What is the difference between Sukkot and Simchat Torah?

This year Sukkot begins the evening of September 18th and concludes on September 26th.

For more than three thousand years, Jews have observed the harvest festival called “Sukkot” or “the Festival of Booths.”  Jews build a structure called a “sukkah” (a frail hut) in the backyard in which they “live” during the eight days of the holiday.  If the climate allows, observant Jews will eat and sleep in the sukkah.

Why?

By spending time in this booth or hut, the Jewish community recalls the fragile structures in which their ancestors lived during the forty years in the wilderness following the exodus from Egypt.  We are exchanging the security of our houses for these frail structures, which helps us to realize that our ultimate protection comes from God. Sukkot is a way of reminding ourselves that what makes us happy should not be our possessions!!

Sukkot is also the holiday of the harvest and a festival of thanksgiving, and the booths help us to recall the temporary structures built by farmers at the edge of their fields where they live during the busy season of the harvest. Sukkot is an opportunity to invite people to our homes for a special dinner under the stars.  Some believe that those invited to the sukkah include the spirits of the ancestors, the “ushpizin,” who were also wanderers and exiles!  So ancestors like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron among others are all guests during Sukkot.

When Yom Kippur is over, people begin building their sukkahs.  As people begin to build their sukkah’s, three of the sukkah walls must be covered with a material which will not blow away in the wind. The roof must be made of material grown from the ground – like branches, reeds, or cornstalks, but you must be able to see the stars through the roof. Family and friends help to decorate the sukkah with fruits and vegetables, drawings and other decorations.

Part of Sukkot is the gathering of “lulav,” a bundle of palm, myrtle, and willow, and “etrog,” an aromatic citrus fruit.  With the lulav and the etrog in hand, Jews recite a blessing and wave them in six directions – east, south, west, north, up and down, to symbolize God’s omnipresence and to show that it is the Jewish mission to be “a light unto the nations,” bringing its wisdom to all of humankind.

The last day of Sukkot has come to have another name – Simchat Torah, or the day of rejoicing with the Law.  This year Simchat Torah falls on September 27th. This is the day we complete the reading of the five books of Moses.  We read the last portion of Deuteronomy and immediately start all over again with the reading of the beginning of Genesis.  This creates a beautiful circle of study, and Jews symbolize this by dancing with the Torah in circles around the synagogue.  Singing and dancing with the Torah even spills out into the streets with celebration.  At the end of Simchat Torah, a whole month of intense Jewish festival observance comes to an end.

Thank you again, Gail Katz, for answering our question this week!  To learn more about Gail, please click here.