of the four species have a good taste, and some have a fragrant odor. Fragrance is taken to represent good deeds, and taste to represent learning. Thus the etrog represents Jews who have learned and have many mitzvot to their credit. The lulav, which has no aroma but which comes from the date palm tree, represents those who have learning but who are not distinguished in mitzvot. The hadassim represent those who have mitzvot but no learning, and the aravot represent those who have neither learning nor mitzvot. By taking the four species together, we are reminded that all Jews are brothers and sisters.

Another interpretation is that each of the four species represents a part of the body and the quality of character associated with it. The lulav represents the backbone, courage. The etrog represents the heart, dedication. The hadassim represent the mouth, truth-telling and avoiding gossip. The aravot represent the eyes, modesty and lack of envy.

Another interpretation is that each of the four species represents one of the four letters of God’s name - yud, he, vav, he. According to the kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, each letter has its own sphere of influence and only when they are all united can God’s full power be revealed. Waving the lulav in all six directions reminds us that God is all around us.


The first two days of Sukkot are full holidays and the synagogue service follows the Festival pattern. The amidah contains only one central b’rakhah, appropriate to the occasion.

After the conclusion of the shaharit amidah, the lulav and etrog are taken up and waved, and held during the chanting of Hallel (Psalms 113-118). At “hodu” (ps. 118:1-4) and “ana” (ps. 118:25), the lulav and etrog are waved along with the chanting of the words of the psalm in a special traditional tune. The rabbis decreed that one should not take up the lulav and etrog on Shabbat lest one come to violate the Sabbath by carrying it outside.The additional prayer (musaf) for the Festival recalls the ancient Festival pilgrimages and expresses the hope for the restoration of our national life.

After musaf, hoshanot (liturgical poems including the words hoshana - “save us”) are recited as the congregation, carrying their lulavim and etrogim, march around the synagogue circling the bima on which a Torah scroll has been placed. This practice recalls the ancient practice of circling the altar in Temple.

The prayers of Hol Hamoed Sukkot (Intermediate Days) combine weekday and Festival elements. The weekday amidah, with the addition of the Festival prayer yaaleh v’yavo, is recited at the three regular services, but the full Festival musaf is said. Hoshanot are recited after musaf.

The fifth Intermediate Day is called Hoshanah Rabbah, and has something of the character of a “last chance” after Yom Kippur. Some High Holiday melodies are used in the service, and the hoshanot are greatly extended.

The Torah is read on Sukkot following the following schedule:

First day -
Leviticus 22:26-23:4 (five aliyot; seven aliyot on Shabbat)
Second day -
Leviticus 22:26-23:44 (five aliyot); Numbers 29:12-16
Intermediate days -
the appropriate selection from Numbers 29:17-34 (four aliyot)
Intermediate Sabbath -
Exodus 33:12-34:26 (seven aliyot) appropriate selection from Numbers

The haftarot (prophetic readings) for Sukkot are as follows:

First day -
Zechariah 14:1-21 (an apocalyptic vision in which the nations make pilgrimage to Jerusalem)
Second day -
I Kings 8:2-21 (the consecration of the Temple on Sukkot)
Intermediate Sabbath -
Ezekiel 38:18-39:16 (a vision of the war of Gog and Magog)

On the Intermediate Sabbath of Sukkot, the Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) is read at the morning service. This book, attributed to the aged King Solomon is filled with a new spirit of pessimism and cynicism (“There is nothing new under the sun”) that seem to be prompted by the declining part of the natural year.


Along with the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesah, Shavuot, and Sukkot), the Torah mentions that on the eighth day from the beginning of Sukkot is another major holiday, which, however, never received a name of its own, and is therefore designated as the Assembly of the Eighth Day (Shemini Atzeret). Sometimes this holiday is called the Feast of Conclusion, because it concludes the fall series of holidays. Presumably, people who had come up to Jerusalem for Sukkot would observe this holiday there, and then go home.

In the course of time several special observances for Shemini Atzeret have developed. The first is the beginning of the “rainy season” in liturgy. In the Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah we learn “b’hag nidonim al hamayim” - on the Holiday the world is judged with respect to water”. Whenever the Talmud speaks of “the Holiday” the reference is to Sukkot, and the meaning of the mishnah is that at this time the quantity of rainfall for the year is determined. Indeed, Eretz Yisrael has a clearly defined rainy season, which usually begins near the end of Sukkot.

Therefore, from Shemini Atzeret on (until Pesah), we include the phrase “mashiv haruah umorid hagashem” - “who makes the wind blow and the rain fall” - in the second b’rakhah of the amidah, and when we make this insertion for the first time in musaf of Shemini Atzeret, we recite a piyut (liturgical poem) expressing the hope that we shall be blessed with the proper amount of rain this year. In the Ashkenazic tradition, we recite the piyut Geshem of R. Eleazar Kallir, who lived in Eretz Yisrael in the 8th century, and is one of the early masters of synagogue poetry. The recitation of Geshem is done somewhat in the style of the High Holiday prayers, because of the aspect of Divine Judgment present in Shemini Atzeret.

The recitation of Memorial Prayers (Yizkor) began in Germany in the Middle Ages. In some traditions it is confined to Yom Kippur, but, more commonly, Yizkor is said on the last days of the Three Festivals as well, hence on Shemini Atzeret.

While the Torah designates Sukkot as a seven day holiday, our observance of an extra day outside Eretz Yisrael makes it go to eight days. Shemini Atzeret is consequently the second day of the last day of Sukkot as well as a holiday by itself. Therefore, we eat in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret (because this is a basic prescription of the Torah, which must be kept even in a doubtful situation), but we do not say the b’rakhah for the sukkah, or take up the lulav (because these are rabbinic enactments, which may be omitted in case of doubt).

It is ironic, although understandable, that Shemini Atzeret, a major holiday designated by the Torah, is relatively unknown, while Simhat Torah, which is of post-Talmudic origin, is one of the most popular of Jewish holidays. Technically, Simhat Torah is the second day of Shemini Atzeret, and, indeed, is not observed as a separate holiday in Israel. However, in gaonic Babylon the custom, which spread from there to all Jewish communities, arose of finishing the yearly cycle of Torah reading on this day. Since the Torah, and the study of Torah, are at the center of Jewish life, this occasion became one of great rejoicing.

On the evening of Simhat Torah, all the Torahs are taken out of the ark, and marched around the synagogue. Basically, there are seven such circuits (hakafot), but this structure is overlaid with singing and dancing ad libitum. Then, the last portion of the Torah, V’zot Hab’rakhah, is read, almost up to the very end; this is the only time in the year that the Torah is read at night.

The next morning, the hakafot are repeated (usually in a more subdued way, since people are tired out from the night before), and three Torah scrolls are read. From the first scroll, V’zot Hab’rakhah is read, this time to the very end. From the second scroll, the reading of Bereshit, the first portion of the Torah is begun, and from the third scroll, the regular holiday maftir is read from Pinhhas.

The person called up to the reading of the end of the Torah is called the hatan torah, and the one called up to the reading of the beginning is called the hatan bereshit. The honor of these designations is given to people who who have distinguished themselves in service to the community.


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