Keith Hunt - Tabernacles in Eastern Europe - Page Two   Restitution of All Things

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Feast of Tabernacles with the Jews

As once observed in Eatern Europe

                         THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES

From the book "The Jewish Festivals" by Hayyim Schauss, published
in 1983.

Some mentioned customs and traditions may, in this 21st century,
be now no longer practiced - Keith Hunt.


Building Booths

     The Jews of the town suddenly become builders in the days
between Yom Kippur and Sukkos. Jews draw poles, drag lumber,
hammer nails. Even those old Jews who usually sit in the Bes
ha-Midrosh, the House of Study, reading the Torah and chanting
the Psalms, desire to observe the precept in person and help
erect the sukkoh (the booth). Not that there is very much work
connected with it. The erection of one wall is saved entirely,
for the sukkoh is built against the house, either in the back
yard or the front yard. About half of the second wall is taken up
by the door, leaving only a little more than two walls to put up.
These are thrown together with fence rails and odd pieces of
lumber and poles. There is no need to make the sukkoh really
strong; it will surely last till Sb'mini Atseres.
     Sukkos are built individually, each man erecting one for his
own household. Some neighbors, however, join forces and erect a
great sukkoh, in which several families eat together and are
assured a religious quorum of three and sometimes ten for the
purpose of pronouncing the Benediction after the meal.
     So Jews build sukkos and feel themselves fortunate in
observing such an important religious precept. But the cheder
children are the happiest and most fortunate of all. It is a
great occasion for them when they sit in the sukkoh, and it is a
still greater occasion for them to help build the structure.
There is no school for them, so they drag planks and green
branches and help erect the sukkoh. In addition, it is a prom-
ise that Simchas Torah is almost at hand, when they will march in
the procession bearing flags and will mount the synagogue bimoh
when the call comes for "all the lads."
     Even the non-Jews of the neighboring region are interested
in the sukkos that Jews build. They learn of the approach of the
day on which Jews need a certain type of branches, and they ride
into town with their wagons laden with pine branches for sale.
The festival is quite profitable for them financially.

Lulov and Esrog

     The sukkoh is complete in every detail; its roof is covered
with pine branches, the floor is sprinkled with fine sand, and
the walls are hung with white sheets and decorated with various
fruits and flowers. The decoration is the work of the girls,
eager to help even though they are not enjoined to use the
sukkoh, entering it just to hear Kiddush, the sanctification
before meals, and to recite the benediction over the esrog and
     The lulov and the esrog are ready, too, but only in certain
homes, for few are wealthy enough to buy an esrog for individual
use. All others own esrogim in partnership, usually in groups of
six. Services are held in three places, the synagogue, the Bes
ha-Midrosh, and the klaus, the chapel, and they are not held
simultaneously. While Hallel is being recited in the klaus, the
worshipers have barely begun services in the Bes ha-Midrosh. So
it is possible to recite Hallel and Hoshanos with the same esrog
in all three places of worship. And in each place there are two
of the partners, for there is no hurry. First one partner
performs the ceremony with the lulov and esrog, and then the
other one. For the procession when the Hoshano prayers are
recited the two partners in each place of worship take the esrog
on alternate days. On Hoshano Rabboh there are seven processions
around the platform and it is easy for the partners to arrange
for participation.
     In this way there are six partners for each esrog and the
esrogim are continually being carried about, from early morning
until midday. As soon as Hallel is finished in the klaus, the
esrogim are taken to the synagogue. After the Hallel prayer in
the synagogue the fruits are carried to the Bes ha-Midrosh. By
the time Hallel is finished in the Bes ha-Midrosh, it is time for
Hoshanos in the klaus, and so on, all morning long. The masses,
the ordinary Jews, use the klaus and they hurry to finish the
services as soon as possible. The worshipers in the synagogue are
also not over-fond of prolonging the services. But in the Bes
ha-Midrosh the rabbi himself attends the services, and with him
are the learned class, the members of the Talmud study circle.
These are Jews who have no desire to rush through the services,
in order to eat sooner; on the contrary, the longer the services,
the greater the satisfaction they get from them.
     In addition to the fact that the esrog must be in the klaus,
synagogue, and Bes ha-Midrosh twice each day, except Saturday, it
must also be in six houses every morning before breakfast. For
all, including women and children, must pronounce the benediction
over the esrog before they eat. So there is a messenger for each
esrog, a youth who carries it about until all the services are
over, and until everyone has pronounced the benediction over it.
Then the esrog is deposited in the home of one of the six
partners, where it is carefully guarded. The messenger, of
course, receives payment from each of those to whom he carries
the esrog.
     There are, in town, a mass of poor people, who cannot even
afford a sixth of an esrog. There are, therefore, a few communal
esrogim which are utilized by the poorer Jews.

     The communal esrog passes through so many hands, and becomes
so soiled and worn away that, by the time Hoshano Rabboh comes,
it barely resembles the original esrog.

     A couple of days before Sukkos the arrangements for all the
partnerships have been completed. The Shamosh (sexton) who
generally makes the arrangements, is not overworked, for, as a
general rule, the same partners share the esrog year after year.
On coming home from the synagogue the master of the house goes
directly to the sukkoh and, before sitting down, recites a prayer
in Aramaic, in which he invites seven holy guests to come and sit
with him in the sukkoh. These holy guests are Abraham, Isaac,
Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. A special invitation is
tendered the first of these on the first evening of the festival,
to the second on the second evening, and so on. It is customary
to have at least one poor Jew as a guest in the sukkoh, for these
holy ones would certainly reject an invitation to sit in a sukkoh
where the poor and needy are not fed and entertained.
     It is only after this invitation has been given that the
Kiddush, the sanctification of the day, is chanted aloud, in the
presence of the entire family, and in an atmosphere of tender
warmth and pious fervor which pervades the sukkoh.

The Booths

     Great satisfaction is derived from the sukkoh when the
weather is fair. The pines and flowers and fruit that adorn the
booth send forth a delicious fragrance, and fill the hearts of
the occupants with festive joy. Jews eat the holiday meal in the
sukkoh; they sing and pronounce the Benediction bim'zumon (in
groups of three or more); their joy on this holiday is boundless.
Most of the sukkos are small and there is room for only the
males of the family. The women of the house enter the sukkoh just
to light the candles and recite the benedictions over them, to
hear the Kiddush (Sanctification), and to recite the benediction
over the esrog. They go back into the house for their meals, for
women are exempt from the precept to abide in the sukkoh. There
are, however, some larger sukkos, in which the entire household
     It happens, sometimes, that rain comes down right in the
midst of the meal, ruining the festivity of the occasion. If the
rain is not too heavy, the occupants stubbornly refuse to leave
the flimsy booth, and rush through the meal, even managing to
pronounce the grace after the meal. But sometimes it rains so
hard that the very soup is watered and the occupants hastily
gather food and cloth and run into the house.

Libation Celebration

     On the evening of the second day of the festival, the first
evening of the half-holiday period, many lamps and candles are
kindled in the Bes ha-Midrosh, and the ceremony of Simchas Bes
Hashoevoh is celebrated by the pious Jews of the community.
The privilege of reciting the Psalms of Ascents is sold to the
highest bidders, and the purchasers distribute the honor of
chanting the verses to various members of the congregation. The
money is used to buy apples and brandy; the participants in the
ceremony partake of the food and drink, and they sing and revel
in a continuation of the Simchas Bes Hashoevoh in the Temple of

Hoshano Rabboh

     The day before Hoshano Rabboh the assistant-sexton of the
synagogue, accompanied by a horde of youngsters, goes to a grove
on the banks of the stream and cuts willow branches. These willow
branches are sold the next day in the synagogue and the money is
contributed to communal institutions.

Hoshano Rabboh Eve

     The women are busy baking wheaten loaves, long loaves with
braided ladders on top, such as are made and served the day
before Yom Kippur. The women claim that these are ladders to
heaven. They also roll dough which will be filled with meat for
     The men stay in the Bes ha-Midrosh most of the night,
reciting Tikkun. Some of them go to the bath-house during the
night and immerse themselves in the ritual bath.
     It is a strange night, filled with mysteries and curious
beliefs. It is said that the heavens split on that night, and he
who observes it and makes a wish at the same moment will have
that wish granted. It is also believed that he who sees his own
headless shadow on that night will die within the year.

Hoshano Rabboh Morning

     The attitude in the synagogue is a varied one. It is still
part of the semi-holiday period, yet the services are as rich and
impressive as on a full holiday. In addition the day is a mixture
of Yom Kippur and Sukkos; there are the esrogim and willow
branches of Sukkos, together with the candles, the white robes
and the chants of Yom Kippur.
     The highest point in the ceremonial of Hoshano Rabboh is the
procession around the bimoh. During the first six days of Sukkos
the procession winds about the platform only once and there is
but one Torah-scroll on the bimoh. On the seventh day, however,
on Hoshano Rabboh, the procession makes seven circuits around the
bimoh, on which every Torah-scroll from the ark is held by
members of the congre-gation. It differs from the Simchas Torah
procession in that it is earnest and serious. The procession
winds its way around and around, the men bearing the lulovim and
esrogim in their hands and chanting their prayers earnestly and
     After the procession the lulov and the esrog are laid aside
and the willow branches taken up, five of them bound with a leaf
of the lulov. At the close of the Hoshano prayers, the worshipers
beat their willow branches on the ground and chant a ritual
passage. According to the ritual law it is necessary to beat the
branches only five times, but the mass of the congregation beats
and beats, till all the leaves have been knocked off the twigs.
Everyone performs this ceremony, including the women in their
section of the synagogue, but none enjoy it as much as do the
youngsters. They keep beating their branches long after the
others are through and continue till their elders brusquely tell
them to cease.
     Many Jews carry their bundle of branches home and save them
for Pesach, to use in the yearly search for leaven. After the
services a feast is served in the sukkoh. There must be soup with
kreplech served at this feast, exactly as at the meal on the day
before Yom Kippur. But after the holiday services and the holiday
feast the day becomes again a part of the semi-holiday period and
all go about their regular tasks.
     This is the happiest day of the Sukkos festival for the
youths who have been serving as messengers with the esrog during
the week; this is the day they are paid for their work. It is a
gay day for the youngsters in general. They carry around the long
palm leaves of the lulov and braid themselves rings and bracelets
of it.

Sb'mini Atseres

     It is raining, it is pouring outside. The streets of the
town are filled with mud. Everyone hopes that the rain will cease
soon, so that it will be possible to do business after the
festival. In the synagogue there is a special benediction to be
pronounced: in a pleading chant, accompanied by the congregation,
the cantor offers up the prayers for rain!
     It all seems so strange and foreign; and yet there is
something heartwarming about it. As the song of prayer for rain
rises the thoughts of the worshipers revert to ancient days. They
are peasants in Palestine and they wait for the new seasonal
rains and for an abundant crop in field and orchard.
     The rain has ceased by midday, the sun shines once more, and
Jews gather for the last time in their sukkos. They partake of
food and offer a prayer that they may merit the privilege of
sitting in the sukkoh that God will fashion from the skin of the
Leviathan, when the Messiah comes.
     After the afternoon prayers young and old begin to revel.
Each "brotherhood" assembles for its own joyous party. The
Chevroh Kadisho, the burial-brotherhood, meets in the Bes
ha-Midrosh. They sit at long tables, eat apples, drink beer and
brandy, and sing and revel. They sing Yiddish folk songs, chants,
and bits of the services and the Psalms. The feast in the klaus
is conducted by the Bible study circle, and the one at the home
of the rabbi is conducted by the exalted ones, the Talmud study

Simchas Torah Eve

     The congregation is lively and merry by evening. There are
even those who obviously took a glass too much and sway as they
move about the synagogue, but they manage to recite the evening
prayers properly, nevertheless.
     After the evening prayers the sexton auctions off the privi-
lege of reciting certain passages from the Bible. But the auction
is more fancied than real, for there is one certain Jew who has
gained the unchallenged right to it through many years of
purchase. He recites only one sentence, and apportions the other
sentences amongst relatives, friends, and esteemed householders.
He whispers the name of his choice to the sexton, who calls out
the name of the next reader. The reader recites his sentence
which the congregation repeats. He then thanks the purchaser for
the honor.
     After this comes the main ceremony of the evening, the
procession. Even women and girls are permitted to enter in the
main part of the synagogue on Simchas Torah and to kiss the
Torah-scrolls as they are carried around the bimoh seven times.
But only girls and young matrons avail themselves of this
privilege. The elder women look on at the ceremony from the
women's gallery above.
     The youngsters play a great part in the procession, for
which they prepared themselves during the semi-holiday period.
They bear flags mounted on sticks, and above are attached large
apples or beets, hollowed out, a candle burning inside. The flags
bear the inscription, Degel Machane Yehudoh, "standard of the
camp of Judah," some bearing "Ephraim" instead of "Judah." Even
tiny children mounted on the shoulders of their fathers or older
brothers take part in the procession around the bimoh.
     In this manner they parade about the bimoh, older Jews
bearing the Torah-scrolls, youngsters bearing illuminated flags,
all chanting alphabetically arranged songs of prayer.

Simchas Torah Morning

     The morning prayers last till afternoon. But right after the
early part of the services the worshipers begin to partake of
food and drink. This is done in the synagogue, and also in
private homes, while the last section of the Pentateuch is being
read in the synagogue.
     This reading of the Pentateuch drags on for hours and hours
on this day. Again and again the last section is read, until
every member of the congregation has been called to the bimoh to
witness the reading and to recite the benediction. The service
would never end if each member were called up individually, so
two men mount the bimoh together. There are two benedictions to
be repeated over each reading of the Torah, one before the
reading and one after, and the two men called up share the
     After everyone in the synagogue, adult males and boys who
have been confirmed, are disposed of in this way, the call goes
forth for "all the lads." This is the ceremony in which all the
boys under thirteen are called up to witness the reading of the
Torah. Together with them an adult Jew, usually an elderly and
very pious man, recites the benediction. This recitation,
"together with all the children," is a great honor and, as a
rule, a certain Jew has the privilege, gained through years of
usage, and all know that it belongs to him.
     The picture is wonderful to behold. The lads come forth from
all sides and mount the bimoh, ranging themselves in front of the
older man, who spreads his prayer shawl over their heads and
pronounces the benediction. He recites it slowly, word by word,
and the children repeat it after him, the entire congregation
shouting "Amen" at the end, with great fervor. Who knows how many
good and pious Jews, how many rabbis and scholars of the Torah
will grow up from this group of children?
     Revelry goes on all day long, in the synagogue and in the
homes, dancing and singing in the very streets of the town.
     Old, pious men, with long cloaks and gray beards, cavort
about and sing, and act as if a sudden, wild joy had taken
complete possession of them.
     Still the Jews of the older generation claim that the joyous
years of old, when Jews really celebrated on Simchas Torah, are
gone. Nowadays, they say, nobody really indulges in revelry; in
the old days they knew how.
     So say these Jews, but, at the same time, they dance and
sing joyously. But there is not, in all the revelry of Simchas
Torah, a trace of looseness or licentiousness. They drink, but
none becomes really drunk. Jews revel and pray; they drink and
they read the Torah.

     The finale of the festival comes at night, after the
official close of the holiday. The holiday feast which is the
greatest and finest of the nine-day period is served then.
This feast is not the end, however. The revelry continues on the
next Sabbath, the Sabbath on which the first section of Genesis
is read in the synagogue. It is only on the day after this
Sabbath that one feels that the season of festivals is really
over, and the cold and cloudy autumn settles on the town.


To be concluded with "Sukkos in Custom and Ceremony."

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