- Sukkot is the festival.
Seriously. Even the Bible and the Talmud say so. In the Bible
it is referred to as simply chag—"the festival" (Lev. 23:39, 41; 1 Ki. 8:2, 12:32); since the
holiday was so important, Solomon chose it as the occasion to celebrate the consecration of the Temple; and
according to Deuteronomy, the public reading of the Torah was to take place every seven years on
Sukkot (31:10–13). Sukkot was the first sacred occasion observed after the resumption of sacrifices
in Jerusalem after the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity (Ezra 3:2-4). A measure of the importance
of a holiday is the number of sacrifices specified for the occasion. By this measure, Sukkot is unmatched;
Numbers 29:12–39 deals exclusively with all the sacrifices that are to be offered during the holiday:
no less than 70 bullocks are required along with numerous other sacrifices. Zechariah wrote that in messianic
times, all of the world's nations will come to Jerusalem on Sukkot to celebrate the holiday (14:16).
Sukkot has other names besides Chag and Chag ha-Sukkot: it's also referred to
as chag ha-asif, "festival of the ingathering" (Ex. 23:16), chag Adonai, "festival
of the Lord" (Lev. 23:39; Judg. 21:19), chag ba-chodesh hashvei'e, "festival of the seventh
month" (Ezek. 45:25; Neh. 8:14) and zeman simchateinu, "season of our rejoicing" (Deut. 16:14).
- Agricultural origins of the festival.
The foundations of the civilizations of the ancient middle east started with nomadic tribal
communities, but as agriculture became more widespread, many nomadic groups settled into
fixed areas to practice crop farming. The harvest seasons were times of great activity, and the
completion of the harvest was a time of celebration. The fall holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom
Kippur, and Sukkot likely have their origin in the fall harvest, and may even have originally been
derived from a single holiday. The Bible mentions a festival celebrated by the Canaanites who
observed a joyous feast in the fall at the end of the grape harvest (Judg. 9:27). During the harvest,
the entire community would stay out in the fields until all the crops were in, living in temporary
shelters very similar to the sukkot used during the Sukkot festival.
That Sukkot was originally a harvest festival is evident in one of its names, “Feast of Ingathering,”
and from the Torah’s descriptions, “At the end of the year when you gather in your labors out of the
field” (Ex. 23:16) and “...after you have gathered in from your threshing-floor and from your
winepress” (Deut. 16:13). Isaiah mentions that grape harvesters lived in booths in their vineyards
during the harvest (Isa. 1:8). Pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem during the harvest festivals also
likely lived in booths during their stay for the festival—the ancient version of a trailer park.
Harvest festivals were a major part of the community’s culture, even more so in pagan societies,
where the festivals celebrated the fertility aspects of their gods. The Temple priests were
extremely anxious to completely separate the festival harvest celebration from its pagan origins,
so Sukkot became transformed from a solely agricultural celebration to a commemoration of the
Israelites’ 40-year journey through the wilderness to reach Israel. Thus we find this instruction in
the Torah: “You shall dwell in sukkot seven days ... so that your generations shall know that I
caused the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt”
(Lev. 23:42–43). However, contrast this with the many statements elsewhere in the Torah which
relate that while in the wilderness, the Israelites dwelt in tents (see, for example, Ex. 16:16, 33:8,
10; Num. 11:10, 16:27, 24:5; Deut. 1:27, 5:27).
So did they live in sukkot or tents? Actually, this was the
subject of a rabbinic debate, recorded in Sifra, the halakhic midrash on Leviticus;
various versions of this debate are found in other rabbinic writings.
R. Eliezer says: They were real sukkot.
R. Akiba says: The sukkot were the clouds of glory (Sifra Emor 17:11 [103a-b]).
How was R. Akiba’s opinion accepted? It was apparently quite convincing,
because it became accepted as the majority rabbinic interpretation and is found in the targums (the
Aramaic translations of the Torah) and in many later writings. Why would this happen? It all boils down
to whether “dwelling in sukkot” is to be a re-enactment or a commemoration of the exodus. R.
Eliezer supported the former while R. Akiba argued for the latter. Akiba’s argument is
that sukkot are not built in the desert; they are built in agricultural fields for the protection
of the workers and their animals. They’re constructed of the sort of materials one would
expect to find in an agricultural setting—tree branches, wood, straw, etc. Such materials
are not found in the desert.
Akiba also sees the statement that God “caused the children of
Israel to dwell in sukkot”
did not mean that “the Israelites built sukkot and dwelled in them.” And if God provided
the sukkot, then they likely were not material structures but metaphorical shelters. If these
“booths” were just simple structures made of ordinary materials, why make them into a
religious institution? For the answer, let’s look at how the word sukkah is used elsewhere
in the Tanakh.
And God will create over all Mount Zion ... a cloud ...
(which) shall serve as a sukkah for shade from heat by day and for shelter and protection
against storm and rain (Isa. 4:5–6).
He made darkness His screen; dark thunder-heads, dense
clouds of the sky were His sukkah round about him (Ps. 18:11–12).
Can one, indeed, contemplate the expanse of clouds,
the thunderings from His sukkah? (Job 36:29)
Akiba was aware of the Tanakh’s association between “cloud”
and “sukkah,” and also
that while the exodus narrative never mentions sukkot, it is replete with references to
clouds—the pillar of cloud that guided the Israelites in the desert; the cloud from which
God speaks to Moses; the cloud above the tent of meeting where God appears—there are
many references to these clouds in the last four books of the Torah. And where does the
pillar of cloud first appear to the Israelites? It’s at a place called—Sukkot!
And they journeyed from Sukkot and they camped at Ethom,
in the edge of the wilderness and the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them
in their way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give light to them.... (Ex. 13:20–21)
Akiba’s interpretation is based upon viewing the sukkot of Leviticus
23 as the metaphorical shelter of God’s sukkah, the sheltering cloud that accompanied the Israelites
during their trek. So the commandment to “dwell in sukkot” during the holiday is not a
physical re-enactment of the Israelites’ desert travels but a commemoration of that period.
When did the custom of dwelling in sukkot as a matter of ritual law begin to be observed? Unlike
most other such rituals, we actually might be able to date when the law of dwelling in sukkot
began. After the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews returned to Jerusalem, they celebrated
Sukkot by making and dwelling in sukkot. Nehemiah reported of this practice, “the Israelites had
not done so from the days of Joshua” (Neh. 8:17). Since the book of Joshua is silent on the
matter of dwelling in sukkot, we can safely assume that this mitzvah had its origins during the
return from exile.
- Sukkot is really two holidays that are celebrated concurrently.
Startling, right? Actually, if you carefully read Exodus 23:16 and then Leviticus 23:43 and note
the names of the holiday, you'll notice that it's referred to as chag ha-asif, a "feast of
ingathering" in Exodus and chag ha-sukkot, a "feast of booths" in Leviticus. Leviticus goes on
to state that the holiday is to be celebrated for seven days, provides for an atzeret, a day
of assembly on the eighth day, and then specifies certain sacrificial procedures. But this doesn't
end the discussion of the topic. With verse 39, the text goes on to call for a chag Adonai, a "feast
of the Lord," and seemingly repeats much of verses 34 to 38. There appear to be two different holidays
being described: an agricultural festival, asif, celebrated using the four species (Lev. 23:40),
and a historical commemoration, sukkot, celebrated by living in booths (Lev. 23:42). The duplication,
and the restatement of the festivals' dates, serve to emphasize that the historical commemoration does not
replace or supercede the agricultural celebration, but actually coexists with it, giving the festival
a new additional purpose. Actually, this might be one of the major reasons for the importance of this
festival—it really celebrated two holidays.
Another reason for its importance could be related to the time of the year of its celebration.
Apparently everyone came to Jerusalem on Sukkot to celebrate; this was, after all, one of the Shalosh
Regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals. The other two are Pesach and Shavuot, but during the seasons
when these are observed, farmers were still quite busy working their land; it would have been
very difficult to spare the time to travel to Jerusalem in the spring or early summer. But in the fall,
after the fall harvest, there would have been plenty of time to get away for Sukkot to celebrate, and they
did indeed celebrate.
- In addition to its religious significance, Sukkot has historical and ethical components.
Of course the story of the exodus, the 40-year sojourn in the wilderness, and the use of sukkot for
shelter while in the desert is probably closer to a national mythology than an actual history. But
an association of Sukkot with actual historical events is suggested in the Bible: the dedication of
both of the Temples is said to have taken place during the Sukkot holiday. The historical
association of Sukkot with the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees after their recapture
of Jerusalem is well documented.
The ethical components of Sukkot have to do with the holiday’s theme of food and shelter. The
temporary shelter of the sukkah is a reminder to us of the homeless, and the plentifulness of the
harvest season reminds us of those who are hungry. The flimsiness of the sukkah also reminds us
of the fragility of the earth’s ecosystem and the need to protect our environment. And the
commemoration of the Israelites’ travels through the desert reminds us of the world’s refugees
who are fleeing danger to seek safety in remote lands. Sukkot also has a custom of inviting guests
into the sukkah; the guests are ideally those who are unable to fulfill the mitzvah of living
in the sukkah. We traditionally invite into our sukkot special guests, ushpizim—“guests” in
Aramaic—the leading biblical figures in Jewish development. More on Sukkot guests later.
- The mitzvot of Sukkot.
There are three mitzvot specifically associated with Sukkot: dwelling in the sukkah, taking
up the four species, and rejoicing in the holiday. Of these mitzvot, the first is totally unique and
stands out among all of the 613 mitzvot: “you shall dwell in sukkot seven days...” (Lev. 23:42).
This is a unique mitzvah because nothing more is required of the person than just being in a place. To
fulfill the mitzvah, one simply enters the sukkah and remains, living in the space as if it were
one’s home. You really don’t need to do anything else. For the seven days of the holiday, one is
totally surrounded by the mitzvah.
This idea was expressed in a discussion involving two nineteenth-century Chassidic rabbis,
Rabbi Yitzchak Kalish of Vorki, the Vorker Rebbe, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern
of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe. The Vorker observed to the Kotzker that he preferred the mitzvah
of dwelling in the sukkah to that of the four species, because when he puts down the four species,
he no longer holds their sanctity, whereas in the sukkah, the sanctity holds him and surrounds him.
The rabbis had no guidance from the Torah about how to build a kosher sukkah, so matters of
height, area, construction, placement, and even what actually constituted "living in a sukkah"
had to be debated and codified. An example of the result of one such debate may be found in a
mishnah that relates how one such law was determined.
If a man’s head and the greater part of his body were
within the sukkah and his table of
food were within the house, [this outside of the sukkah] Beit Shammai declared such a
meal on Sukkot to be invalid and Beit Hillel declared it valid.... Beit Hillel said to Beit
Shammai: “Was there not an incident wherein the elders of Beit Shammai and elders of
Beit Hillel went to visit R. Yochanan the son of the Hurani, and they found him sitting
with his head and the greater part of his body in a sukkah, and the table of food inside the
house, and they did not make any comment about it. Did this not imply that the Academy
of Shammai had acquiesced in this case to the Academy of Hillel?” Beit Shammai said to
them: “Here [specifically] is the proof [to our position].” In actuality the elders of Beit
Shammai did say to R. Yochanan, “If it is in such a way that you always perform [the
mitzvah of sukkah], then you never [successfully] performed the commandment in your
life-time” (b. Sukkah 2:7)
Thus Beit Shammai claimed that both the table of food and the person making the meal both
must be inside the sukkah. From this mishnah we see that this was one of the (rare)
cases where Beit Shammai prevailed over Beit Hillel!
What constitutes a valid sukkah? The rabbis eventually came up with these rules:
- a sukkah must be a temporary structure, but must be able to remain standing during the
festival and be able to withstand normal gusts of wind.
- it must have at least three walls, two of which must be complete
- it may be free-standing, or may include up to two sides of an adjacent building as its walls
- the walls may be made of any material that will not blow away in the wind
- it must be built under an open sky, not in a building or under a tree
- the roof covering, s’khakh, must be of plant material in its natural state that is no longer
connected to the ground (i.e., no vines, grape arbors, etc.)
- the s’khakh must provide more shade inside the sukkah than it allows sunshine
during the day, but stars should be visible through it at night
- there is no maximum size for a sukkah, but the structure must be taller than about 30
inches and the floor area must be greater than approximately two feet square
- there is a maximum height, about 30 feet from the floor to the s’khakh—because one must
be able to see the s'khakh, and if the walls were too high, any shade would come from the
walls rather than the s'khakh.
“Dwelling in a sukkah,” according to halakhah, means to live there in the same way as one lives
in his home during the rest of the year. According to the Shulchan Aruch, one must eat every
regular meal and sleep in the sukkah for all the days of the festival (Orach Chaim 639:2). It was
recognized that not everyone would be able to fully comply with the mitzvah to dwell in the
sukkah for the seven-day festival, so halakhah specified that the absolute minimum number of
meals that a person is obligated to eat in a sukkah is one, on the first night of the holiday (and, in
the diaspora, a second meal on the second night). During the rest of the festival, one may eat
“snacks” that are not required to be eaten in a sukkah (Orach Chaim 639:3). However, if living in
the sukkah causes discomfort, perhaps as a result of rain or cold weather, one is exempt from the
mitzvah—again, because one dwells in the sukkah in the same way as one lives in his home, and
if living in the home caused significant discomfort, one would not necessarily stay (b. Sukkot
26a). This is the only instance where a mitzvah may be set aside for issues of comfort, and is
done because if the person is uncomfortable and miserable, he loses his presence of mind and
will not be able to appreciate the joy of the mitzvah. The Shulchan Aruch states this quite
plainly, “One who is exempt from remaining in the sukkah and does not leave is called an ignoramus,
will obtain no reward for staying there, and is not permitted to say the benediction.”
Besides the mitzvah of the four species, covered next, the third holiday mitzvah is that of
rejoicing in the holiday. No other holiday mentioned in the Tanakh has as many references to its
celebration with joyfulness as Sukkot; in fact, it is referred to as zeman simchateinu,
“season of our rejoicing” in Deuteronomy 16:14.
For an amusing summary of the laws of the
sukkah, click here.
- The Arba’ah Minim, the “Four Species.”
The four species are also known as the “lulav and etrog,” but the lulav is actually a
composite object that consists of three different plants. The lulav itself is a branch or frond from a
date palm. It is placed into a woven-reed holder that contains branches from two other plants, three
branches from the hadas (myrtle) tree and two branches from the aravah (willow) tree. Where do
we find the commandment for the four species?
On the first day you shall take the pri etz hadar
(fruit of beautiful trees), branches of palm trees, boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and
shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days (Lev. 23:40).
From this description, we can identify two of the four species—the palm and willow. Where did the
other two come from? The source, apparently, was oral tradition, since the use of the four species was
known to be ancient even from the perspective of Talmudic times. The custom of using the four species was
commented on by Nehemiah, where he reported that the people “go out to the mountains and bring branches
of olive, and branches of wild olive, and branches of myrtle, and palm branches, and branches of
thick trees to make booths” (Neh. 8:14–15). Nehemiah considers the myrtle and "thick trees" to be
different; this is noted in the Talmud with the explanation that these represent different species
of myrtle and what Nehemiah calls "myrtle" is really a "wild myrtle," and not the kind used in the
four species. The Talmud, in Sukkot 23b, identifies “thick trees” as the hadas tree,
based on a characteristic of its leaf growth.
Identifying the last of the four was done very creatively. What is an etz hadar, a
beautiful/pleasant/goodly tree? One sage held that it meant that “the fruit and the tree on which it grows
are equally pleasant. What fruit tastes like the tree? It is the etrog” (Sukkot 35a).
Since they already knew that the fourth species was the etrog, or citron, they didn't spend
much additional time trying to make the biblical description fit the etrog. Nachmonides, in
discussing the etrog in his Torah commentary, points this out and says that the talmudic
commentary merely confirms what was already known. He goes on to mention that the word etrog is
Aramaic and is a literal translation of the Hebrew word hadar, both meaning “pleasant”
(Commentary on Vayikra 23:40).
Why were the four species chosen to be used in rituals during the Sukkot holiday? They certainly
aren't examples of anything harvested, except possibly the etrog, but the etrogs of early
biblical times had heavy rinds and little pulp. The reason isn't known, but one commentator points to the
relationship of Sukkot to rain and water, and as both the myrtle and willow are associated with brooks,
and the date palm with plentiful harvests (the "honey" in the phrase "land of milk and honey" was date
honey), the two tree branches could have been symbolic of plentiful water. The willow itself
is particularly representative of water. Willows are found in areas of plentiful water; they need
large quantities of water to grow. However, they are useless plants, they consume large quantities
of water to support their growth, but have no fruit nor other useful product. The willow thus can be
viewed as a symbol for an over-abundance of water. So the inclusion of the willow in the four species
speaks to a desire for the blessing for plentiful water. How the etrog fits in is a mystery.
Perhaps worshipers simply needed a hardy fruit that could stand repeated handling over the seven-day
holiday; the etrog is capable of withstanding some pretty rough handling, and will last the
entire holiday period without spoiling. Although we don't know the rationale for the original choice
of the four species, there's ample information about the symbolic and homiletic meanings attached to
them by later rabbinic commentators.
- The etrog is shaped like the heart, representing the hope for divine forgiveness for the
impure desires of the heart.
- The lulav is like a person’s backbone, a reminder of the ideal posture for prayer, standing
erect before God.
- The leaves of the hadas are shaped like an eye, recalling that one must resist the
temptations one sees daily and expressing the desire for divine forgiveness for envy and
- The leaves of the aravah are shaped like lips, reminding one to use restraint in speech so
as not to engage in idle talk and falsehoods.
The four species are said to represent different kinds of people.
- The etrog has both aroma and taste, and is likened to a person who is knowledgeable in
the law and performs good deeds.
- The lulav has no aroma but does have taste, represents one who is versed in scholarship
but seldom performs good deeds.
- The hadas has aroma but no taste, symbolizes a person who has little Torah knowledge
but performs good deeds.
- The aravah has neither taste nor aroma, and represents one who lacks both knowledge
and good deeds. (Lev. Rabbah 30:12)
The etrog is the subject of many midrashim. One midrash even claims that the
fruit that Eve offered Adam to eat in the Garden of Eden was the etrog:
What is that tree whence Adam and Eve ate? Aba of Acre
says: “Go forth, then, and see what tree it is that we may eat its woody stalk as its fruit, and you
will find none other than the etrog.” (Gen. Rabbah 15:7)
According to halakhah, each worshiper must use his or her own lulav and etrog
set, based upon an interpretation of the verse in Leviticus. Using a borrowed set is not strictly valid,
but a person may make a “gift” of their set to another person to use, and this satisfies the requirement
for using one’s own set. However, since children cannot legally transfer ownership to others, they
should be given the set to use after the last adult.
- Customs and rituals of the Sukkot holiday period.
Of course the most well known are the ones concerning the sukkah and the four species, but
there are a number of other customs whose origin and purpose might be more obscure.
Hosha’not. During the morning service on each day of Sukkot,
prayers that begin with the words hosha na, “save us,” are recited, which is the source of the
name of this ritual. This supplication derives from Psalm 118:25 (Ana, Adonay, hoshi’a na ...,
“We beseech you, O Lord, save us ...”), which is also recited, along with special verses for each day of
Sukkot, as worshipers make one hakafah, "circuit," of the sanctuary carrying their lulavim
and etrogim while a sefer Torah is held at the bimah. This ceremony recalls the
procession conducted in the Temple, where the altar was circled. In the synagogue, the Torah replaces
the altar. There was no procession in the Temple on Shabbat, and the lulav and etrog
are not carried on Shabbat, so while the verses are recited on Shabbat, there is no procession in the
Megillat Kohelet. On the Shabbat that occurs during Sukkot, one of the five megillot
(scrolls) of Ketuvim (the last section of the Tanakh), Megillat Kohelet, is read in
the service. Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes, discusses the place of humankind in the universe
and the ultimate meaning of existence. This book was chosen because its themes complement the nature
of the sukkah: as the physical world can be transitory and fleeting, so is the sukkah;
and the purpose of life is enhanced through the love of God and by observing the mitzvot, and
one demonstrates this commitment by observing the mitzvah of the sukkah.
Water Libation Ceremony. During Temple times, every morning during the festival (except
Shabbat) was marked by a unique ceremony called the Nisukh haMayim (literally, “pouring of
the water”), the “Water Libation Ceremony.” In discussing this ceremony, the Talmud points out
that Sukkot was the time of the year that God judges the world for rainfall, so this ceremony was
intended to invoke God’s blessing for rain during the winter season. The source for the water
used in the ceremony was the Pool of Siloam, near the Temple, and is the likely origin of the
verse in Isaiah, “And you shall draw waters with joy from the wells of salvation” (Isa. 12:3).
On the evenings preceding the Water Libation Ceremony, thousands would gather at the Temple
for the celebration called the Simchat Beit haSho’eivah (Rejoicing at the Place of
Water-Drawing), where worshipers would dance with torches and sing songs of praise and thanksgiving
to God, while being accompanied by the musical instruments played by the Levites. The
festivities frequently lasted all night, culminating with the escorting of the priests to the Pool of
Siloam to draw the water for that morning’s ceremony. According to the Mishnah, “He who has
not seen the rejoicing at the Place of Water-Drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life” (b.
These ceremonies are commemorated by a modern celebration held in some communities. The
Simchat Beit haSho’eivah is now observed in events combining music, dancing, and
refreshments served in the sukkah. The festivities usually begin late in the evening and can last
long into the night.
Welcoming guests. In a tradition established by the kabbalists in the 16th century that was
based on the Zohar, during each day of the holiday, Jews invite seven symbolic guests (known as
ushpizin in Aramaic) to celebrate the festival with them in the sukkah. The traditional
ushpizin are the “Seven Shepherds of Israel,” Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and
David. According to tradition, on each night of the festival a different spiritual guest enters the
sukkah first, followed by the remaining six. Festival prayerbooks contain the special prayers
that are used for welcoming them to the sukkah; in their traditional order of entry. Each of the
ushpizin represents a unique perspective on Jewish observance; for example, Abraham represents the
mitzvah of hakhnasat orekhim, hospitality to guests. Sephardim often set aside a special
chair in the sukkah laden with holy books for the ushpizin.
- How many holidays does Sukkot really consist of, anyway?
Hoshanah Rabbah. Ask a simple question, get a complicated answer. In biblical times, Sukkot
was celebrated for seven days, and the seventh day was marked by a unique ceremony involving
hosha’not with the four species and bunches of willow branches. This day became known as
Hoshanah Rabbah, “the Great Supplication,” because instead of one single hakafah, or circuit,
worshipers make seven hakafot of the sanctuary with their lulavim and etrogim,
and then a bundle of five aravah branches is taken and beaten against the ground, accompanied
by a series of liturgical verses. This recalls the aravah ceremony of the Temple in Jerusalem,
when the altar was heaped with willow branches in a symbolic prayer for plentiful rain, and worshipers
paraded around the altar reciting the hosha’not verses. Beating of the willow branches stripped
the leaves from the branches, another representation of a ritual intercession for rain. Since this day
was the close of the entire festival period that began with Rosh Hashanah, this day was the absolutely
final opportunity to ask God for forgiveness, and, indeed, tradition says that God doesn’t close the
Book of Life until Hoshanah Rabbah. Performing this ceremony was considered to be so important that
when the calendar calculation rules were finally codified in the fourth century CE, a rule was
established that Hoshanah Rabbah could never fall on a Shabbat (since the prohibition against
carrying would apply).
Shemini Atzeret. Sukkot ends after seven days. But the Torah added an additional holiday at the
end of the Sukkot festival, Shemini Atzeret, meaning “eighth day of assembly.” This holiday is
actually not part of Sukkot itself, and the lulav and sukkah are not used, but since in the
diaspora the celebration of Sukkot is lengthened to eight days, Shemini Atzeret became incorporated into
Sukkot, and some communities in the diaspora have the custom to continue to eat in the sukkah
on Shemini Atzeret. Actually, the holiday overlap occurs on the first day of Shemini Atzeret,
since in the diaspora this holiday is also lengthened by one day. The source for the holiday is
found in the verse, “On the eighth day you shall hold an assembly; you shall not work at your
occupations” (Num. 29:35). One special prayer that is added to the liturgy on this holiday is
tefilat geshem, the prayer for rain, since this holiday marked the end of the fall growing season,
and rain during the winter months was essential to assure good crop yields in the next harvests.
It’s likely that the prayer for rain wasn’t added to the ceremonies until after Sukkot was over
because no one wanted to sit in a sukkah in the rain!
There is another holiday in the holiday cycle that is called “Atzeret”: this name is used in the
Talmud for Shavuot, recognizing certain similarities between these two holidays. According to
the rabbis, one possible meaning for atzeret could be “remain with Me [God] for another day,”
implying that atzeret represents a completion or a final part of a festival; thus Shemini Atzeret
could be seen as the conclusion of the festival of Sukkot just as Shavuot could be viewed as the
conclusion of the festival of Pesach.
Simchat Torah. There’s yet another holiday added at this time: it’s Simchat Torah, which means
“rejoicing in the Law.” This holiday was added some time during or after the third century CE,
when the yearly Torah-reading cycle was formally fixed. Simchat Torah in Israel is celebrated
concurrently with Shemini Atzeret (also by many Reform communities), but in the diaspora,
Conservative and Orthodox communities celebrate it on the second day of Shemini Atzeret.
Simchat Torah celebrates the conclusion and recommencing of the yearly Torah-reading cycle
and has its own collection of customs and rituals.
Visit the Simchat Torah page here.
So the answer to the question posed above is: In Israel (and for most Reform communities),
Sukkot is a seven-day holiday that is followed by a single holiday on the eighth day on which
both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated. In the diaspora, Sukkot is eight days
long; on the eighth and ninth days Shemini Atzeret is celebrated, and Simchat Torah is celebrated
on the ninth day.