This week, Jews around the world and in the Tampa Bay area have been celebrating the lesser-known holiday of Sukkot, building temporary hut-like structures in their yards and rejoicing after the intense high holy days of the weeks before.
Sukkot is a biblical holiday that lasts eight days, and Jews traditionally build sukkahs — temporary dwellings in which to eat, pray and socialize. Some live and sleep in their sukkahs, while most use them primarily for meals.
This is only the second year my husband and I put up a sukkah. As "baalei teshuva" (ones who return to Judaism), we have been gradually learning more about our religion the past few years. Our two young children love this holiday and all the time they get to spend in our backyard, as well as the yards of our friends.
But celebrating Sukkot is more than a fun, backyard barbecue — it's yet another way to connect with God, with friends and family, as well as to the previous generations of Jews who have been building sukkahs for 3,500 years. My parents and grandparents never did it, but this is one way we are reconnecting to our heritage.
For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we spent hours in synagogue, praying that God should forgive our past transgressions and grant us a good, healthy year. Now that we have cast off our sins and burdens of the previous year, Sukkot is a time of rejoicing.
According to Rabbi Yossi Eber with Chabad Jewish Center of West Pasco, the first mitzvah (commandment) associated with the holiday is to sit in the sukkah, make a blessing and eat. It's even better if you can invite guests.
The second mitzvah is to make a blessing while holding the "lulav and etrog," which actually include four Israeli "species" that are said to symbolize the four types of Jews.
The lulav, a closed frond from a date palm tree, smells sweet but has no taste, like a Jew who studies the Torah but doesn't do good deeds.
The myrtle (hadas) has a sweet taste but no smell, like a Jew who doesn't study Torah but does perform good deeds. The willow (arava) has neither a sweet smell nor taste, like a Jew who does neither. And the etrog — a yellow citron — smells and tastes sweet, like a Jew who does both.
All four types are important — even necessary — for the Jewish people as a whole.
"The symbol of Sukkot is unity," Eber said. "Don't look down on people who do less than you." Only when Jews are united as one family, he said, are we pleasing God.
We received our lulav and etrog as a donation from a New Jersey-based outreach organization called Oorah (Hebrew for "awaken"). It's relatively easy and inexpensive to get a set -— the cost can be as little as around $30. Jews locally can contact one of the rabbis listed at right.
The price of etrogs ranges dramatically, however, and people have been known to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for this rare species.
They typically grow in Israel, though you can get them from other exotic places like Calabria, Italy.
Rabbi Shmuel Reich with the Jewish Enrichment Center in Clearwater explained that by spending money on something holy and spiritual like an etrog, we should be less inclined to buy mundane items that do not necessarily elevate our lives.
As a guest in our crowded sukkah Tuesday evening, he spoke to our extended family about the spirituality and mysticism behind Sukkot and observing other aspects of the Torah.
People work hard for their money, he said, so it becomes very important to us. "When you spend money on a good thing, it elevates you," he said. "Money can elevate a person to a much higher spiritual level."
One of the names for Sukkot is "the season of our joy," according to Rabbi Danielle Upbin with Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater. In the ancient days, when our people were farmers, that joy stemmed from the rest they finally enjoyed after the harvest season, she said.
"I imagine that our ancestors finally had some time to sit around and enjoy one another's company without the daily grind of laboring the land," she said. "Today, that joy is communicated by inviting friends and family into the sukkah for essentially a week-long party."
Sukkahs are usually assembled using natural things like wood, palm fronds, and bamboo. It's okay to use metal and plastic for the sides, but the "roof" can't include any man-made materials. It's also necessary to be able to see the sky through the roof, so the structure doesn't really protect from rain — or bugs — but that's the point.
The sukkah is meant, in part, to serve as a reminder not to take our material possessions — including our homes — for granted. And it's important to remember that all we have comes from God, no matter how comfortable or complacent we may become with our lives and our belongings.
"All of our sustenance comes from Hashem (God)," said Rabbi Reich.
The final day of Sukkot is called Simchas Torah — "rejoicing of the Torah" — which this year begins at sundown tonight. Men, women and children will gather in the synagogue to sing and dance with Torah scrolls, carrying them in a procession, reciting verses asking God to help us and save us from our troubles. Men carry children on their shoulders and it's a very festive time, and there's known to be plenty of candy for the kids and drinks for adults. I've never witnessed such genuine joy as on Simchas Torah.
On this holiday, the final portion of the Torah is read, and then we begin again with the first portion of Genesis, detailing God's creation of the world. By beginning again as soon as the last Torah reading is finished, the Jewish people demonstrate that the Torah is always fresh in our minds, and we are never finished learning from it.
As Rabbi Sholom Adler with Young Israel-Chabad of Pinellas so eloquently explained, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the solemn days when we accept God's kingship and grandeur, while Sukkot and Simchas Torah reveal our intimacy with Him, like a marriage.
"Stepping into the sukkah is like moving into God's home," Adler said, "and Simchas Torah is when we dance with Him.