The October Fests
On the first day, you will take for yourselves a fruit of a beautiful tree, palm branches, twigs of a braided tree and brook willows, and you will rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.
Sukkoth on a Bombay balcony? You could see that once on Pedder Road, made for Ms Sophie Kelly, principal of High Grange High School and her brother’s family, the Cohens. Sukkoth literally means ‘festival of booths’ in Hebrew from sukkah, a booth. The way Indians would naturally pronounce it – like ‘Sue Coat’ – is how it’s said in Hebrew, unlike the Yiddish ‘Sook-Ut’.
Sukkoth is a day of feasting and joy, a drastic change of mood from Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance five days earlier (October 9). It is like how Hindus first observe the stark sobriety of the Pitr Paksh Shraad, a fortnight of ‘Hindu holdback’ from buying new homes, cars, clothes or feasting and pray for the souls of their ancestors. After which they hold back some more during the Navratras in a personal detox – no drink or meat – and then celebrate like mad with Dussehra, leading up to Deepavali (October 28, this year).
Sukkoth is the last of three big annual Jewish festivals (the others are Passover and Shavu’ot). Like many festivals, Sukkoth has both agricultural and historical/mythical significance. Agriculturally it’s a harvest fest. Scripturally, it commemorates the 40-year-period in which the Israelites wandered in the desert, living in temporary shelters (booths or huts made of palmfronds and other natural material). This festival is instituted in the Torah in the Book of Leviticus. For a Jewish child, decorating a sukkah is the equivalent of making a jhaanki (Krishna’s ‘Nativity Scene’, complete with a cradle and a Baby) or decorating a Christmas tree. Paintings and drawings by the children of the house decorate the sukkah along with artistic bunches of fruit and vegetables or sheaves of dried grain.
Another Sukkoth practice involves branches of the Four Plants (arba minim in Hebrew). They have these interesting names: etrog (citron), lulav (palm), aravot (willow) and hadassim (myrtle). These are bound together and collectively called the lulav, because the palm branch is the largest. But the etrog is held separately. Holding these branches and waving them in all six directions (north, south, east, west, up, down) to show that God is All-pervading (a quality of God that Hindus call ‘Vishnu’), the Sukkoth blessing is chanted. There are daily parikramas of the stand on which the Torah is kept, during which the Jews chant prayers with the refrain “Hosha na” (Hosanna), meaning “Please save us!”
There are seven parikramas on the seventh day of Sukkoth, called the Hoshana Rabba, meaning the Great Hoshana (like saying Mahashivratri or Mahaparinirvana).
Sukkoth is when the Jewish people reach out to the world and include them in their prayers and rejoicing, just as Hindus pray “Sarve janah sukhino bhavantuh” (Let there be well-being for all). The deep message of the seven days of Sukkoth is that we should live our lives well with good and sincere effort, for life is so short.