Sukkot: Jewish Camping and Thanksgiving in October

Fall is a great time to be Jewish because it’s when all the fun feasts take place.  The last one started last night, and it will continue for 7 days.  It’s called Sukkot (pronounced Sue-Coat), and it’s a fun combination of Thanksgiving, harvest festival, and camping, all rolled into one big celebration.  Last night, Dan and I were trying to figure out a way to honor the holiday, and our efforts came up a little bit short.

The holiday is mentioned in several places in the Old Testament, and even once in the New Testament.  In Leviticus 23:39-43, we learn the requirements for the annual holiday:

“‘So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the LORD for seven days; the first day is a day of rest, and the eighth day also is a day of rest.  On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.  Celebrate this as a festival to the LORD for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month.  Live in booths for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.’ “

Believe it or not, observant Jews construct huts outside their homes and live in them for a week.  If it’s cold, they might only eat their meals in them, but the real hard core ones will pack their entire family into the “booth” for a mini camping experience.

I began my attempts to observe the holiday by consulting my official Jewish cookbook, which has come through on many obscure holidays with tasty, festive recipes.  The food for Sukkot was downright bizarre, involving lots of cabbage, which I didn’t have on hand, and oddly enough, lemons, which made no sense to me.  I did read that casseroles were popular features of Sukkot meals because they are easily transported to the outdoor booths.  So, what did I make?  Stir fry.

But it’s a seven day feast.  Tonight, I’ve got a more traditional stuffed bell-pepper dish planned.  Stuffed foods are also a tradition, and this also has a casserole feel to it.  My cookbook said it counted, so I’m going with it.  Dan, on hearing that it was a Jewish thanksgiving, automatically wanted turkey and stuffing.  Somehow, I just can’t handle a Jewish pilgrim turkey fest in October.

Over our Chinese/Jewish thanksgiving dinner, we talked about whether or not we should construct a booth.  Living in an apartment complex, this gets a little tricky.  Dan volunteered to make a fort out of pillows in our living room.  I passed on the offer.  Actually, I told him HE could sleep on the deck in our tent.  Neither option suited us very well.

I read him a section from a book I’ve been reading about a man who is trying to live “Biblically” by following all the laws in the bible, including all the holidays, for a year.  He had a similar problem with Sukkot, and he ended up building a booth in his living room.  Maybe next year.

But I think that instead of focusing on following the letter of the law here, the spirit of the law has a lot to teach us in this holiday.  We have seven full days to be thankful for a lot of things.  First, we get to be thankful that we don’t have to live in a tent, either in the wilderness with the Israelites or in our backyard with all the Jews who still live under the law.  I’m also thankful for the freedom in Christ to eat all sorts of great foods, including Chinese stir fry (even though I couldn’t bring myself to make it a seafood or pork stir fry…that was a bit much.  Just like I can’t do a Passover ham, no matter how much they are on sale.).

This week, have Thanksgiving a bit early, and spread it out over the whole week, not just one day.  Go ahead, be Biblical.

Published in: on October 15, 2008 at 11:19 am  Comments (3)  
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  1. Have you seen the Israeli movie USPHIZIN? It has English subtitles…it’s all about Succot and some unexpected guests a Jewish couple receive for the holiday, and you will see some booths, and the citron (lemon) plays a major role too. It’s warm and funny and touching.

    AL: Haven’t heard of it but I’ll be sure to look it up. I bet my library has it. Thanks for the recommendation! I’m sure my hubby would love to watch that!

  2. Our Messianic congregation back in Houston set up a campground on one member’s very large property for the holidays. Everyone tried to be at the camp as much as possible during that week. Even when it was Houston HOT and bug spray was always nearby.

    I think the point of Succot is to live openly with one another for a long enough period of time that personal openess becomes natural, just like on any camping trip. When you camp, you see each other all the time, talking is on going, and you see and share everything you’ve got. Yes, it is designed to remind the Jewish people of the years wandering in the wilderness, but those 40 years of traveling by tribes built such cohesiveness! A one hour gathering for weekly worship could never begin to match the prolongated “camping” experience, and of course many churches use “chuch camp” to strengthen their own fellowships.
    I speculate that in heaven, even with our “many mansions” we will still dwell openly before one another. I wonder why we will even need a mansion in heaven…there will be no weather elements that we will need sheltering from, and no need to do things secretly, and I don’t think we’ll have “stuff” to store. So why a mansion?
    It is funny to me that after we go camping our house always seems unnecessarily big and we find we miss the on going interaction with others.
    A few Jewish believers in Houston constructed a booth on their apartment patio, and aside from work and sleep, confined their activity to being inside their “booth”. It was festively decorated, and I think the whole apartment complex eventually drifted by to see and chat with the people in the booth. What a chance to meet new people, and witness!

    As to the lemon in the recipes: You really can’t figure that out? The etrog is a citrus fruit, much like a lemon. If you have to grow four esrogs for the holidays, you might as well do something with the rest of the fruit on the tree, so as not to be wasteful!
    You know what part the etrog plays in the holiday. I did a huge study on etrog a couple of years ago because I couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to represent. (This is going to be another rediculously long comment…) Etrog and other citrus are the ONLY kind of fruit trees that have blossoms, new green fruit, and ripe fruit on the tree all at the same time. The ripe fruit will remain on the tree indefinitely and not rot. Even if a fruit falls from the tree it is still considered kosher. Every part of the tree has the same citrus scent-the flowers, the leaves, branches and the fruit. Other fruit trees don’t have that characteristic. Citrus can be grafted, but they will not cross pollinate with other kinds of citrus (I think that is right, I’m working from memory on that detail) Both male and female flowers are on each tree, so there is no need for another tree to make fruit, like some other kinds of fruit trees. A single tree may bear fruit with a wide variety of shapes growing at the same time.
    Of course you know citrus juice poured on other kinds of fruit will keep them from browing when exposed to air. I just read up on an agricultural website about growing esrog to do my initial research and was quite surprised at those facts!
    I hope your weather warms up enough that you can at least consider “setting up camp” out on your patio for a day or two. Our congregation bought PVC poles at the hardware store, fitted them together to make a bare bones structure, then decorated them with reeds, fruit, lights, and such. Lots of goodies were in each booth table to encourage “noshing”, and while treats were being sampled, conversation naturally followed.
    Haven’t found any Messianic/Hebraic groups here yet. But give it time…
    And YEA! LOVE the Fall Jewish Holidays!

    AL: Jill, as always, a wonderful wealth of info. Thanks for helping with the citrus element. It sounds like it’s very culturally important to the celebration. I might have to try to find some of that fruit. I found a picture online, and it looks like a large, lumpy lemon.

    I like your perspective on living outdoors with people. And I admit, I’m too absorbed in my own comfort at the moment to camp in the cold with my neighbors. But maybe next year, I’ll get the motivation. It does make me think about how much I’ve loved camping vacations with multiple families. Even when it’s just Dan and I in a huge campground, there’s something so communal about it. Our camping trip last summer was incredible. Part of me wishes the holiday was in the summer, but I suppose, it’s also about getting out of our comfort zone a bit more.

  3. Oh and one more esrog detail: It is a fruit tree with thorns. If you want some fruit, you often endure a bit of pain before you get some.

    AL: Now, there’s a parable in the making, if I ever saw one! But then again, maybe my local blackberries would count in a pinch?

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