Celebrating Sukkot

In many Jewish communities, people are celebrating the festival of huts by erecting small tents. In this conversation, host Michel Martin learns more from Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld about the rituals of the festival.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we check in with a special Barbershop this week. We'll still get our shape-up on the latest news, but we will be doing so with a panel of educators.

But first, it's time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation, where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality.

Now if you live in certain areas, you may have noticed tents or structures springing up on people's terraces, on their lawns, and you may have wondered what they're for. Well, they are being erected for a Jewish holiday celebrated in the fall. It commemorates the wandering of the Israelites in the desert for 40 years after their exodus from Egypt.

To tell us more about the holiday and how it is observed, we have with us once again Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld. He heads the Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., and he stops in from time to time to tell us more about various Jewish holidays and customs.

And I want to emphasize that the rabbi is observing the holiday. So we caught up with him before the holiday began at sundown on Wednesday.

And I started by asking him, how do you pronounce the name of the holiday, and what is its English translation?

Rabbi SHMUEL HERTZFELD (Ohev Sholom): We call it Sukkot, and the English translation, it's typically called the Festival of Booths. Booths refer to the fact that Leviticus Chapter 23 states that we are commanded to dwell in booths for seven days in celebration of the fact that God led us out of Egypt.

And so the booth structure is by definition supposed to be a temporary structure, and the defining characteristic of it is that the roof is different. You know, many times we have roofs, which we don't want rain to come through. The rain must be able to get through this roof. Otherwise it's not a valid sukkah.

MARTIN: So a sukkah is how you refer to the structure.

Rabbi HERTZFELD: The structure is called a sukkah.

MARTIN: Well, I do have to ask about the fact that one of the requirements is that the stars must be visible at night. The roof must be available to the elements. And forgive me, I have to ask, what if it's pouring rain?

Rabbi HERTZFELD: Well, if it's pouring rain, there are two opinions. One opinion is that you can go inside if it's pouring rain and eat your food inside, and the other opinion is that you must go inside because we're supposed to be dwelling in the sukkah in an enjoyable fashion. So if we're in distress, then it's not enjoyable.

But the purpose of the sukkah, Michel, is to remind us, you know, in our own world we have our houses, which we invest in, and we think we're so secure, and we think we're in control. And for one week, we go outside, kind of live in the elements, reminding ourselves that we're under the shelter of God at all time.

MARTIN: Now I see you've brought some things with you. I assume those are part of the holiday, the festival. Would you tell us what you've brought with us, and how are these items used?

Rabbi HERTZFELD: Basically, the Bible in Leviticus 23, right after it commands us to dwell in booths for seven days, also commands us to take for ourselves four species. These are referred to in English as the four species or in Hebrew as the arba minim, the four species. And they are a myrtle, a willow, a palm branch and a citron.

And we hold them together, and we wave them in every direction. There are six directions. So on a simple level, we do this because it's a biblical commandment. On a deeper symbolic level, it's again the idea that this was originally the ingathering of the crops.

And so we're taking from our crops, representing the different types of vegetation, and praising God and making an offering to God in recognition that everything we have and everything we've accomplished comes from God.

MARTIN: What are the Hebrew names for these?

Rabbi HERTZFELD: The Hebrew name for the citron is an etrog.

MARTIN: Which looks like a lemon, but it's not. It kind of looks like a lemon, a big lemon.

Rabbi HERTZFELD: The main difference is that it is bumpy. In biblical times, this was one of the only citrus fruits that they had available in Canaan. There's a palm branch, which comes from the palm tree.

The willow, which is one of the, which you can even grow in your backyard in our area, and then there's a myrtle, a myrtle branch, as well, a hadass. And the palm branch is called a lulav, and the willow is called an aravah.

And the rabbis have many symbolic teachings about this. On a simple level, they often point to the fact that this represents four different types of vegetation and represents four different types of human beings, but we all come together as one.

MARTIN: Is Sukkot a fun holiday as it's traditionally understood? I have to say when I was growing up, and I would see families eating on their terraces and on their lawns, I always thought it seemed so great, like a picnic every day. I thought it was great.

I don't mean to trivialize, obviously, the larger meanings of it. But is it a fun experience, even though it does commemorate a difficult time in the history of the Hebrew people, the wandering? How is it experienced today?

Rabbi HERTZFELD: Well, of all the holidays mentioned in the Bible, it says happiness, that we must be happy by the holiday Sukkot the most. So of all the holidays in our tradition, this is considered to be the happiest of all holidays.

There's a special practice and a custom to throw sukkah parties. For example, in our home, we're going to be baking 1,000 home-baked cookies because we throw a sukkah party for people to come to our home on Sunday evening.

You know, it's almost like through Yom Kippur, we are in the synagogue in a private way, celebrating and worshipping. But now we've got the teachings from God, so we go out to the world. And we purposely go out to the world and invite our neighbors in, and everybody's welcome.

So I encourage you and all your listeners if you see a sukkah to just knock on the door and say hi, I noticed what you were doing. I was wondering if I could come in and say hello.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We'll see how that goes over.

Rabbi HERTZFELD: That would be very appropriate. And certainly if anybody's walking by my house, I would encourage you to do that.

MARTIN: And finally, what's the proper greeting for Sukkot?

Rabbi HERTZFELD: Well, if you're following the Sukkot pronunciation, then you would follow the Israeli greeting and say Hag Samei'akh, happy holiday. But if you're following the more yiddishized pronunciation, then you would just say (foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: Well, I'm just going to say happy holiday to you, rabbi.

Rabbi HERTZFELD: (Foreign language spoken).

MARTIN: Rabbi Shmuel Hertzfeld is the head of the Ohev Sholom National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. And once again, we pre-recorded this interview because he's observing the holiday. Thank you so much for being with us, rabbi.

Rabbi HERTZFELD: It was my pleasure, thank you.

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