A Sukkot Field Guide

Sukkot? Hoshana Rabbah? Shmini Atzeret? Simchat Torah? Let’s figure all this out.


SukkotOct 13, 2016

SukkotOct 13, 2016


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Looking at a Jewish calendar at this time of year can be overwhelming. There are so many festival days! Where do they all come from, and what do they mean?

Here is a simple rundown of each of the significant days connected with the Festival of Sukkot, sometimes referred to as the “Feast of Tabernacles” or “Feast of Booths.”

The Seven Days and the Eighth Day

The first thing to note is that there are really two holidays here that are adjacent to one another. Sukkot is a seven-day festival. Yet, there is another separate holiday that takes place on the eighth day. The eighth-day festival is called Shmini Atzeret, which means “eighth[-day] assembly”:

On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. (Leviticus 23:39)

The commandments about dwelling in booths (Leviticus 23:42) and waving the four species of plants (Leviticus 23:40) only apply for the seven days of Sukkot. The eighth day, Shmini Atzeret, has no special commandments other than resting from work.

Here is a simple visualization of these two festivals:

Day Festival
1 Sukkot
2 Sukkot
3 Sukkot
4 Sukkot
5 Sukkot
6 Sukkot
7 Sukkot
8 Shmini Atzeret

Festival Rest Days

Even though all eight of these days are holy, appointed times, they do not all have to be treated like the Sabbath. As the verse states, there is a day of rest on only the first and eighth days.

The first time the concept of festival rest days is introduced, the Torah explains that “what everyone needs to eat, that alone may be prepared by you” (Exodus 12:16). In other words, festival rest days are the same as the weekly Shabbat with the exception that preparing food for that day is allowed.

In conventional Jewish terminology, Shabbat usually only refers to the weekly Sabbath, not the festivals. A festival rest day is called a Yom Tov (which literally means “good day”).

Intermediate Days

Some days are included as part of the appointed time (mo’ed), but they are not sanctified by the cessation of work.

These intermediate days of the festival are called Chol HaMo’ed. This means “normal [days] of the appointed time.” While it is important to set those days apart for celebration and meeting with God, it is not prohibited to do weekday activities.

Sabbath during the Festival

At least one of the eight festival days will coincide with the weekly Sabbath. When that happens, all the restrictions of Shabbat apply as usual. This Sabbath is called Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed.

The timing varies. In 2016, Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed lands on the sixth day of Sukkot. In 2017, it will fall on the third day of Sukkot.

Hoshana Rabbah

The next notable day is called Hoshana Rabbah, roughly translated from Aramaic as “great plea for salvation.” This is simply the seventh day of Sukkot, when it is customary to pray for rain. While the Torah does not mention it by name, the New Testament calls it “the last day of the feast, the great day” (John 7:37).

Let’s update the visualization with this information.

Day Festival
1 Sukkot: Yom Tov*
2 Chol HaMo’ed
3 Chol HaMo’ed
4 Chol HaMo’ed
5 Chol HaMo’ed
6 Chol HaMo’ed
7 Chol HaMo’ed/Hoshana Rabba
8 Shmini Atzeret: Yom Tov*

* Yom Tov: work is restricted

Diaspora Days

A lunar cycle is about 29.5 days, meaning that a month can be either 29 or 30 days. In ancient times, the months began when witnesses saw the new moon appear and testified before the high court. The court would then announce that the new month had begun and send messengers throughout Israel.

People living outside of Israel would not hear the announcement in time to know which day was the festival. To avoid desecrating the festival, they observed every Yom Tov on both possible days. This two-day observance of Yom Tov continues in Diaspora communities to this day, even though it is technically not necessary.

That means that Jews outside of Israel treat both the first and second day of Sukkot as Yom Tov. The same goes for Shmini Atzeret, which then extends into a ninth day.

The observance of a second day of the festival in the Diaspora is a matter of traditional Jewish Law. Many Messianic congregations and non-Orthodox synagogues do not observe the second day, but follow the Israeli calendar instead. Others do so, maintaining continuity and solidarity with the Jewish people worldwide.

Simchat Torah

Each week we read a few chapters from the Torah called the weekly parashah. We complete all five books over the course of a year, and this cycle ends and restarts on Shmini Atzeret. People in synagogues sing, dance, rejoice and rewind the Torah scrolls back to Genesis.

Jews outside of Israel dedicate the entire second day of Shmini Atzeret to this rewinding ceremony, so the day is named Simchat Torah, which means “rejoicing of the Torah.”

On calendars you might see the two days listed separately: Shmini Atzeret on the eighth day and Simchat Torah on the ninth day. Technically, Simchat Torah is a continuation of Shmini Atzeret. In Israel, where the second day of Yom Tov is not observed, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are the same day.

In summary, here is what the Sukkot calendar looks like outside the land of Israel:

Day Festival
1 Sukkot: Yom Tov*
2 Sukkot: Diaspora Yom Tov**
3 Chol HaMo’ed
4 Chol HaMo’ed
5 Chol HaMo’ed
6 Chol HaMo’ed
7 Chol HaMo’ed/Hoshana Rabba
8 Shmini Atzeret: Yom Tov*
9 Simchat Torah: Diaspora Yom Tov**

* Yom Tov: work is restricted per biblical commandment
** Diaspora Yom Tov: work is restricted according to ancient practice

The Season of our Joy

I hope this article helps you wrap your mind around the various aspects of this holiday. If this is your first time celebrating Sukkot, it might be a bit much to take in. But don’t worry. Be happy! This is a season of joy. Do what you can, search the Scriptures, and refer back to this article from year to year as you grow. Best wishes to you for a wonderful year!

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About the Author: Aaron Eby is the Vine of David Director and an author and translator for FFOZ. He was the chief translator of The Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels and works to develop liturgical resources that will strengthen Messianic Judaism. More articles by Aaron Eby

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