All good things come from above. The sentence is not only a proverb in Christian-influenced Germany, the assumption is also widespread in Judaism. Food, the necessary harvest and the creative talents indispensable for the advancement of mankind – all of this, according to the believers, is God-given. So it makes sense to occasionally express one’s gratitude for the gifts of God. In addition to the many small gestures with which the believers thank their Creator throughout the year, there is a festival in Judaism that is entirely dedicated to gratitude to God: Sukkot.
Sukkot is a type of Jewish harvest festival that lasts from the 15th to the 21st day of the month of Tishri in the Jewish calendar and begins five days after the day of atonement, Yom Kippur. Directly afterwards, the two holidays Shmini Azeret and Simchat Torah form the end of the celebrations – at least in the diaspora. In Israel, these two days are celebrated together, so that the celebrations are shortened by one day.
In German, Sukkot also operates under the term Feast of Tabernacles. The reason? “On Sukkot we take our meals in a tabernacle,” explains Rabbi Steven Langnas of the Munich Jewish Community. In some places around the world, the little houses are still being built especially for this occasion.
Rabbi Langnas will have his meals in a Jewish senior citizens’ home in Munich – there is also a “sukkah”, as the huts are called in Hebrew. The walls are traditionally made of wood, but the roof is usually made of leaves and fir branches. So there is always a gap through which one can look up and think of God.
With the tabernacles, the believers remember the first dwellings of their ancestors in the desert – because according to their faith these were also given by God and offered the ancestors refuge in the inhospitable environment. In general, meals and services in the synagogue do not just focus on the present. “We also show our gratitude for the past,” explains Langnas. Because at Sukkot the Jews remember their roots and their ancestors. And so they thank God not only for their own provision, but also for those of their ancestors, without whom they would not be in the world today.
The believers express this gratitude towards their Creator through various symbols. For example, they say thank you for the sufficient harvest by swinging the so-called arba minim in all four directions during the services: a arrangement of brook willow (Hebrew: arawot) and a lemon-like plant called etrog, which, like the other components, the myrtle branch ( Hadassim) and the palm branch (lulav), is specially imported. In addition to thanks for the harvest, the festive bouquet also symbolizes the unity of the people of Israel and the responsibility of all people for one another.
And the traditional dishes at Sukkot also have symbolic power: for example, cabbage rolls and ravioli are served. The filling stands for strict justice, explains Langnas; the inside symbolizes mercy.
The festive days around Sukkot have different names. The first two (sukkos) form the prelude with church services and the first meals in the tabernacles. The following five days are called Chol HaMoed and are considered half-holidays, at the end of which there is another major holiday with Hoschana Rabba. This is followed by the final days of Shmini Azeret and Simchat Torah, which coincide in Israel. The end of Sukkot has another special meaning for Steven Langnas: “On this day you have an even closer relationship with God,” explains the Munich rabbi.
Another event that is of great importance for the believers also takes place on Simchat Torah: on this day the annual cycle of the five books of Moses, which are divided into 52 sections, of which one section is read every week, ends. So the last of these chapters is read on Simchat Torah – and then a new cycle is ushered in with the first. “That should make it clear: our relation to teaching has no end,” explains Langnas.
Unlike the Jewish New Year festival Rosh Hashanah, which has a more serious character, according to Langnas, Sukkot is a little more relaxed – even if the gratitude, the memory of the past and the symbols that express the gratitude of the believers is brought to the center. “There is also a lot of celebrations,” says Langnas. “But of course in a religious context.” So Sukkot is not comparable to New Year’s Eve, as it is celebrated in Germany. But at the turn of the year in this country nothing good comes from above – just burned rocket stubs.