For forty years as the Jewish people were wandering in the desert on the way to the Land of Israel after being slaves in Egypt, they lived in temporary shelters known as sukkahs and were protected by a great cloud hovering above them. During this period in history, the Jewish people relied upon God to provide them with everything they needed from water to manna food that descended from the heaven. According to Leviticus 23:42, we sit in the sukkah “in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelites live in booths when I led them out of the land of Egypt.”
If this is the case, one might ponder, why do Jews celebrate Sukkot in Tishrei in the fall instead of Nissan, the month when Passover is celebrated? Rabbi Asher Ben Ya’akov (Spain 1270-1340) asked this very question. He argued that Sukkot is celebrated in the fall at the end of the harvest season because to sit in a Sukkah as the weather begins to deteriorate is a true act of faith, while to sit in a Sukkah in the spring as the flowers are blooming and the sun is shining does not make any statement about ones faith in God.
This answers the question partially, yet not entirely. My ancestor the Vilna Gaon (Lithuania 1720-1797), whom I am directly descended from nine generations back, argued that while it is true that Passover commemorates the Exodus story and Shavuot marks when the Jewish people received the Torah, it was on Yom Kippur that God forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf. However, he stressed that it was only on Sukkot that the Tabernacle started to be rebuilt again after this sin and the clouds hovering above the Israelite camp to protect them returned.
During the holiday of Sukkot, the Jewish people start out the New Year by reaffirming that they have faith in God for the year to come and by building a sukkah, they reenact the rebuilding of the Tabernacle following the Golden Calf sin. For seven days and nights, the Jewish people are commanded be in the Sukkah. How one decorates the Sukkah and how much time one spends in the Sukkah depends on whether one is Ashkenazi, Sephardic or Mizrahi.
When I was a child, my Ashkenazi (Jews whose ancestors came from northern and eastern Europe) mother used to go to the supermarket in America and buy apples, corn, and pumpkin to decorate the Sukkah, as many American Jews do. However, we used to sleep in the Sukkah, like Sephardic Jews (Jews descended from the Spanish exiles of the 1492 expulsion) do (my father’s family were from Ottoman Greece). One of my childhood memories is sleeping on the ground in a Sukkah in the freezing cold weather of the greater Washington, DC metropolitan area with my father while the neighbors’ dog Max barked at us.
My Mizrahi (Jews indigenous to the Middle East) husband’s family (he is half Moroccan and half Iraqi) doesn’t do Sukkot in the same way that I did growing up. For starters, you won’t find corn or pumpkin, which are American vegetables, in their Sukkah. They decorate it with pomegranates and grapes, alongside other colorful decorations, pictures, and oriental rugs. Back in Morocco, the Jews also used to hang Elijah’s chair on the sukkah’s wall as well. Sephardic Jews traditionally decorate their Sukkah with cranberries and plums, alongside biscohos (pastries baked either in a circle or Star of David form). Syrian Jews decorate the Sukkah with the seven species of the Land of Israel (barley, wheat, pomegranates, dates, figs, olives, and grapes).
Both in the Mizrahi and Sephardic tradition, people usually sleep in the Sukkah. The Talmud and Jewish law teach that Jews are supposed to sleep in the Sukkah. All Jews used to sleep in the Sukkah during the times of the Talmud. However, Chabad and many non-Hassidic Ashkenazi Jews do not sleep in the Sukkah. In the thirteenth century, Rabbi Mordechai Ben Hillel Ashkenazi (Germany 1250-1298) taught that you were not supposed to sleep in the Sukkah if the weather made it uncomfortable for you. Ever since then, many Ashkenazi Jews don’t sleep in the Sukkah.
Another mitzvah unique to Sukkot is the blessing of the four species: lulav (palm), etrog (citrus), at least three hadassim (myrtle branches), and two aravot (willow branches). The Four Species represent the different types of personalities among the Israeli people, whose unity we are supposed to emphasize on Sukkot. On each day of Sukkot except for Shabbat, the Jews traditionally recite a blessing over them.
Additionally, it is considered a custom for guests, known in Aramaic as Ushpizim, that have no ability to have a Sukkah to be welcomed into the Sukkah. As Maimonides (Spain 1135-1204) taught: “When one eats and drinks, one must also feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow and other unfortunate paupers but one who locks the doors of his courtyard, and eats and drinks with his children and wife but does not feed the poor and the embittered soul—this is not the joy of a mitzvah, but the joy of his belly.” The Jewish scholars state that during the holiday of Sukkot, the spirits of the seven founding fathers of the Jewish people, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David visit the Sukkah, each on a different night. However, they will pass over sukkahs that don’t welcome the unfortunate as guests.
When the Jewish people used to have a Temple, sacrifices used to be performed in honor of the 70 nations descended from Noah in addition to the Israeli nation to ensure their welfare and security in the holy city of Jerusalem. Once the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, these sacrifices were no longer able to be performed. The Jewish scholars teach that because of this, non-Jewish people also suffered following the destruction of the Temple, because they no longer were able to receive these blessings from the Jewish people.