This evening we begin the Jewish holiday of Sukkot; in English it is known as the Feast of Tabernacles.
The holiday has agricultural roots; it is the time of the fall harvest and the beginning of the rainy season in the Land of Israel. It is a joyous holiday; in the liturgy, it is referred to as Z’man Simchatenu, “the time of our rejoicing.” It also has an historical connection; it recalls the forty years of wandering in the wilderness between the Exodus from Egypt and the entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land.
The agricultural aspect of the holiday is commemorated with the Lulav and Etrog–a palm branch decorated with myrtle and willow twigs, and a citron (a relative of the lemon)–that is held during certain prayers. The historical side is commemorated with the construction of temporary shelters called Sukkot (the singular is Sukkah); many people build these “booths” or “tabernacles” at their homes and eat their meals there for the week of the holiday–some even sleep inside them!
You may be wondering why this is such a joyous holiday if the 40 years of wandering was a punishment. According to the Torah, the people panicked after the report of the 12 spies and lost faith in Moses and God. The Lord wanted to destroy the Israelites right then and there but Moses interceded. Instead of wiping out the Children of Israel, they would wander for four decades as the old generation died out and and a new one arose. Jewish tradition teaches that the reason why we are joyous is two-fold. 1. It is the time of the harvest and everyone is happy to have food (hopefully) for the coming year. 2. During those 40 years, God did not forget the Children of Israel; on the contrary, God recalled this as a beatiful time in the relationship between the Hebrews and their Lord. God made sure that the people were protected from enemies, always had water to drink, manna to eat, and were eventually led into the Promised Land. There is indeed much for which to be grateful, which is why Sukkot is often thought of as the “Jewish Thanksgiving.”
Is Sukkot healthy for you? That depends. Like all other Jewish holidays, there is an emphasis on food–and lots of it. It is easy to overdo it, but that is our own decisions and not any fault of the holiday. The focus on gratitude, however, is good for our health. Refer to a blog post from 2019 and another from this past Thanksgiving for more information on the positive benefits of practicing gratitude. It does not just make you feel good in an emotional sense; being thankful can help improve your health.
Wishing all who celebrate Sukkot a happy and healthy holiday!