Class 9: Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah
In this class, we'll encounter the great circle festivals of harvest and returning to the beginning.
Sukkot, the third biblical festival of harvest, is known in the Bible as Chag ha'Asif, or the gathering festival. It is celebrated with dwelling in a booth called the sukkah for seven days, eating and sleeping in a temporary structure with a roof partially covered in plants, vulnerable to the elements. It is also celebrated with the waving of the lulav, four plants native to the land of Israel: palm frond (lulav), myrtle (hadas), willow (aravah), and citron (etrog). The lulav is waved each day in the six direction, accompanied by prayers, psalms, and circular processions, as an embodied prayer for rain and for the continued abundance of the earth.
Sukkot is a festival of openness. We dwell for seven days in a fragile hut with a roof open to the stars, reminding ourselves of our dependence on God’s abundance. We remember Israel’s wanderings through the biblical wilderness and throughout history. Into our temporary dwellings we invite our families and friends. We wave green leafy branches and citrus fruits, letting ourselves experience the goodness of the harvest. Like Pesach, Sukkot is a holiday which connects us to the earth, to tradition, and to our loved ones Like Pesach, Sukkot makes our past part of our lived experience.
Sukkot is the quintessential harvest holiday, yet, at least in the United States, few Jews are farmers, and only a minority of Jews celebrate Sukkot at all. But according to accounts from the Talmud, Sukkot was once the most joyful festival Jews had. Pilgrims descended on Jerusalem, sages threw off their robes and juggled torches, and drummers pounded out the rhythm of psalms in the Temple courtyard. Youths kindled four enormous lights (perhaps representing the four directions of the world) in the Temple, so that every courtyard in Jerusalem shone. The priests poured water over the altar, a physically enacted prayer for rain. The dancing and singing went on all night for a week, so that people dozed on one another’s shoulders during the festivities. One who never saw the rejoicing on Sukkot has never seen joy, the sages of the Talmud said.
On the second night of Sukkot, the high priest of the Temple would draw special waters from an underground spring called “Shiloach” that flowed near the temple grounds—these waters were known as the wellsprings of salvation and were considered to be a source of prophecy and revelation. The priest would enter the Temple grounds through the Water gate in the south, bearing a gold flask of water, approaching an altar where four high torches were burning in the north. The water of the sacred wellsprings served as a libation to be poured over a stone altar while the priest faced southwest (direction of water and earth), thus drawing water and prophecy down to earth. Sacred animal offerings were also burned on behalf of the nations, a sort of Yom Kippur atonement on their behalf. If the offering was accepted, it is said that a heavenly fire in the shape of a lion would appear to consume it. Sukkot, rather than the High Holidays, was the pinnacle of the year for our ancestors.
What if we truly celebrated the harvest on Sukkot? What if we hung our sukkah booths with pictures of things we accomplished this year that made the world a better place, or with diagrams of how our food is grown, reaped, and shipped to us? What if we gathered to pray for rain in the places where there is drought, instead of assuming that the earth will always give us what we need? Sukkot might once again become the holiday of supreme rejoicing, and more of us might spend time under the leafy boughs of the sukkah, looking up at the stars.
Introduction: Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah
According to the Torah, the seven-day harvest festival of Sukkot ends with a final day of celebration known as Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of assembly. In the Diaspora, Shemini Atzeret is a two-day holiday. The relatively quiet holiday of Shemini Atzeret, with its prayers for rain, is followed by the joyful, raucous celebration of Simchat Torah, when Jews end and begin the ritual reading of the Torah. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah fall on the same day.
Long ago, the Jewish people finished the Torah only once every three years, and made a celebration to mark the event. Sometime in the early medieval period, when the Torah reading was synched with the year, the end of the Torah cycle was fixed on the eighth day of the Sukkot festival, the very end of the new year holiday cycle. The day was called Simchat Torah, the rejoicing in the Torah. Gradually, more customs, including the reading of Genesis on the same day, were added.
Simchat Torah is a joyful ritual drama with colorful pageantry. On the evening of Simchat Torah, as special Bible verses are recited, every Torah comes out of the Ark. There are seven ceremonial processions. These processions begin with individuals carrying the Torah and walking in a circle, and then they break into many circles of dancing. People dance with the Torah and with one another. When the dancing is “enough,” a prayer leader will call the group back to attention and begin the next sacred circle.
During each procession, the prayer leader chants: Ana Adonai Hoshiah Na! Ana Adonai Hatzlicha Na!— please, God, save us! Please God, prosper us! Each time a ritual circling begins, another leader repeats these words and then chants a piece of an acrostic prayer calling on God’s many names. These prayers, which are also recited on Sukkot, connect the circling with the Torah to the circling with the lulav. The prayers invite us to imagine Simchat Torah as a harvest of the year’s Torah, just as Sukkot celebrates the harvest of the year’s produce.
On Simchat Torah evening, the custom is to read three aliyot (sections) from Vezot haBrachah, the final parashah in the Torah, but not to complete the whole parashah. This is the only case in traditional Jewish practice where the Torah is read at night. Some Jews have the custom to drink alcohol on Simchat Torah to increase the joy of the day, while others have abandoned this custom because of the issue of substance abuse.
On Simchat Torah morning, the seven processions are repeated. This time, the end of the Torah is read, including the final blessing of Moses to the Israelites. It is the custom that during this reading, every single adult in the synagogue should receive an aliyah. In this way, every person becomes reconnected to Torah. Children also may receive an aliyah all together under a chuppah, a canopy. Then, a chatan or kallat Torah (groom or bride of the Torah), an honored member of the community, is placed under a chuppah and honored with an aliyah to the last section of the Torah, the story of Moses’ death. The scroll is rolled back to the beginning, or a new scroll is brought out, and the Torah reader chants the story of creation from the very first part of Genesis. The person who receives the honor of this aliyah is called the chatan or kallat Bereishit, the bride or groom of the Beginning, and there is much celebration during and after the reading.
It is noteworthy, and beautiful, that on Simchat Torah we read about the death of Moses and then join that story to the birth of the world. This reminds us of the cycle of the year and of the death-birth cycles in our own lives. It is also a message about the Torah. Each year we read the Torah anew, and each year its message is somewhat different, because we are different. The Torah itself dies and is reborn on Simchat Torah. Our prayer on Simchat Torah is that a new Torah will be born in us, to give us wisdom in the coming year.
Please read the following in preparation for our class:
- Jill Hammer, Jewish Book of Days, p. 39-55.
- Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy, p. 47-86.
- Jill Hammer, “The Jewish New Year is Sukkot?!"
Waving the Lulav: Renewing the Seals of Creation
To listen to a d'var Torah on Parashat Ki Tavo which discusses the harvest festivals and explains the lulav as a ritual for renewing the seals of creation.
The text of the d'var Torah is below: D’var Torah: Renewing the Seals of Creation (Jill Hammer)
The name of this week’s parashah, Ki Tavo, means “when you come,” and this refers to when the people enter the land at last and begin to plant and harvest. The first ritual we are given in this parashah is a ritual of gratitude for the gift of the land. This is a ritual in perpetuity, the ritual of bikkurim, the first fruits. Every year, the one who reaps a harvest is to come to the altar of the whole people, the shrine where the Divine Presence dwells, with a basket of first fruits; the first produce the land has yielded. Once at the altar, the individual farmer makes a declaration telling the whole story of the Hebrew people; how we were wanderers in Canaan and then went down and became slaves in Egypt and God freed us, and we were given a land flowing with milk and honey. The declaration begins: “My father was a wandering Aramean and went down to Egypt with few numbers and sojourned there.” Some of you may remember it from the Passover seder.
I have had the privilege of being part of a first fruits ritual like this. Sarah Shamirah Chandler, a recent ordinee of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, is an eco-activist and eco-ritualist. She created at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center a first fruits ceremony during the festival of Shavuot, and I’ve been part of this annual ritual several times. The ritual includes a procession of people and a goat parade and a chuppah with a basket of first fruits beneath it, and children and people in costumes. We begin by making an offering from the harvest of that land. We make an offering of two loaves of bread just as they once did at Shavuot. We process with every person holding a piece of the harvest. We recite the biblical first fruits declaration, we make kiddush, we dance, and then we eat amazing food created only from the milk and vegetables and fruits of that land. I am so moved by the joy and gratitude and connectedness expressed by this event,. It is one of my favorite reconstructed rituals, a contemporary ceremony pulled out of the pages of antiquity and made alive.
I didn’t tell you one part of the first fruits ritual at Isabella Freedman, but it’s the part I always play when I am there. I should share it, and I will soon, but I love it so much. I hold the first new barley sheaf and wave it in six directions. This is a ritual our ancestors always did on the second day of Passover and which we have incorporated into our first fruits procession. According to the Mishnah, just as we will soon wave the lulav in the six directions, the barley sheaf of Passover is also waved in six directions, and the two loaves of Shavuot are waved in six directions. At our first fruits procession, we wave not only the sheaf but also the two loaves and the basket of first fruits in the six directions, as they were waved long ago. In fact, when the Torah says vahenif, that the priest would wave an offering, this movement in six directions is probably what that word means; probably all offerings were treated this way.
Why do we do this waving? When I was a child, I was always told that the waving indicated that God is everywhere. I have come to invest it with an additional meaning, which I want to share with you through a story. There is a tale in the Talmud, in both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud, that King David goes out prospecting to find the right spot to build a Temple. He comes to the threshing floor of Aravna and he is sure this is the place, and he begins to dig to lay the foundation for the Temple. He digs and he digs, and eventually he comes upon an immense stone, and it is in the way, so he tries to lift it. The stone immediately says: “Do not touch me!” “Why?” David asks. “Because,” says the stone, “I am blocking the mouth of the deep. I am the foundation stone set here to guard the earth and prevent the primordial chaotic waters from rising and washing everything away. ” But David does not listen. He lifts the rock. Immediately the primordial waters rise up and begin to flood the earth. David does not know what to do. He calls out for help and his advisor, Achitophel, wades through the floodwaters and comes to his aid. Achitophel gives King David a shard of pottery and says: write the Divine name on this shard and throw it into the waters, and they will subside. “Is it permitted to use God’s name in this way?” the king asks, and Achitophel answers “Yes.” And so King David writes down the Divine Name on a shard and throws it into the water, and the waters subside.
But now there is another problem. The water completely subsides. In fact, it vanishes into the depths beneath the earth, so that there is no more water throughout the world, and life begins to dry up. David must once again think of a solution, and he begins to sing the psalms known as Shirei haMaalot, songs of rising upward. As he sings each psalm the water rises a little out of the depths, and when he has sung the fifteenth psalm, the waters have seeped back into the underground reservoirs and the springs and are at the level they need to be for life to thrive. And so the world is saved. And the stone remains exactly where it is and becomes the foundation stone beneath the Temple, the navel of creation, the root of the world.
Sefer Yetzirah, an ancient book of Jewish mysticism, tells us that when God created the world, God created six seals, one in each direction. Each seal is composed of the three letters making up God’s name. Above is sealed with Yud Hei Vav: Below is sealed with Hei Vav Yud: East is sealed with: Vav Yud Hei. North is sealed with: Hei Yud Vav. South is sealed with: Yud Vav Hei. West is sealed with: Vav Hei Yud. Just as a magician of the ancient world would cast a sacred circle to protect whatever lay within, God cats a sacred circle around the world using these six seals to each of the directions. Each of these seals is like the foundation stone, keeping chaos out and holding life in. When human beings conduct the rituals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, when we wave in the six directions, we are acting on behalf of God, sealing the world, making a sacred circle within which life is safe and can grow and flourish. When we point the lulav in each direction, we are saying; at the center of this existence is the place of the Divine presence, a place flowing with abundance, goodness, and love. Lesser influences, lesser intentions, we place outside the sacred circle.
And yet we haven’t always kept our circle so whole. How often we have been like King David. We knew about the foundation stone, that which must not be moved. We knew, and we didn’t listen. We moved it anyway. We allowed pollution and fossil fuels and carbon emissions to harm our world long after we knew we had to stop. We let the chaos of hatred, war, and bigotry seep into our societies and nations. Even in the intimacy of our homes and our relationships with our dearest people, we did not make the sacred circle our priority, and the floodwaters swept in, or the drought descended.
But the story suggests to us that it is not too late. The seals can be renewed. In fact, long ago when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur to purify the inner shrine, this was exactly the intention: to renew the protection that surrounded creation, to bring abundance and blessing back to the circle of life. We have a responsibility, both literally, to protect the boundaries of the earth and provide for the needs of its creatures so that creation can thrive, and emotionally and spiritually, to renew the seals around the sacred circle of our lives, to hold what matters at the center and to release what makes for chaos, violence, and alienation.
Perhaps this responsibility is one of the reasons our parashah mentions that the first thing the people must do as they enter the land is build an altar of unhewn stones and make an offering. They are to set up other stones at the boundary of the land with the words of Torah inscribed upon them. The people must pause before moving into the next stage of their existence and reflect on what matters most to them. The stones represent the setting of new sacred boundaries as situations and generations change. They are a sign of the groundedness, gratitude and wisdom that will guide the people in what is to come. We are heading into the season of the High Holy Days and of Sukkot, where we offer our gratitude for the blessings we have received, and pray for the health and well-being of the world.
Our ancestors understood these days as a profound moment to affect the fate of the cosmos—and it’s true. What we decide to do with the coming year will matter, to us and to everyone. I encourage us, as we participate in the rituals of these holy days, to see ourselves as renewers of the seals God has set on creation. We are healers of our planet, our community, and our most intimate circles of relationship. As we speak our words, blow our shofars, and wave our lulavs, I invite us to have the intention to heal boundaries that have been broken and complete the circles that have been cracked. I invite us to make a strong sacred space, in shul and out of it, to gently ask the obstacles to love to leave, and hold the love at the center. Shabbat shalom.
The Sukkah as Temple of the Four Elements
Imagine a sukkah on a windy rooftop, its ceiling a hodgepodge of juniper, magnolia, and rhododendron branches begged from a florist who was out of everything else, a ball of spices hanging at its center. Imagine an L-shaped sukkah by a pond, its walls a lattice open to the night air, occasionally invaded by buzzing honeybees. Imagine a sukkah with walls of wooden lath and two little windows, standing in East Harlem in a land of asphalt. Or imagine a small sukkah made of branches and broomsticks lashed together, barely covered by a few sprays of maple leaves. The full moon hangs over each sukkah. Drumming and dancing can be heard in the background. Some are doused in rain.
Sit in each of these little temples. Each one is a microcosm of the world. Each one speaks of the fragility of life, the temporary nature of home, and the abundance of the natural world. Each one is a shelter of Divine cloud, teaching that what is most protective is faith and joy. Sukkot is the moment when I feel most suffused with the intoxication of the bountiful earth. The soil under a sukkah seems to send up a mist of nourishment and music. According to Reb Shneur Zalman, the Alter Rebbe, it is the earth that holds the greatest trace of the original chesed, the primordial love, that God used to create the universe. On Sukkot, we come closest to the original burst of creation, the original spreading forth of the harvest of God’s self.
The Bobover Rebbe says the sukkah is the Shekhinah herself, a mother spreading her wings over her children. A midrash claims that the sukkah is the human-built representation of the cloud of glory, the presence of God that wafted over the tribes in the wilderness. A sukkah is fragile, but there is no more permanent place, for a sukkah is an embodiment of the earth itself.
One of my customs is to hang the sukkah with four decorations representing earth, water, air, and fire. For me, honoring the four elements is an important sacred practice of balance, and a way of honoring the multiple sacred components of the world. Hanging the sukkah with earth, air, water, and fire makes the sukkah a temple of four corners. Every time I enter it, I feel as if I am entering the heart of the world, where all opposites come together. Dancing and drumming in the sukkah becomes an act of infusing creation with movement and blessing.
Waving the lulav and etrog, that globe and scepter of the earth’s sovereignty, is another way of balancing the four elements. The etrog or citron is the round and abundant earth, the willow is the sweet, thirst-quenching water, the myrtle is the fragrant air, and the dry palm is the blazing up of fire. These four elements are then waved in the four directions, north, south, east, and west, which also represent the totality of creation. Finally, they are waved upward, toward the spiritual realm, downward, toward the deep mythic conscious of the earth, and toward the heart, to represent the human balance of these two. The lulav is the harvest offering to God, and it is also a reminder of all that we are.
The Zohar teaches that the four elements are the foundation of all things. This makes the mention of them particularly appropriate to Sukkot. Now that the world has been born at the new year, its foundation—on the anxiety of instability and nothingness, and on the certainty of God’s presence—must be established, and that is what Sukkot does. Sukkot is the building of the Temple that is the world. That is why its major religious artifact is a building: one open to the stars, which are signs of wonder at the mystery of our origin.
Blessed, indeed , is the One who commanded that we dwell in the Sukkah.
Ushpizot: Welcoming Women Guests into the Sukkah
One Sukkot custom which became popular in the Middle Ages was to invite “invisible” guests to the sukkah along with “visible” ones. Each night of Sukkot, a family would recite a prayer asking a biblical figure to come and visit with the people in the sukkah. The seven guests were chosen and arranged in a particular order because of mystical tradition: they were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. Each of these ancient personalities represented a particular spiritual blessing, personality trait, or aspect of God (sefirah) which the hosts wanted to bring into their sukkah. They also had kabbalistic significance. These figures were imagined to sit with the other guests and dine with them, bringing their unique qualities into the sacred space of the sukkah.
While it is Jewish forefathers who have been publically honored until very recently, Jewish women today are beginning to reclaim the qualities of their foremothers that they want to emulate. One way to celebrate this journey during Sukkot is to invite biblical women into the sukkah. While there are different traditions about which women to invite, one mystical tradition, recorded by a medieval kabbalist named Menachem Azariah, tells us that we should invite the seven prophetesses listed in the Talmud as our seven female guests on Sukkot. These women, rich and varied in their stories and characters , are Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Avigail, Huldah, and Esther. Each has a story within the Bible, and each has potential meaning for Jewish women who are searching for their foremothers. How can we be open to what these biblical guests have to offer?
Ma’yan, the Jewish Womens' Project, developed an ushpizot ritual (Aramaic for female guests) as a parallel to the earlier ushpizin ritual (Aramaic for male guests) which invoked Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and other forefathers. The ushpizot ritual is a way of welcoming our foremothers into our sukkah and asking what we can learn from them which will help us in our own lives.
The Seven Women
Sarah left her native land and traveled with Abraham to Canaan, enduring many hardships . God promised her that she would be the mother of a new nation, but she had difficulty conceiving, and gave her handmaid Hagar to her husband as a way of having a son. After Hagar gave birth to her son Ishmael, Sarah received a message from God that she too would bear a son. Sarah laughed at this prophecy, but it came true:she did finally give birth to Isaac, and named him “laughter.” Later, Sarah expelled Hagar and Ishmael from her household. Sarah’s voice is absent during the story which tells of how Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac— but rabbinic midrash tells us that Sarah died of shock when she learned what had almost happened to her only sonImportant pieces of Sarah’s story are told in Gen. 16:1-6 and Gen. 21:1-12. In one kabbalistic tradition, Sarah represents the sefirah of chesed, or lovingkindness. Her partner during the first night of Sukkot is Abraham.
Miriam first appears as the unnamed sister of Moses, who watches over him as he floats in a basket of reeds on the Nile. Miriam convinces the daughter of Pharaoh to adopt the baby and to find a Hebrew nursemaid for him. Later, during the Exodus, we see Miriam again, leading the Israelite women in song and dance as they celebrate the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. The Bible calls Miriam a prophetess, although we do not know what her prophecy was. Later, in the wilderness, Miriam challenges her brother’s authority and God afflicts her with a scaly skin disease and sends her out of the camp for seven days. When Miriam dies, the camp is left without water, thus prompting the rabbis to create midrash that a well of water followed Miriam through the desert and ceased at her death. In the book of the prophet Micah (6:4), Important pieces of Miriam’s story are told in Exodus 2:1-9, Exodus 15:20-21, and Numbers 12. Miriam is called one of the leaders of Israel. Miriam may be represented by the sefirah of gevurah, or strength . Her partner during the second night of Sukkot is Isaac.
Deborah is the only female judge in the book of Judges, and also one of the most successful judges of Israel. She plays an important role in the defeat of the Canaanites, Israel’s enemies. Deborah summons the warrior Barak and relays to him God’s command that he fight the enemy general Sisera and his army. Barak insists that Deborah go with him into battle, and together they defeat Sisera’s army. Sisera himself is killed by a woman, Yael, who tricks him into lying down inher tent. The story of Deborah closes with Deborah’s song of praise and victory, and with the statement that “the land was tranquil for forty years.” Deborah’s story is told in Judges 4-5. Deborah may be represented by the sefirah of tiferet, or beauty, harmony, and compassion. Her partner for the third night of Sukkot is Jacob.
Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, torments Hannah by teasing her because Peninnah has many children and Hannah has none. When the family goes to pray at Shiloh, which at that time is Israel’s sacred place, Hannah prays for a son, in her own spontaneous words, and promises that if she is granted a male child, she will dedicate him to service in the temple and . Although the high priest who observes her at first criticizes her, thinking she is drunk, he realizes his error and prays that Hannah’s desire will be fulfilled. God hears Hannah’s prayer; Hannah bears a son and names him Samuel. Samuel later becomes a prophet and judge of Israel. Hannah’s story ends with her psalm of thanksgiving and triumphAn important piece of Hannah’s story is told in I Sam. 1:9-19. . Hannah may be represented by the sefirah of netzach, or endurance and persistence. Her partner on the fourth night of Sukkot is Moses.
Avigail is the wife of Nabal, a wealthy landowner in the time of Saul and David. While David is a fugitive from Saul, he protects Nabal’s flocks, and asks Nabal to compensate him. Nabal refuses, saying: “Who is David? There are many slaves nowadays who run away from their masters…” David becomes angry and seeks to kill Nabal, but Avigail brings David gifts of food and drink and asks him to spare her husband, pointing out that it is better for God to punish Nabal than for David to soil his hands. David agrees and praises avigail for her wisdom. Not long afterward, Nabal dies, apparently of shock at his wife’s behavior, and David sends for Avigail and marries her. Avigail’s story is told in I Samuel 25. Avigail may be represented by the sefirah of hod, or splendor . Avigail’s partner on the fifth night of Sukkot is Aaron.
Huldah is a prophetess living in the time of the Davidic kings who validates a scroll which has been discovered in the Temple during the reign of King Josiah. It is not clear what exactly this scroll is, but it may be the book of Deuteronomy, or the entire Torah. After reading this scroll, Josiah becomes upset as he realizes he and the people have not been living the word of God. He sends his priest, his scribe, and his minister to Huldah to find out if the scroll is authentic. Huldah confirms that the scroll is the word of God. The Talmud suggests that King Josiah chose Huldah because as a woman she was likely to be more compassionate than other prophets. Huldah is the first person in Israelite tradition to canonize a sacred text. Huldah’s story is told in II Kings 22:1-20. Huldah may be represented by the sefirah of yesod, or foundation and connection. Her partner on the sixth night of Sukkot is Joseph.
Esther is a young Jewish woman living in the Persian empire. She is one of the young virgins chosen as possible replacements for Vashti, the banished wife of King Ahasuerus. After a long period of preparation, Esther is chosen as queen. She remains anonymous as a Jew until her cousin Mordechai, who raised her, asks her to save her people from the edict which has been decreed against them by the king. Haman, the king’s highest official, has convinced the king to pass a law which commands that the Jews be massacred on a single day. Esther is frightened at first, but then she speaks to the king, risking her own life, and pleads with him to spare the Jews. The king agrees, and hangs Haman on the gallows he had intended for Esther’s cousin Mordechai, Haman’s arch-enemy. Both Esther and Mordechai rise to high estate within the empire. The book of Esther does not mention the name of God, but it conveys a deep sense of unity among the Jewish people. Important pieces of Esther’s story are told in Esther 2:5-10 and Esther 4:10-17. Esther may represent the sefirah of malkhut, or sovereignty. Her partner on the seventh night of Sukkot is David.
Ritual and Blessing
Invite participants to stand in a circle for a formal ritual to welcome the ushpizot. The ritual can begin with a song or an invocation using the names of the ushpizot and of other women that participants want to welcome into the sukkah. Be specific and clear in what you ask people to contribute. If no one says anything at first, give some of your own thoughts or plant some participants within the group to speak first. Choose one or a few of the following options: ·
Invite participants to invoke the qualities and character traits of the ushpizot in addition to their names. For example, you could welcome peace, understanding, and appreciation of diversity into your sukkah. ·
Ask participants to call out names of ushpizot and other women who have been sources of shelter or protection for the Jewish community and/or individuals. ·
Ask participants to call out the names of groups or individuals who have been wanderers in search of a resting-place (i.e. the ushpizot, single mothers, Jews by choice, gays and lesbians). Offer them your sukkah and your community as a welcoming, restful home. ·
Ask participants to share who and what they want to welcome into their own lives during the coming year (rest, self-love, etc). ·
Recite the following ritual welcome, adapted from the traditional Aramaic blessing formally welcoming the guests to join the group in the sukkah. This can be spoken or chanted together:
Enter holy guests from on high; enter hallowed mothers of our people, sisters, wise women and prophets. Take your place with us under the protecting canopy of the Shechina, in this sukkah of peace. Enter Sarah, Miriam, Hannah, Devorah, Avigail, Huldah, and Esther.
Enter ______, ______, _______.... (INVITE PARTICIPANTS).
Enter all those whose names we don’t even know, because you have been lost to us. We are ready to fulfill the ancient words which call us still, "You shall dwell in booths seven days, all that are Israelite born shall dwell in booths, in order that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, (the land of Narrow Places)." As we welcome you today into our sukkah, may we soon welcome into our communities all women, who like you, have voices and visions and leadership much needed in our communities. Take your place, take your place, guests from on high. Take your place, take your place, hallowed guests. May we all join you in taking our own places and in making places for others under the protection of Shechina.
(Ushpizot blessing adapted from the original Aramaic for welcoming the ushpizin by Tamara Cohen)
Ways to Celebrate Sukkot in an Earth-Based Way
Hang the sukkah with objects representing earth, air, water, and fire makes the sukkah a temple of four corners.
Burn four tea candles in the north area of the sukkah, or decorate with four fire symbols in the north, to remember the four torches that burned in the temple and bring in the element of fire from the north. -
Have an opening in the sukkah such as an entrance or window in the south to represent the water gate of the temple where the high priest would enter with the water libation, thus welcoming the new rain. -
Hang symbols in the sukkah such as colorful cups that symbolize water to draw down blessings and Shekhinah from above. -
Place a table in the center of the sukkah where a pitcher of clean drinking water sits on a stone for guests to enjoy. -
Have unprocessed foods from the bounty of the earth freely available for eating, to honor the fruits of earth. Eating in the sukkah is a special mitzvah. -
Hang gourds from the earth to physically and symbolically honor the earths greater spiritual significance during Sukkot. -
The Kabbalists say we are visited in the sukkah by supernal “ushpizin” or guests such as Abraham, Isaac, etc. In the spirit of this tradition and to draw the heavens down to earth, invite departed loved ones or special biblical ancestors you connect with to bring the spiritual world closer to earth. -
Invite “ushpizin,” guests of friends and family to eat, drink, and dwell in the sukkah. -
Sing songs, especially “Mayim mayim”. If you feel called to dance in a circle, dancing at night in a moon-wise direction (counter-clockwise) is something I personally like to encourage. -
Play fun musical instruments as they did in the evenings during the celebration of the water drawing (except on Yom Tov and Shabbat). -
Burn incense to remember the smoke of the burnt offerings for atonement of Israel and the nations. -
Have special meditations and prayers related to healings/tikkun for ourselves, Israel, and the world.
Say a special prayer for the earth each day in the sukkah, and wave your lulav. Post the prayer on the wall so others can see it.
Water Libation: Rejoicing in the Water-Drawing
“How was the libation done? They would draw water from the Shiloach spring and bring it up the fifteen steps and to the altar. The altar had two bowls on it, one for water and one for wine. As the priest poured the water libation onto the altar, the people would call: “Lift up your hand!” [so they could see the water hitting the altar bowl)…. The pits below the altar were there from the beginning of creation…” Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah
The ancient ritual of Sukkot culminated in the water libation, a joyful cleansing of the central altar of the Temple. During this ritual, known as Simchat Beit haShoevah or Rejoicing in the Water-Drawing, the pilgrims in Jerusalem would dance, sing, and juggle torches all night while the priests slowly descended the steps of the Temple. At dawn, a procession would leave from the Temple gates to go down to the sacred spring of Shiloach and draw water. The priests would pour the water into a golden vessel and carry it back up the hill to the Temple, where it would be poured into the water bowl on the altar. This ritual cleansed the altar and joyfully invited the rains to begin.
The water would eventually trickle off the altar and run into pits beneath it. These pits contained the runoff of water and wine that occurred during the Temple ritual and were cleaned out every so many years by priests. Jewish legend holds that these pits were present since the making of the world. What was so special about the pits beneath the altar? One midrash says that the body of Adam was taken from the earth where the Temple would one day be built. So we might think of the pits below the altar as the place where Adam’s earth once lay. In this understanding, the water libation is a gift to the earth from which human beings came. The water-pouring ritual reminds us of our origin in the earth and our responsibility to care for the ground.
Another midrash says that when the Holy One began to create the world, the Holy One started with an foundation stone, a kind of navel, from which God spread out the world in the four directions. This foundation stone lay underneath the Temple mount. In this midrash, God is like the womb within which the fetus grows. The Temple is like the umbilical cord, the placenta that connects us to the Divine.
In the water ritual, priests took water from sacred springs beneath the earth and pour them on the altar, allowing them to trickle back through ancient pits to the sacred springs. This ritual reminded them that they were still connected to the Divine through the “placenta” of the altar and the Temple. Water, the symbol of life and love, flowed between the ancient, sacred power and the human realm.
This Sukkot, take a moment to meditate on where your water comes from (rain, well, river, spring) and where it goes: into the sea, or into the river, or into the earth. Imagine yourself as a drop traveling from sky to sea and back again. As you wave the lulav, imagine yourself tracing that journey. After all, you are mostly water. The water in you has been here since the creation of the world. You are part of the water libation.
You can also make the water libation part of your Sukkot ceremony. Collect rain water and/or river/lake/stream water, from one or more places, and pass it around a circle of friends, offering blessings for the world's waters. Pour the collected water out on the earth as an offering.
Download and read these Kohenet Cards.
Hakafot: Circles on Sukkot & Simchat Torah
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. On the sixth day of Sukkot (also called Hoshanah Rabbah, or “great praise”) the custom is to process in seven consecutive 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. During these circles, the liturgy declares again and again: “Hosha na! Save us!” The prayers ask for rescue from drought, from flood, from famine, and other dangers.
At the end of the seven Hoshanah Rabbah circlings, willows are beaten on the ground. This ritual is usually understood as a way of getting rid of sin, but perhaps also the willow-beating is a symbolic dousing for water. The circle processions are all connected to prayers for rain.
riginally, the Temple altar would have been at the center of this ritual. Nowadays a Torah is placed in the center. Or perhaps it is the earth itself, or the invisible Presence, that is at the center. What do 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?
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).
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.
Creative Hoshanot for Circling on Sukkot
(Hosha na means "Save us")
Hoshana, hoshana, hoshana, hoshana
Hosha na, the earth and all it holds, hosha na
Hosha na, the waters of the sea, hosha na
Hosha na, the soil that is home to life hosha na
Hosha na the chuppah of the sky hosha na
Hoshana, hoshana, hoshana, hoshana
Hosha na, the fire of the sun, hoshana
Hosha na, the pillars of the trees, hoshana
Hosha na, the gift of the grain, hoshana
Hoshana, the temple of the stones, hoshana
Hoshana hoshana hoshana hoshana
Hoshana, the creatures of the woods and fields , hoshana
Hoshana, the creatures of the sea, hoshana
Hoshana, the creatures of the sky, hoshana,
Hoshana, the people of all continents, hoshana.
Hoshana, hoshana, hoshana, hoshana.
Hoshana, sustain the world, hosha na
Hoshana, heal our holy planet hosha na
Hoshana, nurture the tree of life, hoshana
Hoshana, give us hope for the future, hoshana.
Dream Journey for Simchat Torah
We celebrate Simchat Torah, the rejoicing in the Torah, at the very end of the harvest festival season, after the prayers and dances for rain. We read the very end of the Torah, the death of Moses and then its beginning: creation, and the inception of life. Simchat Torah is the Jewish representation of the turning of the circle of life: death turns to birth, ending turns to beginning, and the story starts over. We dance with the Torah, a symbol of the Shekhinah, to honor the teachings of the Divine in our lives. Everyone gets an aliyah to the Torah, even children, to show we are all connected to the cycle and to the story. The night and morning of Simchat Torah are a time when the sacred dreaming of the Jewish people is renewed. So it is a good time for us to engage in sacred dreaming of our own.
Simchat Torah brings with it two ancestor-stories. The first is of Deborah, the matriarch Rebekah’s nurse. The Torah records the name of Rebekah’s nurse and mentions her death and burial shortly after Jacob’s return to Canaan from the house of Rebekah’s brother Laban, even though Rebekah’s death is never mentioned. Why is Deborah’s death important?
The Book of Jubilees, a very ancient Jewish collection of legends, suggests that Deborah died on Simchat Torah. She is buried under a tree, Alon Bakoot, the Oak of Weeping. In the Book of Jubilees, she is also buried near a river, the River of Deborah, which can mean the River of Speech. Deborah may be a symbol of the renewal of the cycle of life and the cycle of Torah. Her tree represents the weeping Torah that mourns the death of Moses. Her river represents the rivers flowing from Eden, the four rivers of creation—and also the flowing waters of Torah. Deborah’s name means “the word” or “speaker.” She dies at night, just as the Torah is renewed overnight on Simchat Torah. That Deborah is the nurse of Rebekah means she is the nurse of the covenant and of the Jewish people. Deborah is a shamanic figure: her life is one with the circle of life and the circle of Torah.
The second Simchat Torah patron is Solomon, king of Israel. When Solomon is crowned king, he needs advice from the Divine. Solomon journeys to a sacred place in order to dream. In his dream, the Holy One asks him what spiritual gift he wants to receive. Instead of asking for riches or long life or power, Solomon asks for wisdom. The Divine is so pleased with this request that Solomon receives not only wisdom, but wealth, long life, and magical power. He is able understand the languages of birds and animals, and he has the power to summon and command demons. In short, the Holy One makes Solomon into a shaman. Solomon makes a feast to celebrate his new wisdom, and the midrash says this feast is the first Simchat Torah.
Solomon’s feast teaches us that this holiday is also a celebration of our spiritual power to interpret and understand language itself. We are taught that Solomon’s dream “becomes real.” So too, we hope our own shamanic dreams will become real: that we will be able to accurately interpret the signs the world gives us though nature and spirit. Simchat Torah is also a rejoicing in our own deep wisdom. The Zohar teaches that when we sleep, we all go to the same place of spiritual enlightenment: the garden of Eden, or the orchard of souls.
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches the Chasidic tradition of the dream assembly: the moment in sleep where we are able to contact those others who are part of our spiritual journey. This journey will be a dream assembly where we each attempt to touch the soul of the Jewish people, and connect with one another, through our dreams. With Solomon and Deborah as our guides, we will seek to renew our own Torah through a dream assembly.
Sacred Texts to Consider
“In the night, on the twenty-third of Tishrei, Deborah Rebecca's nurse died, and they buried her… under the oak of the river, and he called the name of the place, “The river of Deborah,” and the oak, “The oak of the mourning of Deborah.” Jubilees 32:25-30
Said Solomon to himself: If I ask for silver and gold, precious stones, and pearls, the Divine will give them to me. But what I will do is to ask for wisdom, and that will include everything….The Holy One said to him:…”Wisdom and knowledge are granted to you, and through them I will give you wealth.” Solomon awoke and behold, it was a dream….Rabbi Isaac said; the dream became real. If a donkey brayed, Solomon knew what it meant. If a bird chirped, he knew what it meant. Immediately he went to Jerusalem and stood before the Ark of the Divine Covenant and offered sacrifices and peace-offerings and made a feast for all his servants. Rabbi Eliezer said: from this we learn that a feast is made to celebrate the conclusion of the Torah. Song of Songs Rabbah 1:9
This journey is to be undertaken on the night after Simchat Torah, when the death of Moses and the creation story have been read.
1. Sometime before you lie down to sleep, recite the following: “Grant that we lie down in peace, Eternal, (hashkiveinu adonai eloheinu leshalom) and assist us with your good counsel, vetakneinu b’eitzah tivah milfanecha, and guard our going outward and our coming in again. ushmor tzeiteinu uvo’einu me’ata ve’ad olam (part of the evening prayer, based on Reb Zalman’s teaching) (If you are accustomed to recite the evening prayer, you can recite the whole prayer, emphasizing these words when you come to them.)
2. On the morning after Simchat Torah, try to remember what you dreamed, and/or what you were thinking of when you awoke. Write it down if you are able. Ask yourself: Do any of the characters in my dream (or my waking thoughts) represent Solomon or Deborah? Do any of them represent the Torah? Does my dream offer me any knowledge or vision? How does my dream relate to the larger cycles of my life? If you didn’t have a dream, this is not a problem. Move to step 3 and see what happens.
3. Write a letter to Solomon, Deborah, or your shamanic guide. See what ideas and images come to mind. You can also draw images or write a song or poem, or create a ritual or prayer. Be free with your creative spirit. Think of images from the stories: Deborah’s tree or river, Solomon’s encounter with birds or his feast of wisdom. Perhaps this post-Simchat Torah feast of wisdom will bring you a new idea or direction.
4. Share something about your dream, journaling, or creative work with a friend, or post it here.