12 Sukkot Customs You Should Know
By Menachem Posner
Sukkot is a holiday brimming with mitzvot. For seven days, the sukkah, a hut covered with branches, becomes the center of our lives. There we light holiday candles, enjoy festive meals, and take the four kinds. On the first two days (or one day in Israel) we desist from work. And of course, it’s followed by the joyous holiday of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah.
Sukkot is also blessed with beautiful and meaningful customs, each of which adds to the unique festivity of this holiday. Join us as we explore a sampling of these customs, ranging from ubiquitous to virtually unknown.
1. Midnight Construction
While the sukkah may be constructed anywhere from several weeks to just a few hours before the holiday, the Code of Jewish Law records the custom to begin building the sukkah the evening after Yom Kippur. Don’t feel up to hauling boards and banging nails at midnight? You can fulfill this custom by doing something small to get the ball rolling, like getting your tools out, or even by verbally planning your sukkah construction project.
2. Ushpizin: Welcoming 7 Invisible Guests
Ushpizin is Aramaic for “guests,” a reference to the seven supernal guests, “founding fathers” of the Jewish people, who come to visit us in the sukkah, one for each of the seven days of the festival: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.
Every day another of the guests leads the otherworldly entourage, and many have the custom to welcome them in with special prayers and poems. Others go so far as to light seven candles each night to honor the ushpizin, and even put out empty chairs for them. And many, such as those who follow Chabad tradition, weave the ushpizin of the day into the Torah thoughts and stories they choose to share in the sukkah with their family and (flesh-and-blood) guests.
3. Dipping Challah Bread into Honey
Dipping challah into honey is most closely associated with Rosh Hashanah. However, many continue with this practice as long as our fate for the coming year has not been entirely sealed—through Shabbat shuvah, the pre- and post-Yom Kippur feasts, and even on Sukkot.
Besides, what’s not to like about some extra sweetness?
4. Simchat Beit Hashoeva: Dancing in the Streets
In the times of the Holy Temple, there was the unique custom of pouring water onto the altar every day of Sukkot, accompanied by great fanfare, including torch-lit dancing and juggling that lasted all night, culminating in a parade to the river where the water was drawn. Today, many have the custom to sing and dance every night of Sukkot in commemoration. The Rebbe encouraged that these celebrations spill out into the streets “until the streets themselves dance along.”
During the coronavirus, these are to be conducted in a socially distant manner or at home with one’s close family members.
5. Hoshanot: Parading Around the Synagogue
Also in Temple times, every day of Sukkot the priests would “place willow branches alongside the altar, with the heads of the willow branches bent over the altar” to add joy to the holiday. The priests would then sound the shofar, circle the altar once, and say, Ana Hashem hoshiah na. Anah Hashem hatzlichah na (“Please, G‑d, bring us salvation. Please, G‑d, bring us success”). On the last day of Sukkot, known as Hoshana Rabbah, “the Great Hoshana,” the priests would circle the altar seven times.
This birthed the custom of circling the Torah reading platform as part of the morning service, while holding the lulav and etrog, and saying a litany of prayers built on the prayers said in the Holy Temple.
6. Beautifying the Sukkah
Many have the custom to decorate their sukkahs with all kinds of creative works of Judaic arts, fruit, and more.
Some have the custom of fashioning “birds” out of eggshells covered with feathers and hanging them in their sukkahs. Several explanations are given. One is that the person can contemplate the “bird,” replete with plumage, and recognize that it is hollow inside. In the same way, even after we have done so much to purify ourselves on Yom Kippur, we must wonder if we have truly changed, or are we just hollow eggshells covered in feathers?
Others have the custom of stringing up 91 (!) apples, since the numerical value of the word sukkah (ס=60, ו=6, כ=20, ה=5) is 91 (60+6+20+5=91).
Not up to decorating eggs or hanging apples? You’ll be relieved to know that the Chabad custom is to hang nothing at all in the sukkah, but to beautify it by selecting high-quality materials and covering it with ample schach (foliage).
7. “Sukkah Hopping”
In communities where many people have sukkahs, there is a fun Sukkot afternoon activity, whereby children or adults visit sukkah after sukkah, enjoying the opportunity to say the sukkah blessings and taste a treat in each one before continuing on their journey.
During the pandemic, many will forgo this fun tradition, or make sure to do so in a covid-safe manner, with pre-packaged treats, allowing only one family to enter at a time, etc.
8. Driving Sukkah Mobiles
In an effort to bring Sukkot to as many people as possible, someone had the bright idea of mounting a sukkah on the back of a pickup truck, and the Sukkah Mobile was born. Sukkah Mobiles (and their baby sisters, Pedi-Sukkahs) are now an integral part of holiday observance from New York to New Zealand and everywhere in between.
As the coronavirus keeps many sequestered at home, and large-scale sukkah gatherings are impossible, the Sukkah Mobile has taken a central role in safely bringing the holiday observance to many who would otherwise be without.
9. Banging Aravot on the Ground
Remember the priests circling the altar mentioned in #5? The seventh day of Sukkot is called Hoshana Rabbah, literally “the Great Hoshana,” thus named because there is a greater number of Hoshanot prayers that are recited on this day. It is considered the day on which G‑d’s judgment, which was reached on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is finalized. It is also the day when G‑d judges how much rain we’ll receive over the coming year. To recall priests circling the Temple altar seven times on this day, we also circle the synagogue seven times and say additional prayers.
Afterward, there is an ancient custom instituted by the prophets Chaggai, Zechariah, and Malachi to take a handful of aravot (willow branches), recite a special prayer, and beat them on the ground. According to Kabbalistic tradition, we take a bundle of five aravot in order to sweeten the supernal “five severities.” These branches are known as hoshanot.
Some people hold onto these branches and use them as fuel for burning their chametz or for baking matzah before Passover.
10. Staying Up all Night and Eating Apples in Honey
On the night preceding Hoshana Rabbah, many have the custom to remain awake all night learning Torah. Before midnight, we read the Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses lays out the importance of loving and revering G‑d. After midnight, we read Psalms.
The Chabad custom is for this to be done in the synagogue and for the gabbai (synagogue official) to distribute apples and honey (to be eaten in the sukkah) to all participants.
11. Eating Kreplach
On Hoshanah Rabbah afternoon it is customary to eat a festive meal, replete with challah dipped in honey. Along with the eve of Yom Kippur and Purim, this is one of the three times on the calendar when it is customary to eat kreplach, dough filled with chicken or meat, in chicken soup.
12. Saying ‘Goodbye’ to the Sukkah
For most purposes, Shemini Atzeret (the holiday that comes right after Sukkot) is considered a separate holiday. However, many in the diaspora have the custom to eat in the sukkah on that day as well, albeit without reciting the blessing beforehand. On Shemini Atzeret afternoon, many head to the sukkah for one final snack, as a way to say farewell to the cherished once-a-year mitzvah in which we are literally embraced by G‑d’s presence.
By Menachem Posner