To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on The Seven Shepherds of Sukkot. 

Day 23: The Seven Shepherds of Sukkot

An elaborate sukkah in Israel

An elaborate sukkah in Israel

God told Moses to command his people that once a year, on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei, they should live in booths for seven days, in order that future generations remember that God made them live in booths when he brought them out of of Egypt. And so we build the sukkah, or booth, outside our homes, and decorate it with hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, to remember our days wandering in the desert for forty years.

It is said that each night an Ushpizin, or guest, visits the sukkah of the righteous person. On the first night, Abraham the patriarch appears. On the second night, his son Isaac. The third, Jacob. The fourth, Joseph. Moses comes on the fifth. Aaron on the sixth. And on the last night, King David visits the righteous person’s sukkah.

But it is also said that the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, appears inside the righteous person’s sukkah every night. These sukkot transform into the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary of the Tabernacle, where the Divine Presence dwells.

Therefore, each night, as one enters the sukkah, one should say, “Let us invite our guests. Let us prepare the table.”  

The Myth’s Origins

Etrog and Lulav

Etrog and Lulav

Religious Jews are currently celebrating the holiday of Sukkot*, or Booths. Some have likened the holiday of Sukkot to a religious version of the harvest festival of the American Thanksgiving. The holiday comes straight from Leviticus 23:40, “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook.” And Leviticus 23:42-43, “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”

As such the primary goal of the holiday is not only to mark the harvest time, but to recall the Exodus from Egypt and how God is ultimately responsible for our freedom. Part of the holiday involves building a sukkah, or booth, outdoors, usually next to one’s home, though it doesn’t have to be. Traditionally, meals are eaten in the sukkah, and religious men will sleep within its walls.

Religious Jews will also say hoshanot, special prayers commemorating the holiday. They do this while holding a lulav (a palm frond) an etrog (a citron), aravah (willow), and hadass (myrtle) and shaking them in all six directions (up, down, left, right, forward, back, while reciting a prayer). The prayers are meant to symbolize the omnipresence of God (God is in all directions) and the abundance of God (he creates the four species). The four species, according to some interpretations, stand for the four types of Jews.

Isaac Luria, the 16th century Kabbalist who has made many appearances in this blog series, elaborated the idea of the Ushpizin, or guests, who visit the sukkot of the righteous. Each guest represents a different aspect of one’s character, and also represents one of the ten Sephirot, or divine characteristics. Each night, they impart their nourishing essence upon us.

In more modern times, some Jews have added the Matriarchs to the list of guests. So along with the male seven, there are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Deborah, and Esther.

Some Thoughts on the Myth

Among the orthodox, Sukkot is a fairly religious holiday, and observant Jews often take off from work. In the Conservative Jewish world in which I was raised, Sukkot was always a fun holiday, but not too religious, at least in our home. We built and decorated an outdoor sukkah at the family shul, or synagogue, and I distinctly remember drawing a biblical scene, which got hung in the sukkah and praised by the parents. I recall performing the hoshanot, or waving of the palm front and citron around. I remember at the time thinking the whole thing was rather silly. Did God really command this ritual of us? It seemed left over from a more pagan age. But still, Sukkot was always a nice time for our family, when the weather began to grow colder and we spent more time inside, with each other.

One trend I notice creeping into Conservative Judaism is the addition of the Matriarchs into rituals. Traditionally a patriarchal faith, the feminist movements of the late 20th and early 21st century has changed a lot of people’s views. The reform movement had adopted more feminist views a long time ago, but like its title implies, the Conservative movement has been slow to adapt. It’s nice to see the addition of the Matriarchs to the list of “guests” visiting the sukkot each night. 

One of the nice things about Sukkot, even if you don’t believe in God or are not of the Jewish faith, is eating meals outside, especially at this time of year. Because I live in a dense urban area, I often forget to appreciate the outdoors, and especially the starry sky, which is usually clear this time of year. In that sense, eating dinner in a sukkah sounds kind of nice. But I haven’t done that for a long, long time.

* Note I use the Hebrew pronunciation of Sukkot here, with the hard “T” ending. Traditional Ashkenazi, or Central and Eastern European Jews, pronounced the holiday Sukkos, with a soft “s” ending. Generally I prefer the Ashkenazi pronunciations, as this reflects the Yiddish spoken by Jews for a millennium, but the holiday is generally spelled in English with its “T” ending.

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Golem of Prague