The most visible feature of Sukkot is the building of temporary shelters. In fact, "the word 'sukkot' means 'booths,' and refers to the temporary dwelling that we are commanded to live in during this holiday in memory of the period of wandering" (Rich). This commandment is found in the Bible. "You will dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths" (Leviticus 23:42). This is not a figurative command, but a literal one. Jews are expected to build and dwell in a sukkah during Sukkot. "The commandment to 'dwell' in a sukkah can be fulfilled by simply eating all of one's meals there; however, if the weather, climate, and one's health permit, one should spend as much time in the sukkah as possible, including sleeping in it" (Rich).
While the rules for building a sukkah are not rigid, there are some basic guidelines for its construction that should be followed. A sukkah should have at least two and a half walls, and ideally it should have three walls, which are covered in material that is sturdy enough to survive wind, though these walls do not have to be solid (Rich). For example, canvas is considered an acceptable "wall" for a sukkah, but people are not discouraged from using more solid substances like boards (Rich). Sukkahs can vary in size, but should be large enough to dwell within; they are not meant to be symbolic, but to be a structure that actually provides shade to someone. The roofs of sukkahs, referred to as sekhakh, are not supposed to be solid; they are supposed to be something that grew from the ground, was cut off, and is loose enough to permit rain to enter the shelter but not so loose as to have openings larger than 10 inches or allow in more light than shade; others say that it needs to be loose enough for someone to be able to view the stars in the night sky through the openings (Rich). Examples of appropriate materials for sekhakh include branches, corn stalks, bamboo, sticks, or wood (Rich). The fact that sukkahs must be water permeable on the top can obviously create problems during times of inclement weather. One may cover a sukkah with a water-proof covering during rain but cannot dwell within the sukkah during that time period, but instead either wait until the rain stops or remove the waterproof covering (Rich). It is also permissible, though not required, to decorate the sukkah, and decorations generally reflect the harvest nature of the festival with seasonal harvest-themed items. The building of the sukkah is supposed to be a joyous activity, so things that bring joy to the festival, without compromising its intent, are encouraged. Therefore, there is no reason that decorations would need to be limited to a harvest theme.
However, building the sukkah and entering it are not simply about having fun, and it is important to realize that joyful rejoicing and fun are not interchangeable synonyms. After the sukkah is built, there are traditional prayers associated with entering it. "Tradition calls for one family to enter the sukkah, recite the Motzi prayer over the meal to be eaten, and then add a special blessing: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu leishev basukah. 'Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us through Your mitzvot and commanded us to dwell in the sukkah'" (Syme). These prayers serve as a reminder that God and the special relationship between the Jews and God are the reasons for the Sukkot holiday.
Furthermore, dwelling in a sukkah has more than a symbolic meaning, and its meaning becomes clearer the more time someone actually spends in the sukkah. Dwelling in sukkah requires a separation from much of the material things that normally drive people in their daily lives. Whether material possessions or material accomplishments, so much of everyday life is focused on the worldly that it can be tempting to assume that the worldly things are the most important things. "Sukkot forces [one] to leave those behind and return to a much simpler, almost nomadic existence" ("Sukkot Theology and Themes").
In addition to the sukkah, there are other symbols associated with the festival: the four species, also referred to as arba minim, lulav, or etrog. Leviticus 23:40 provides that, "On the first day, you will take for yourselves a fruit of a beautiful tree, palm branches, twigs of a braided tree and brook wills, and you will rejoice before the L-RD your God for seven days" (Leviticus 23:40). The fruit of the beautiful tree refers to the etrog or citron, the palm refers to a palm branch, the willow refers to two willow branches, and the braided tree refers to three myrtle branches (Rich). One ties the six branches together into a lulav, and holds the etrog separately. "With these four species in hand, one recites a blessing and waves the species in all six directions (east, south, west, north, up and down), symbolizing that God is everywhere" (Rich). Moreover, the four species play a role in the Hallel prayers, and held in hakafot, the processions around the bimah, which are also referred to as Hoshanot. The seventh day of Sukkot, there are seven circuits around the bimah, so that that day is referred to as Hoshanah Rabbah (Cardin). In many temples this is in itself a festival day. After the last of the seven circuits on Hoshanah Rabbah, one beats the willow branches on the floor (Rich).
There are some questions about the significance of the four species. Obviously, the requirement to use for species is found in the biblical instructions for the holiday, but they are believed to have significance beyond the fact that they were biblically prescribed. Some people believe that the four species represent parts of the body. In this interpretation, the palm branch represents the spin, the myrtle leaf represents the eye, the willow leaf represents the mouth, and the etrog represents the heart (Rich). The religious significance of these body parts would be that they can all be used for sin, but should be used to observe the commandments (Rich). The second interpretation of the four species is that they are meant to represent four different types of Jews. In this interpretation, the etrog represents Jews who have knowledge of Torah and performance of mitzvoth; the palm branch represents Jews who have knowledge of Torah; the myrtle leaf represents Jews who perform mitzvoth; and the willow represents Jews who lack knowledge of Torah and do not perform mitzvoth (Rich). The unity of the four types in the ceremony is then said to be a reminder that all Jews should be united.
Like most religious holidays, work is prohibited during Sukkot, but these prohibitions only extend to the first and second days of the holiday. Looking at the above passage, the reason for this limitation is clear. The holiday did not develop into a mixed agricultural/historical holiday; it was decreed to be an agricultural holiday when it was instituted. Therefore, it was known that it would be associated with the harvest, so that work would have been a major part of the holiday as long as the Israelites were an agriculture-based society. In its capacity as a harvest festival, Sukkot "is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif…the Festival of Ingathering" (Rich). Therefore, it makes sense that work is permitted for the duration of the holiday, given that it is also a harvest festival, and this in-gathering or harvesting necessarily implies work.
Examining the harvest-nature of Sukkot, one can see the links between the ancient harvest and the modern festival, even in elements that seem to link more strongly to the idea of wandering in the desert. "Sukkot hearkens back to times in ancient Israel when Jews would build huts near the edges of their fields during the harvest season. ..These dwellings not only provided shade but allowed the workers to maximize the amount of time they spent in the fields, harvesting their food more quickly as a result" (Pelaia). Therefore, the sukkahs are temporary shelters that serve multiple purposes, which not only show the relationships between these two seemingly distinct areas of Jewish history, but also to show the underlying continuity in Jewish culture.
What is interesting is that, for many Americans there seems to be a clear link between Sukkot and a secular American holiday. The harvest-nature of the festival has led many people to compare Sukkot to Thanksgiving, and, in many ways the practices are very similar. Both holidays are focused on the idea of giving thanks for bounty and abundance, while also acknowledging that times of plenty are transient. In fact, there is speculation that the Pilgrims actually borrowed the idea of Sukkot as an inspiration for the Thanksgiving holiday (Rich). Like Sukkot, the first Thanksgivings were essentially harvest celebrations, which rejoiced in the fact that…