Sukkot at Home

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Once the sukkah is assembled and decorated, it is time to “dwell in sukkot for seven days,” as the Torah instructs. But what does this “dwelling” entail? Halakhah, Jewish law, understands this so mean that one must “make the Sukkah like a home.” This has been interpreted differently in different traditional communities depending mostly upon climate. The broadest interpretation is that most major life activities should happen in the sukkah—eating meals, relaxing, entertaining, studying, and even sleeping. However, many Jews limit their sukkah dwelling to eating. Even for traditionalist Jews, if being in the sukkah would cause great discomfort--for example, in a heavy rain--the minimal requirement would be to recite the blessings for dwelling in the sukkah, wine, bread, and, on the first two nights, the shehecheyanu blessing. Then the meal could be continued indoors.

A sukkah custom developed by the kabbalists, or Jewish mystics, was to invite seven biblical ancestors, or “faithful shepherds” as sukkah guests. The traditional invitees are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David; each night a different one of these seven guests, called the ushpizin, is considered the most honored guest. In mysticism, each of the figures mentioned represent one of the sefirot [emanations], an aspect of the Divinity. This practice reflects the mystical notion of the Sukkah as symbolic of the Divine, and the Jew dwelling with and within the Divine. 

Today some liberal Jews also invite either the wives of these shepherds, or seven other worthy Jewish women. One old kabbalistic tradition, for example, invites the biblical figures Sara, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. Some Sephardic communities prepare a specially decorated chair for the main guest of each evening. It is also traditional to invite living human guests to share the joy of eating in the sukkah.

Another Sukkot commandment, the waving of the Four Species, while primarily a synagogue tradition, may also be done at home if a person is unable to go to the synagogue. The lulav (palm branches), hadasim (myrtle), and aravot (willow), are inserted in a woven holder and held together with the etrog or citron to wave the four species, accompanied by the blessing al netilat lulav, “on the taking of the lulav.” The actual waving—first to the east, then south, west, north, up, and down—usually takes place at the morning service before Hallel, or “Psalms of Praise,” on all seven days of Sukkot (except for Shabbat); if not, it can be completed any time during daylight hours. Although most commonly the lulav and etrog are purchased through a local school or synagogue, in urban Orthodox neighborhoods in the United States or in Israel, markets are open before Sukkot where people can examine the four species before buying.

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