the holiday of booths

booths right outside of my home, in Jerusalem

We are now in the middle of a month of holidays that started with the Jewish new year. This evening we begin the holiday of booths. It is the only holiday in which we are commanded to be happy. Not an easy thing, to decide to be happy. But that is only on of the many aspects of this autumnal holiday. What I personally like best about it, is the practice of leaving one’s home for a temporary hut or booth outside, in memory of our exodus from Egypt, where we were slaves, and our return to the land of our fathers, in Israel. The holiday is sometimes called tabernacles. In Jerusalem, there are almost as many different booths around town, as there are houses in the city. But I am on vacation for this holiday, and presently staying in a very small town, where two of my children live with their families. Here there are fewer types of booths. Still the most popular are made of boards or of material. The material ones have a wooden or metal frame, and they are all quite beautiful on the inside and quite plain on the outside… because most people don’t care how they will look from the outside, but enjoy a festive appearance on the inside where they will sit.


My own personal booth is made of canvass, but I don’t use it much in recent years because I am usually invited to the homes of friends and children, and travel around on this holiday. Part of the spirit of the holiday is to invite guests into your temporary home. We even invite the spirits of our ancestors. I love the booths. I like visiting those of friends. And I like tents too. I have loved them all my life. In my eyes there is something very romantic about residing in a tent… especially in nature. But there is something surreal about moving out of the home and into the booth on this holiday of ours. And though this is the season when the rains start, it is our practice to make a loose roof, of branches, or canes, through which one can see the stars.

one of my neighbors makes his booth out of doors

Aside from the booths, the holiday is also identified with the four species (see the picture below). These four species are held in one’s hands, and blessings are said over them, either in the booths or in the synagogue, and especially when singing favorite passages from the psalms. The four species are these: a ripe, green, closed frond from a date palm tree; boughs with leaves from the myrtle tree; branches with leaves from the willow tree; and the fruit of a citron tree, much loved and native to Israel. It is a little like a lemon, but more beautiful in my opinion, with a very unique and pleasant smell. It is known as an ‘etrog’ in Hebrew, and not often encountered outside of our country. What I like most about the citron, is that they grow in the direction of the sky, and do not hang down from the branches like most fruit.

the four species

The four species are considered symbolic of the Jewish people, and when we bless or pray holding them together in our hands, we are symbolically tying ourselves to our people despite our differences. The palm frond from the date tree represents the fruit that is sweet but has no smell, representing those people who study, but do not practice good deeds. The myrtle which has fragrance but no taste are thought to represent those who have good deeds but are not educated. The willow is thought not to have taste nor smell, and they represent those who are neither educated nor practice good deeds. And the citron which has a good taste and a good smell is thought to represent those who are both educated and practice good deeds.

sons, grandchildren, and rabbi in a family booth

There are many other explanations and stories relating to the four species. And they are very important to our holiday. We are reminded by our moving from our homes into temporary booths that no matter how beautiful and solid our home might be, all of life is a temporary existence, and not to get carried away by materialist possessions. We are reminded not to take things for granted, for we have been strong, and we have been weak… and we are reminded that there are consequences to our choices.

friends listening to words of wisdom in the tabernacle

Yet most important is the happiness of the holiday. For we are instructed in our holy bible to be happy on this holiday; the only holiday in the year in which that is specifically asked of us. And at the end of the holiday, we have a huge party in which we celebrate the conclusion of the reading of the five books of Moses, and immediately afterwards, start the reading once again. This celebration is a great and wonderful one, in which we actually dance with the scrolls of the bible written on parchment. But that is still another holiday… and another story.

these are artificial fruit that are hung from the ceiling of the booth, as decorations. Many people hang actual fruit from the ceilings… but some of us take the easy route


47 responses to “the holiday of booths

  1. I always enjoy your posts about this feast, and each year learn a little more. Be happy!

  2. I have always been enchanted by the Holiday of Booths … but actually knew very little of the details, which you describe so beautifully. The symbolism of the four species is very touching … that all contribute to the whole and all are part of that whole, no matter their education or deeds. One.

    But the best part is the commandment to be happy. I read a wonderful article today on the elements of happiness and was surprised that one of the things suggested was to consciously “decide” to be happy. Your post ties in so perfectly to what I read less than two hours ago, that I have to chuckle a bit at another cosmic “coincidence”. My sister calls these coincidences “God WInks”. This was a lovely one for me.

    Enjoy your holiday, dear Shimon.

    • Yes, as you say, Nikki, the commandment to be happy is a very special and unique part of this holiday. I remember reading once a book of commentary by a very learned rabbi, and he chose this as the most difficult of the religious precepts that he had encountered. He said that the reverse was easy for him. No matter what was going on around him, if he directed his thoughts to the destruction of the temple, or some other tragedy, it was easy for him to begin mourning. But if he had troubles or was occupied by sadness, it was so hard to ‘decide to be happy’. But our religion is a discipline which I often compare to Yoga. The practice enables us to realize that emotions, which can so easily distract us… or cause us to lose our direction, can be harnessed according to our will. It does take years of practice. But the serious student learns the trick, and it enables him or her to live a much more balanced life. Thanks for your comment… so glad you shared the wink with me.

  3. Enjoy Succoth and thank you for this well written explanation and great photos.

  4. Even as a christian, I am ‘hooked’ on your explanations of your religion, for its practical, pragmatic and encompassing approach to your faith. The Holiday could not have been described better…many thanks.

    • I appreciate your comment, Harry. And of course, you know that Christianity took its basis from the Jewish faith and the old testament. A student of history would say that Christianity tried to improve the original as well as to provide answers for internal problems and failures of that time. Each person and group sees it from a slightly different perspective. But it bodes well when two fellows such as we, are able to discuss the subject rationally.

  5. Have a wonderful holiday Shimon.

  6. I love learning about your culture, Shimon. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post. I wish you great happiness on this day!

    • I’m very glad you enjoyed the post, Cathy. And thank you for your kind wishes. This is a very wonderful time for us, and it is great to be sharing it with relatives and friends.

  7. Very interesting. Have a great holiday!

  8. Lovely teaching … thank you, Shimon … have a happy holiday 🙂 Love,

  9. So beautiful; thank you, Shimon, for sharing the underlying beliefs these lovely symbols represent. I hope your happiness will be deep and lasting. 🙂

    • These exercises, that are a part of our holidays, a part of the way we live through the year, are meant to make us aware that we have the power to enjoy life, and to direct our emotions too. They take us out of the routine of our existence, and help give us a sense of perspective regarding our own lives in the perspective of history. Thank you very much for your good wishes, Kitty.

  10. This is my favourite of all your holidays, I would love to move into a booth and forget about the house for a while, and being able to see the stars above your head must be simply wonderful.

    How interesting about the four species and the types of people they represent. Currently each Sunday I’m watching a programme on BBC 1 about the Jewish people, it’s a wonderful series all the more enjoyable because I have heard of so many of the holidays from you.

    Be happy and enjoy….I shall think of you in your booth watching the stars and dancing.xxxx

    • One of the amusing parts of this holiday, is that even the holiday itself isn’t to be taken for granted. Often the first signs of rain show during the holiday. And we had one evening of raid already (a soft easy rain, though). So we’re not guaranteed the sight of the stars dancing, but it does usually happen. No matter how good life is, there is always the danger of seeing everything as a routine. And these holidays we have are meant to give us a deeper perspective of life. I’m glad you enjoy the series about us. And thank you very much for your comment, Dina. xxx

  11. I enjoyed reading this post so much Shimon, wishing you joy and connection during this lovely holiday.

  12. I remember your explanation about the outside homes last year. Hard to believe it’s been that long that I’ve known you. I wonder if you sleep in these tents? So much symbolism and so much to teach the young ones. It does bother me that I see no females in the photos. That, in my mind, is too similar to muslims who are so pathetic with their rules or whatever regarding females. That part, of their world, Has to change.
    Happy Holidays to you and yours Shimon!

    • Actually, there were two females in the picture, but they were looking the other way, and so didn’t really get representation in the picture. But you question is well asked. And I have to say that there are some similarities and some differences in a comparison of how we and the Moslems look at gender roles. In the case of this holiday, women take part in the move to the booths too. But in a study session such as the one depicted in the picture, many mothers stayed inside with their little children so that the children wouldn’t disturb the serious atmosphere of the session. Large families are common here, and though most fathers help out, the mothers are more involved in the raising of the children. Moreover, though the families are integrated and work in partnership, I think that on social occasions, the men and women are often found in separate circles of interest, though this separation is in no way enforced. From my observation, a certain amount of separation only adds to the vigor of the long term relationships between husbands and wives. Thank you for your good wishes, Bob.

  13. It’s nice to learn so many special things by reading your posts, Shimon… I particularly liked the example of the “four species” that is applicable to every people, because all of us, we are brothers!
    In fact there is much symbolism, however, that we find it in all religions on this planet. I like to learn, thanks to delight us with these details of your people and religion…
    Yes, sometimes we should have the humility to leave all what’s material, then bend on our knees and after turn our eyes up to the majesty of the night sky…

    • Today, religion has is seen somewhat negatively by large portions of the population in the west. And I suppose there are historic reasons for that. But I think there are a lot of similarities between many of the religions of the world, especially the insofar as their function. And just as different peoples have different languages and customs… so they have different religions with which to deal with those eternal questions. In the case of our own religion, there is no separation between the spiritual and the material. We are taught to integrate between these two aspects of life. Thank you very much for your comment, Claudine.

  14. Thank you so much for sharing the traditional celebration of Holidays. It wonderful to know that the four species are considered symbolic of the Jewish people. Enjoyed the reading, Mrs. Shimon!
    Happy Holidays to you and your family!

  15. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

    I hope you are Happy during your Holidays….
    I enjoyed your telling of it….
    Thank you for sharing a part of your world…
    Take Care…You Matter…

  16. I love that you are instructed to be happy during this time. Seriousness needs to be put aside at least once a year.
    Wishing you a world of happiness.

    • Being happy is one of the hard instructions to fulfill, if we have things on our mind that make us unhappy. I suppose we can be serious and happy at the same time, though. This holiday, with the temporary booths, remind us that life itself is temporary, but rather than allowing ourselves to be unhappy about what we can’t have, we put the emphasis on happiness. Thanks for your comment, Angeline.

  17. Now, Shimon, I am definitely coming back as a Jew next time around. I never heard of so many holidays! You’re always on some holiday or other! Chuckle, chuckle… This sounds like a wonderful tradition, really. 😉

    • I know your comment was written with a smile, George. And I do appreciate it. But as I have mentioned elsewhere, our lifestyle is something like the practice of Yoga. There are many rules, as well as many holidays. Some Jewish people, ignore the rules, of course. But even those of use who live by the ancient traditions, and enjoy them thoroughly, know that discipline is not always a blessing. That for some, it’s a burden. That’s why we don’t encourage conversion, as do some other religions. But if someone does insist on converting (after learning all about it), he is accepted as a brother or sister with love. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  18. A fascinating read Shimon. I’ve learnt a lot. I too am watching a superb series on BBC1 written and narrated by Simon Schama: ‘The Story of the Jews’. It is an amazing series from which I am learning so much.

    • Yes, someone else mentioned that series on our people. Glad to hear that it’s interesting. Of course, since the English are such a unique influence on western culture, we learn quite a bit about your customs and values, and what matters to your people, and I’m sure it helps one get a better perspective of the world to learn about other peoples. Thanks for the comment, Andy.

  19. Thank you for the illuminating post, Shimon.

    Goddess saw some Jews in front of our Co-op today holding their collection of the four species. She was trying to describe it and since I had this post already loaded in the browser, it was easy to confirm with her and share your story.

    • I can imagine that some of our customs and ceremonies must seem very odd to another people, and I’m glad that this post (and others) help understand just what we’re doing at certain times of the year. Give my regards to the Goddess. She is remembered well around here. And thanks for your comment, Bill.

  20. I remember you writing about booths before Shimon. I think we need reminding of these things in the West. We should have a booths holiday I think.

    • It’s a good holiday, Chillbrook, but I think that in other countries, there are some similar celebrations that are variations on the same experience. I have always enjoyed the experience of camping out in nature… building a fire and cooking our food in the wild, and reading to the children by the light of an oil lamp before going to bed in a sleeping bag. That too is a wonderful experience, and I know many enjoy it. Thanks for your comment.

  21. I’ll now have to go back to the booth set up in the Centre where I’m having my cancer treatment and read the small poster about this; only, I recall, the word started with an ‘H’….get back to you! Is your cat enjoying the holiday with you?

    • Yes, this is a great holiday for cats, as they can wander from booth to booth, checking out what people are eating, and getting a little sample in most places. There are people who’d never let a cat in their home, but are far more gracious on this holiday. So it’s quite an enlightening experience for the cats. I’m trying to guess what that word was that started with an ‘H’, and can’t think of it. In Hebrew, the word is Sukkah. And Jewish people try to take all of their meals in one, so that is why there there’s a booth at the Centre, I imagine. Thanks very much for your comment, Janina. Best wishes for health and happiness.

      • Hello Shimon,

        You’re right, the word is actually Sukkot/Sukkah, and the booth setup at the hospital is quite small, with fake branches on top, just covering a normal bench seat. I’ve seen some people look at it and wander around, but nothing more; perhaps they will use their own at home!

        Re your cat comment, I just meant is your cat on holiday with you or do you leave her at home when you go travelling to family for such festivities? LOL.

        • I’ve taken her with me at times… but since I’ve fixed her up with her own door, a feel freer about leaving her at home, and have a friend check up now and then, and to give her food.

          • Yes, I thought you might take her with you; I can see you with her special carry-all and she miaowing at those times she finds interesting when viewing passing scenery, people, traffic etc — you know how it is! Cheers!

  22. What a beautiful and interesting holiday. Any holiday that commands one to be happy would be a favorite of mine. It is good to have a time to sit back and realize that we are here just a short time and all the THINGS we accumulate are not very important in the long run.

    • Though our tradition emphasizes the temporary aspects of life, and offers spiritual inspiration, we are not taught to abandon or to diminish the importance of the physical and material aspects of life. We try to integrate the material and the spiritual. But it is a very special holiday. Thanks for the comment, Bev.

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