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.
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 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.
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.
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.