Sukkot is a holiday comprised of both a beginning yom tov (holiday) and subsequent days of hol hamo’ed (intermediate festival days). This means that the opening of the holiday (the yom tov) is observed similarly to how one would observe a Sabbath (with certain differences). The ensuing or intermediate days of the holiday still form part of the festival, but are observed differently. It is traditional to decrease one’s amount of work on the intermediate days, though the prohibition of labor for the intermediate days is not as encompassing as Shabbat or yom tov.
During the hol hamo’ed period it is customary to greet everyone with a statement of joyous celebration. The various greetings involve statements alluding to “times of joy” (mo’adim l’simcha) and “holidays and times for celebrating” (chagim u’zmanim l’sasson). The themes of celebration and happiness are integral to the holiday of Sukkot.
The Sukkah (hut) remains standing throughout the intermediate days, as does the obligation to eat meals within the Sukkah. This obligation has various interpretations in modern Jewish life. Traditional Jews either find a Sukkah or just “snack” during these days. A few individuals even own portable “car sukkot.” Liberal Jews will eat in the sukkah whenever possible.
Throughout these days there are special prayers introduced into the morning liturgy called hoshanot that refer to redemptive themes. The phrase hoshana–“save us”–recurs throughout these prayers. While reciting the hoshanot, the congregation walks in a complete circle around the sanctuary, each person carrying his or her lulav (palm fronds) and etrog (citrons).
The seventh day of Sukkot is called Hoshanah Rabbah, or the Great Hoshanah. On this day there are expanded prayers for redemption that are recited as the congregation walks around the sanctuary a total of seven times. These circuits are called hakkafot. Each member of the congregation carries a lulav and willow branches, which are periodically beaten against the ground, reminiscent of Temple times, when branches were beaten against the ground near the altar. The ritual symbolizes a casting away of sins, because the Rabbis considered Hoshanah Rabbah, similar to Yom Kippur, a last chance for repentance before the final divine judgment. During Temple times, the Israelites would make their hakkafot around the altar and place the willow branches around the altar with the leaves overlapping the top, thus creating the image of a sukkah. Known as the “custom of the prophets,” this is one of the oldest rituals in Judaism.
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