Sukkot: Circling the Altar
The Jeiwsh harvest festival of Sukkot begins on Oct. 6 in the evening and continues for six days thereafter. This ancient festival is celebrated on the full moon following Rosh haShanah, the Jewish new year. On this holiday, Jews wave bundles of palm branches, willow, myrtle, and a yellow fruit called the etrog as a symbol of the earth's bounty, and live in temporary booths roofed with branches, known as sukkot.
Sukkot, my favorite holiday, is arriving this Shabbat, with its waving palm branches, fragrant myrtle leaves, and open-air huts (don’t leave out honey or the bees will come!). Jews are already building sukkot: ritual booths with leafy roofs through which one can see the stars. In my area, on the Lower East Side, and in the Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn, etrogs (yellow lemon-like fruits) and palm branches are already being sold. The ritual of ushpizin (inviting spirit guests) will begin on the first night of Sukkot as Jews recite a prayer to welcome Abraham and Sarah and all representatives of chesed (love and kindness). This spirit invitation will continue throughout the seven days of Sukkot, and different ancestors will reside in the sukkah on each night. It is wonderful that Sukkot begins on Shabbat, since according to the Zohar, both Sukkot and Shabbat are days when the Shekhinah shelters us under gentle wings, like a nesting bird. This season is called zman simchateinu, the time of our joy.
This year I’ve been thinking a great deal about the circles that we make on Sukkot. On each of the first five days of Sukkot (unless it is Shabbat), it is traditional to process in a circle holding the lulav and etrog, while reciting ancient poems asking for fertility, sustenance, and protection. (The fact that the pointed lulav and round etrog look a lot like human sex organs makes the point even more strongly!) On the sixth day of Sukkot (also called Hoshanah Rabbah, or “great praise”) the custom is to process in seven circles, called hakafot, with the lulav and etrog. The number seven represents the seven days of creation. The seven circles, perhaps, are meant to “restart” creation, to return us to the beginning of the world, when the Divine declares that everything is good. The liturgy declares again and again: “Hosha na! Save us!” This kind of salvation is very physical: the prayers ask for rescue from drought, from flood, from famine, from the dangers of the world. At the end of the Hoshanah Rabbah circlings, willows are beaten on the ground, as a sign that one wants to get rid of sin, but perhaps also the willow-beating is a symbolic dousing for water.
The circles around the inside of the synagogue seem to imply that there is an invisible altar in the center. Originally, the Temple altar would have been at the center of this ritual. Nowadays, perhaps it is the earth itself, or the invisible Presence, that pulls us into its orbit. It would be interesting to do this ritual surrounding a field, a clearing, or a sacred place: to put something at the center of the hakafot or circlings. What would we want to circle around? What is sacred to us? A tree? A mountain? A synagogue or place of study? A person who needs healing? The White House? What place or thing do we want to take in our blessing?
On the seventh day of the Sukkot season, Shemini Atzeret, we pray elaborate poems for rain, and we recite the yizkor prayer, the memory-prayer said during holidays, to be in communion with our beloved dead and our ancestors. The last, eighth day of the holiday is Simchat Torah. On the evening of Simchat Torah, we also circle seven times, this time while dancing with the Torah. We repeat this ritual in the morning, and then we complete the cycle of Torah, reading the end of the book of Deuteronomy (Moses’ death) and the beginning of the book of Genesis (the creation of the world).
Jamie Isman (one of the amazing women of the Kohenet program; see www.kohenet.org) and I were speaking about this, and she suggested that from Rosh haShanah to Yom Kippur, we are “between the worlds.” We step into the spirit world to learn what we need to learn about ourselves. Sukkot is also “between the worlds”—we live in the fragile harvest booth to be in contact with the Shekhinah and the matriarchs and patriarchs. These moments of betweenness are creative and transformative. To this I added that if we recreate ourselves on Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, and recreate our world on Sukkot, then on Simchat Torah we recreate all the worlds, for Torah holds all worlds, above and below. Simchat Torah’s circlings encompass the entirety of existence.
If we add up the hakafot of Sukkot (eleven) and Simchat Torah (fourteen), we get twenty-five, which is one less than 26 (the numerical value of the ineffable Divine name). While we are doing our twenty-five hakafot, perhaps the Divine One is doing one great hakafah, one giant circuit around all the worlds, to remake them and us. This season, may we circle well, and may we be circled by the Infinite. Kein yehi ratzon; so may it be.
—Rabbi Jill Hammer, Tel Shemesh Director
Actions for Sukkot:
A sukkah was originally a shelter for those who needed a place to spend the night. Donate the cost of your sukkah to Habitat for Humanity (www.habitatforhumanity.org) or another organization that helps people find housing. Also, the earth itself is a sukkah for all life. Protect the earth by writing your representative, senator, or another official to ask that they work to preserve the national forests and other wild places, which are threatened by new legislation allowing oil drilling, logging, etc.
Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director of Tel Shemesh and the author of the Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.
more tishrei wisdom