A timely celebration

In Israel, on the other hand, it is one of the most visible festivals. On Yom Kippur, everything comes to a standstill. On Sukkot, everything comes to life.

October 12, 2019 20:26
3 minute read.
EXALTING IN Sukkot at the Western Wall

EXALTING IN Sukkot at the Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The weeklong Sukkot festival which begins tonight is a special time. Strangely, outside of Israel it is probably one of the least celebrated holidays by Jews. Coming as it does just after the two-day Rosh Hashanah marking the start of the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur which is marked by almost all Jews of all streams, some people abroad find it hard to take off more time from work for a holiday that they consider to be minor.

In Israel, on the other hand, it is one of the most visible festivals. On Yom Kippur, everything comes to a standstill. On Sukkot, everything comes to life.

Many non-religious Jews build a temporary booth for the holiday, and tabernacles of various sizes and splendor can be found everywhere from private homes to restaurants, hotels, hospitals, work places and army bases. These booths are built as a reminder of the way the Children of Israel traveled the desert for 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt, and the origins of the holiday are found in the Book of Leviticus in the Bible.

Only in Israel are huge apartment blocks built with “sukkah balconies,” areas without a roof so that those in the sukkah can see the skies through the flimsy thatch-like sukkot covering. In fact, this is the only country in the world where apartments are built with rocket-proof shelters and an area where residents can build a temporary booth to be reminded of the frailty of life!

It’s not unusual during the holiday to see soldiers traveling to and from their bases carrying guns and lulavim.

With schoolchildren on vacation, there are special activities across the country, many of them focusing on the environmental side of what was traditionally in part an agricultural festival.

In short, celebrating Sukkot in Israel is part of the natural rhythm of life. Even the weather plays a role. At the end of the festival we recite the prayer for rain. Although it might rain briefly during the holiday, on the whole it is still warm, and Israelis sit in their sukkot without having to worry about putting on extra-warm clothing as those in colder climes, and the prayer for rain comes in the right place in the weather patterns, unlike countries such as South Africa and Australia.

Sukkot is one of the three ancient “foot festivals,” when people would travel to Jerusalem to pray and give sacrifices in the Temple. Today, thousands flock to the Western Wall, the only remnant of the Temple, for Birkat Kohanim, the special blessing of the priests.

Again, only in Israel are there traffic warnings for road closures and traffic disruptions because of the numbers traveling to hear kohanim bless the people with the age-old Hebrew words. In recent years, tens of thousands of Christian supporters of Israel have also come to Jerusalem for the holiday to hold a colorful parade to express their friendship. This, too, should not be taken for granted in these difficult times.

Particularly this year, in the wake of the increase of deadly antisemitic attacks on synagogues, Israelis are especially aware of the blessing of not needing extra security at their places of worship. While Jews in the Diaspora pray behind double-locked doors, Israelis sleep out in their tabernacles in open yards.

The attack on Yom Kippur on the synagogue in Halle, Germany, is just the latest reminder of this. The security doors of the synagogue prevented the neo-Nazi murderer from entering the synagogue on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar and carrying out a massacre of the worshipers inside.

Although Israel certainly suffers from its security challenges, there is no place like it for Jews who want to feel free to celebrate their holidays in the open, proudly and unapologetically.

Sukkot is a time of great joy, when welcoming guests to eat in the booths is part of the tradition. This year is a particularly good time to issue an invitation to come and experience the holiday in the place where it can be celebrated uninhibited. Come, not to escape antisemitism, but because this is the Jewish home.

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