Sukkot to Simhat Torah
The holiday of Sukkot has biblical and agricultural roots commemorating both the period in which the Jews lived in huts while wandering for 40 years in the desert as well as the end of the harvest. A sukkah is a temporary structure that is erected for the weeklong festival. Other symbols that are central to Sukkot are the lulav, which is made up of branches from the willow, palm, myrtle; and the etrog, which is a citrus fruit. Sukkot is known as Z’man Simhateinu, the time of rejoicing, and it was so central to the rabbis in the Talmud that they referred to it simply as Hag, the holiday. The seventh day of Sukkot is called Hoshanah Rabbah and is considered the final day of judgment within the High Holy Days. The congregation circles the sanctuary, with the Torah in the center, seven times, praying for deliverance while holding the lulav and etrog.
At B’nai Jeshurun, we celebrate Sukkot with lively services in our sanctuary and other wonderful programs in our sukkah. The B’nai Jeshurun community sukkah is located in the 89th Street Community House and is decorated by the children of B’nai Jeshurun. In addition to the organized Sukkot events, the sukkah is also open for use during designated times. All community members are encouraged to purchase a lulav and etrog to participate in the hoshanot (parading around the sanctuary).
The Hoshanah Rabbah service at B’nai Jeshurun is a meaningful way to seal the High Holy Day season. Since Hoshanah Rabbah is considered the conclusion of the High Holy Days, the rabbis wear kittels, simple, white robes worn during the High Holy Days, other special occasions, and when one is buried. One significant feature of the service is beating the willow branches on the floor at the conclusion, symbolizing the elimination of sins and hopes for a year of blessings, a very powerful act that many say sounds like the rains that will soon begin in Israel.
Following the holiday of Sukkot are the holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah. Shemini Atzeret begins the rainy season in Israel, and a prayer for rain is recited and continues to be included in the Amidah until Passover. Yizkor, a memorial prayer for those who have died, is also recited.
Simhat Torah marks the end of one year’s Torah reading cycle and the beginning of the new year’s cycle. The last section of Deuteronomy is read, followed by the first paragraph of Genesis. During the Simhat Torah evening service, the sifrei Torah are removed from the ark and paraded in seven hakafot, or circles, around the room. During the Simhat Torah morning service, the person who receives the first aliyah is known as the Kallat Torah or Hatan Torah, symbolizing the bride or groom of the Torah, and the person who receives the last aliyah is known as the Kallat Bereshit or Hatan Bereshit, symbolizing the bride or groom of the book of Genesis. This honor is given to members who have dedicated their heart and soul to the community.
Simhat Torah at B’nai Jeshurun is a particularly joyous holiday. During the evening service, each hakafah, or rotation around the room, represents a generation, and community members from that particular generation are invited to dance with the Torah. The evening service is full of singing and dancing, and Jews come from all over the city to celebrate at B’nai Jeshurun. The service during Simhat Torah day is celebratory but more subdued. Every person is offered an aliyah, and a special aliyah is given to the community’s children as they stand under a huppah.
These joyous holidays can be difficult for those who have experienced the loss of a loved one. Read a beautiful essay on this topic, written by BJ Rabbinic Fellow Alex Braver.