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Sukkot

"Speak to the children of Israel, saying, "On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the festival of Sukkot, a seven-day period for G-d. The first day shall be a sacred holiday when you may not do any work... The eighth day is a sacred holiday to you... it is an Atzeret, you may not do any work...

On the first day you must take for yourself a fruit of the citron tree, an unopened palm frond, myrtle branches, and brook willows, and you shall rejoice before G-d for seven days...

You shall dwell in Sukkot for seven days... So that your future generations shall know that I had the children of Israel live in Sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt..."
VaYikra (Leviticus) 23:34-43

Sukkot is a seven day holiday followed immediately by a one day holiday called Shmini Atzeres. The first day of Sukkot is a full fledged Yom Tov when most forms of work are prohibited, similar to Shabbat but to a lesser degree. The following six days are called Chol HaMoed.

During Chol HaMoed many forms of work are permitted provided that certain conditions are met. The eight day, Shmini Atzeres, is also a full fledged Yom Tov. Outside of Israel the days of Yom Tov are doubled. Therefore we have two days of Yom Tov followed by five days of Chol HaMo'ed and another two days of Yom Tov, making for a total of nine days all together.

The holiday of Sukkot has two unique mitzvos, the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah and the mitzvah of lulav and etrog.

The Sukkah

The sukkah is a temporary dwelling which is used for the entire first seven days of Sukkot. This is done in memory of the protective clouds of glory with which G-d surrounded the Jewish people when He took us out of Egypt.

The Construction of the Sukkah

The walls: A sukkah must have at least three complete walls. The walls should not be less than 3 feet tall and not more than 35 feet tall. The sukkah should cover a minimum area of 24.5 inches X 24.5 inches. (Obviously, the normal sukkah is well within these ranges.) The walls must be strong enough to withstand a normal wind (a wind which one could expect to occur).

The schach: The sukkah must be covered with "schach". Schach is any plant material which grew from the ground, such as tree branches or corn stalks. It must be separated from the ground before being placed on the sukkah. The material used for schach may not have a bad odor. Finished products (such as a wooden basket) should not be used for schach. The schach must be spread so that there is more shade than sun within the sukkah. There should still be enough spaces within the schach to be able to see the stars from within the sukkah but the sukkah is still good unless the schach is so dense that rain cannot penetrate.

The schach should be spread with the specific intent to be used for a sukkah.

Dwelling in the Sukkah

The Torah requires us to dwell in the sukkah for all seven days of Sukkot just as we live in our homes the rest of the year. This means that we must eat all our meals within the sukkah and sleep there. Whenever we eat a meal in the succah we make the blessing:

"Blessed are You, G-d... who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to dwell in the sukkah"

The sukkah is a holy place and must be treated with respect. For this reason we do not bring cooking utensils into the sukkah and we do not do activities like washing dishes in the sukkah.

Exemptions

Women, children, the ill and those who are caring for the ill are not required to eat and sleep in the sukkah. In addition, we are not required to eat in the sukkah if it is raining enough to damage the food. In the case of severe discomfort brought on by cold or heat or similar circumstances we are exempt.

Travelers are not required to eat in the sukkah unless one is easily available.

The Lulav and Etrog

The Torah commands us to take the lulav and etrog on Sukkot. When speaking of the lulav and etrog we refer to the four species of plants mentioned in the Torah; the lulav, an unopened date-palm frond; hadassim, myrtle branches, aravos, willow branches; and an etrog, the fruit of the citron tree.

The four species are very specific. Care must be taken to only use the particular varieties which are known to be acceptable. (For example, not all varieties of willow branches are acceptable as aravos.) In addition, crossbred and grafted plants are generally invalid. For these reason one should only purchase the four species from a reputable dealer.

The four species must be in almost perfect condition. Even an apparently minor blemish can be a possible disqualification for use in the four species. It can be very difficult for an inexperienced person to determine when a blemish is a problem, particularly with the lulav and etrog. Many factors, such as the location of the blemish on the fruit or plant and relative to other blemishes, it's color and it's size, can play a role in determining the status of the particular species. For this reason it is customary to show the lulav and etrog to a knowledgeable rabbi before the beginning of the holiday to determine if they are acceptable.

Lulav: The lulav should be at least 14 inches long. It should not be dried out. The most important feature of the lulav is it's central leaf. This leaf must be entirely whole. Ideally, the leaf should not be split at all, if it is split then a rabbi should be consulted. (The leaves of the lulav are folded and can split along the fold. If this occurs to the central leaf then depending on the size of the split the lulav can be invalid.)

Hadas: The hadassim, myrtle branches, should be at least 10.5 inches long. They should not be dried out. The leaves should sprout in groups of three along the branch and should grow in such a manner as to cover the branch. The top of the branch must not be cut off. Ideally none of the leaves should be missing. If these conditions cannot be met then a rabbi should be consulted.

Arava: The aravos, willow branches, should be at least 10.5 inches long. They must not be dried out. The leaves should long and smooth-edged. The top of the branch must not be cut off and none of the leaves should be missing. If these conditions cannot be met then a rabbi should be consulted.

Etrog: The etrog, the fruit of the citron tree, must be in near-perfect condition. It should have the proper form of an etrog and it must be entirely whole. The etrog must not be dried out. Any blemish should be shown to a rabbi.

Assembling the Lulav

For the mitzvah of taking the lulav we are required to use one lulav, two aravos, three hadassim and one etrog. The lulav, aravos, and hadassim are bound together. The cut ends of the branches must be pointed towards the ground. The general custom is to bind the branches so that when the lulav is held with the spine of the lulav facing the holder, the hadassim are to the holder's right and the aravos are to the holder's left. The branches must be bound in such a manner that the holder will be gripping all of them together. The hadassim should be a little higher than the aravos. Care should be taken that the spine of the lulav should protrude at least 3.5 inches beyond the other branches. The material used to bind the lulav should be from the three species used in the lulav.

In addition to binding the three species together it is customary to make an additional two bindings on the lulav itself. The upper 3.5 inches of the lulav should not be bound.

Shaking the Lulav

The lulav is ideally taken in the morning. The lulav (with the hadassim and aravos attached) is taken first with the right hand and then the etrog is taken with the left hand and held upside-down, with the cut end facing upwards (some have the custom not to take the etrog until after the blessing is recited). The lulav is held with the spine facing the holder. The holder then recites the blessing:

"Blessed are You, G-d... who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to take the lulav"

On the first day that the lulav is taken we also say:

"Blessed are You, G-d... who has given us life and held us up and brought us to this time"

The etrog is then turned over and the lulav is shaken in the six directions. There are different customs as to the order one follows in shaking the lulav. The following are the two most common customs:

The person shaking the lulav should face east.

The lulav is shaken three times in each direction. It should be shaken in such a manner as to cause the leaves of the lulav to rustle. Care should be taken not to bang the lulav against the walls or ceiling or otherwise damage the lulav since damage can invalidate the lulav.

The lulav and etrog is also held during the recitation of Hallel during Hoshanos. It is customary to shake the lulav during the recitation of parts of Hallel. One should follow the custom of the congregation in this matter.

The lulav and etrog is not taken on Shabbat.

The requirements for taking the lulav and etrog on the first day of Sukkot are stricter than for the remaining days. In particular, it is necessary to own the lulav and etrog which you use on this day. If this is not possible and you must use a lulav and etrog belonging to someone else then he can give it to you as a gift on condition that you return it, thereby making it your's during your performance of the mitzvah.

Hoshanos

On each day of Sukkot special prayers are recited called Hoshanos. During the recitation of Hoshanos the chazzan leads all of the men who are holding a lulav and etrog around the bimah (the central podium in the synagogue) where the Torah scroll is held. On the seventh day of Sukkot, called Hoshana Rabba, all of the Torah scrolls are removed from the Aron Kodesh (the Holy Ark - the cabinet at the front of the synagogue) and are held at the bimah while the congregation circles the bimah seven times.

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