Rabbi Abraham Chill (1912-2004) gives readers of his book “The Minhagim,” Hebrew for customs and ceremonies, a very readable discussion of many Jewish practices, focusing on 27 holidays and events: synagogue, Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Hanukkah, Tu B’Shevat, Purim, marriage, birth, pidyin haben, bar mitzvah, tallit and tzitzit, tefillin, keriat shema, shemoneh esreh, birkhat kohanim, tahanun, Torah reading, ein k’elohenu, meals, mezuzah, and death and mourning. He includes the views of famous Jewish sages such as Shulchan Arukh, Tur, Abudraham, Arukh Ha-Shulhan, Hayye Avraham, Sefer Ha-Manhig, Sefer Ha-Minhagim, and others. He gives a short bio of each of the 27 sources that he quotes.
The following are some, but not all the questions that Rabbi Chill addresses regarding Sukkot, the questions he raises but not the solutions. The object is to make us think. Sukkot begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month Tishrei, which occurs in the fall, and continues for seven days in Israel, eight days outside Israel. It is immediately followed in Israel by another holiday called both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, two holidays with different significances, occurring simultaneously. Outside of Israel, the eighth day is Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. Leviticus 23:33-44; Deuteronomy 16:13-17 calls Sukkot the “Festival of Tabernacles” and also “Feast of the Ingathering of the Fruits.”
What does Sukkot and dwelling in sukkahs teach Jews?
What does Shemini Atzeret teach?
Since one purpose of Sukkot is to remind Jews of the exodus from Egyptian slavery, why doesn’t it coincide with Passover?
Whereas Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are biblical holidays, Simchat Torah (The Joy over the Torah) is post-biblical, starting in the common-era. Why was it invented? Why have it join another holiday? (I would add, why isn’t Simchat Torah connected to Shavuot, the holiday that recalls to giving of the Torah?)
The day before the last day in Israel and before the last two days outside Israel is called Hoshana Raba. In synagogues Jews walk around the bima, the podium from where the cantor leads the service, holding the lulav and etrog seven times. Later, one beats the aravot (willows) five times. Why walking seven times and beating five times? What do they symbolize? What do they teach?
Why on Simchat Torah do Jews circle the bima with Torahs seven times? Why are children called up to the reading of the Torah on this day, but no other day? What is the purpose of giving one man the honor of Hatan Torah and another man Hatan Bereshit? The first means “Bridegroom of the Torah” and his honor is to read the end of the Torah. The second is “Bridegroom of Bereshit,” the beginning of the annual year-long reading of the Five Books of Moses. Why begin the reading of the Torah after Sukkot and not after Simchat Torah?
What is the significance of the four species over which a blessing is made, the lulav, etrog, hadas (myrtle) and aravah (willow)? Why does the blessing only mention the Lulav? Why are the four species waved after saying a blessing (w do not waive the Shabbat candles or the challahs or wine and other items for which we make a blessing)?
Why did the rabbis require the three species be tied together, but not the etrog?
Is the notion of the visit of seven long dead Ushpizin (guests, such as Abraham and King David) a superstition? (I would add, why is the number seven repeated so often in the practices of these holidays?)
Why did the ancient rabbis say that the pouring of water on the Temple altar, a ceremony called Simchat Bet ha-Sho’evah, was the most joyous occasion in the Temple on Sukkot? Why did the Sadducees oppose it? Why was it done?