Thursday, October 20, 2005


This evening begins the fourth day of the weeklong harvest festival of Succoth (pronounced "sue-COAT" or "sook-US", depending on where your grandparents are from). If I were an observant Jew, I'd be sleeping in my backyard this week in a temporary hut called a "succah" (often translated as "booth"). This is to remind us of the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness between being delivered from Egypt and brought to the Promised Land. Although I'm not sleeping in the backyard, the symbolism is appealing. Part of it is to keep us in touch with more humble times in our collective (and personal) past, when we didn't enjoy all the comforts we may take for granted most of the time. Another part is to celebrate that G-d has always been with us. Even when we were wandering in the desert and sleeping in "booths", we carried around a "tabernacle" so that G-d could dwell among us. And it's also a festival of the fall harvest. Part of the Succoth tradition is to decorate the succah with palm fronds, wheat stalks, and harvesty items like gourds. As with most of these traditions, there are all sorts of detailed rules about the construction of the succah, for example, it must be covered with something natural (like thatch) but not completely covered so that you should be able to see stars through the roof. (Of course, if George and I were sleeping in the backyard in a succah, George would have his new bb-gun rifle with him in case that skunk shows up who's been digging up our lawn. But that's another story...)

The harvest festival aspect of Succoth bears some similarity to our American holiday of Thanksgiving, and that similarity may go even deeper than it first appears. Some have speculated that the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims in the Massachusetts colony was actually Succoth. There are some historical reasons to support this idea. For one thing, the timing was right: the original Thanksgiving was probably around this time of year (it was only moved into November much later on here in the US; in Canada it is still celebrated now). For another, the Pilgrims were very Bible-oriented, and would not celebrate any holidays that were not in the Bible. For instance, they were firm Sabbath-keepers, but they did not celebrate Christmas or Easter. (One of the reasons they were persecuted in England was for not celebrating the Catholic holidays.) They certainly would have been aware of the Biblical commandment to celebrate a feast on the 15th day of the seventh month (which in the Hebrew calendar corresponds approximately to our September/October).

So, happy Thanksgiving to you, and take a moment to appreciate the comforts of our homes, which (hopefully) don't have holes in the roof to see the stars through.

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