The laws of Sukkos.


1. The last of our holidays at the end of the year is Sukkos – one of the most joyful holidays. Now that the judgment days are over, a Jew feels the happiness of the one justified in court. The purpose of the holiday of Sukkos is to show how vain this world is. On this holiday we live in the tents constructed of cheap materials, covered by simple branches. Being in such unprotected dwellings, we show that only the Creator guards us.


2. Many people start building the Sukkah right after Yom Kippur (some people begin even before Yom Kippur to have additional merits which will add to one’s mitzvos). It is necessary to build a tent in open-air (not under a tree or a hanging roof of the house). The laws of construction of a kosher tent are quite complex, therefore it is necessary to always ask a Rabbi.


3. During the seven days of the holiday we have to live in a tent. This means eating, sleeping, learning Torah in the Sukkah as though it was our house. Only if it is raining, and the life in a tent becomes unbearable, we go home. Outside the Sukkah one is permitted to eat or drink something, as the person sometimes does outside of the house, but all meals that include bread need to be eaten only inside the Sukkah. According to some opinions even when one eats large amounts of cake or drinks a lot of wine he should also go to the Sukkah. In any case it is desirable to eat and drink everything only inside the Sukkah. In cold countries, not everyone can sleep in a tent, but happy is the one who puts on warm clothes and spends the night there.


4. The second special mitzvah of the holiday is picking up four species: Esrog, Lulav, myrtle branches and willow branches. It is necessary to buy the plants of the best quality; a Rabbi can help checking your plants to make sure they are kosher. If a person did not have an opportunity to buy the plants, on the first two days of the holiday he cannot simply borrow them. Rather he needs to ask a friend to give him the plants as a gift with a condition, that he will return them back.


5. Women are not obliged to sit in a Sukkah or to lift the four plants. Nevertheless, most women pick up the plants and some also recite the blessing.


Now, the Torah tells us that on Sukkos we should pick up the four species of plants required for the mitzvah:  “the beautiful fruit", a palm branch (lulav), a myrtle branch and branches of the willow growing near water. As it is known, our sages explain that "the beautiful fruit" is the esrog, a kind of citrus plant. All the four species in our bouquet should be beautiful, and the Talmud explains us the exact laws of the defects that render these plants unsuitable (posul in Hebrew) for the mitzvah. All plants must be fresh, not dried, and their tops should not be broken off. The esrog should not have discolorations, blisters, or swellings. The top of the lulav should not be split. The myrtle branches should be covered by leaves which grow in triplets at each level. Willow branches can be easily mixed with the branches of other plant (tzaftzafah), which are not kosher for the mitzvah. Unlike a willow, the leaves of tzaftzafah have teeth like a saw.


In this short essay, we will tell a few ethical principle which are hinted to by these laws. Most of these hints are taken from the book of questions and answers by Rav Moshe Shternbuch, section 2:308, and are generally based on the well-known Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 30:12), which is quoted in most Torah commentaries. It mentions there that esrog has a good taste and a fine smell; a palm tree has tasty fruits (dates), but has no smell; a myrtle has a good smell, but no taste; and a willow has neither taste nor smell. The midrash compares esrog to a righteous person who is well versed in Torah and accurately performs the mitzvahs. The lulav and the myrtle branch hint to average people. There are some people who study Torah, but are not cautious enough in observance of the mitzvahs, others do a lot of good, but not especially learned in Torah. The willow branches represent the people that are far from both the Torah and the mitzvahs. Thus, the Torah orders us "to take" all Jews together, and to correct the "willow branches" by means of the other plants. Now we will discuss the concrete halachos.


1. A good esrog always has a pleasant smell and taste. Similarly, the righteous person should be always full of Torah and good deeds. If and esrog comes from cross-breeding plants (for example, a hybrid of a lemon and an esrog), it is not kosher. Similarly, a righteous person should be complete, rather than a "hybrid". Today it is difficult to find a kosher esrog that is not a product of grafting, so too fully righteous people are quite rare. The Talmud says that the esrog has the same taste as its’ tree. The reason is that the primary part of esrog is the peel; in truth, the esrog is unique from citrus fruits in having such a thick skin; it also is one of the main signs of a kosher esrog (Chasam Sofer, Orach Chaim 207). The peel hints to ordinary things of this world. In case of a truly righteous person, even physical functions are raised to the spiritual level. His eating, drinking, walking, talking, and even his relations with his spouse are all done for the sake of the Creator. Today we rarely find completely "clean" esrogim; the majority have holes, pierced during growth by thorns, and also different formations on the skin. Nevertheless, such esrogim are also kosher though they are not considered to be the best. Similarly, the righteous people today suffer because of their surroundings, and the many also get affected by "the pricking of thorns". The top of an esrog (pitom) should not be broken off, but if an esrog never had a "pitom" then it is kosher. Rav Shternbuch writes, that this law hints that a Rabbi who once deeply studied Torah and later stopped, goes away even further than the one who never studied (see the Talmud, Chagiga, 9b, Pesachim 49b).


2. The lulav’s top should be not broken. It should also not be split; if it looks like a broom or is bent or broken, it is not kosher. The lulav, being above the other species, acts as a leader (that is also the reason we make a blessing on the four plants "Al Netilas Lulav"). The leader should not bend aside, he should not be divided or break. He should rather lead the others to serve the Creator. In the last generations, we often find "leaders" who actually are actually running before the crowd instead of correcting the masses. Our sages predicted this, saying that the "face" (leaders) of the last generation before Moshiach (may he come soon) will be similar to a dog (Talmud, Sotah 49b). The matter is that though the dog runs ahead of the owner, and at first sight it is possible to think that the owner follows the leadership of the dog, but as soon as the owner changes direction, the dog again runs before him. Thus, it becomes clear, that in truth the dog is running according to the command of its’ master (Rav Elchonan Wasserman).


3. The myrtle branches should have three leaves at each level. They represent Torah, prayer and kind deeds (see Pirke Avos 1:2). The leaves should cover all the stalks of the myrtle; just as these three things should accompany us during our entire life.


4. Willow branches (aravos) are described as growing near water. Though they hint to the uneducated and not so righteous Jews, but even those should at least aspire to the "water" of Torah. The leaves of a willow are smooth, but if the leaves have teeth like a saw, this is "tzaftzafah" and is not kosher. Though willow branches do not have a nice smell, but they should not smell unpleasant either. The matter is that many not knowing and not observing Jews at least try to learn and observe. But there are also those who have their "own ideology" - an unpleasant smell. Many of them have "sharp teeth" like a saw - these people are completely not kosher. It is interesting, that the Remah mentions a custom to change willow branches every day since they quickly fade and become unsuitable for a mitzvah. Certainly, if even after being in contact with righteous people the sinner has not changed, then nothing could be done.


5. We take three branches of a myrtle, but only two branches of willow. Branches of a myrtle should be put above the branches of willow; thus, the lulav towers above the entire bouquet, the myrtle is below and the willow is the lowest. The esrog is not tied up together with the other three plants, we just bring it in touch with the bouquet during the blessing on the mitzvah and when we shake the plants in four directions, upwards and downwards. The matter is that a good company is formed when the righteous and average Jews are in the majority. The sinners (willow branches) are below the others and are few in number. If the leadership is in the hands of sinners, there is not much good the righteous can do in such an "organization" (see Talmud Makkos 5b). Still, even in the company where the majority are average people, the righteous (esrog) does not stay. He only comes temporarily to improve them, but later comes back. During the reading of verses of Hallel (thanksgiving), we shake our "bouquet" in different directions. We thus show that the Torah should be spread everywhere. But when we say the name of the Creator, we do not shake the four plants. When it comes to the name of Hashem, it is necessary to stand straight and steady.


May we deserve again this year to correctly fulfill the mitzvah of living in the Sukkah and picking up the four species.


The laws of Chol Hamoed, Hoshanah Rabah, Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah.


1. The intermediate days between the beginning and the end of the holidays of Sukkos and Pesach are called Chol Hamoed. On these days we are forbidden to do most types of labor-consuming work. Those employed by others should try to take a vacation during Chol Hamoed. Nevertheless, if missing work will result in great monetary losses, it is permitted to work. All of this provided that the person does not leave the work intentionally to be done on Chol Hamoed.


2. The laws of Chol Hamoed are quite complex, we will describe only some of them. One is forbidden to do laundry or take a haircut on Chol Hamoed. Writing is possible only under some circumstances, for example, what will otherwise be forgotten and will lead to financial losses. It is forbidden to give a car to be fixed, if it will only be needed after the holidays. If it is needed on Chol Hamoed itself, one needs to ask a Rabbi. Buying is permitted only for the sake of a holiday or at great discounts, if after the holidays such low prices will not exist. Marrying on Chol Hamoed is forbidden.


3. The last day of Chol Hamoed of Sukkos holiday is called Hoshanah Rabah. This day is even more festive than the other days of Chol Hamoed. According to Kabbalah, the Divine Judgment after Yom Kippur is still not completely sealed up to Hoshanah Rabah. Therefore, on this night many people do not sleep and read the last book of Torah – Devarim – in the synagogues. During the morning prayers of the holiday of Sukkos we were walking with our four species around the Bimah. On Hoshanah Rabah, we walk around the Bimah seven times. There is another special mitzvah of the day – we take willow branches and bit them against the floor five times. The reason of this custom has Kabbalistic explanations. According to the simple meaning, it is done in memory of the willow branches which were used during the days of the holiday for the service in the Temple.


4. The last two days of the holiday are called Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah (the happiness of Torah). According to Torah law, it is not necessary to sit in a Sukkah during these days, but outside of the Land of Israel all holidays are celebrated for an extra day (see Parshas Bemidbar), and therefore the first day of Shemini Atzeres is also the second day of Hoshanah Rabah and we continue to sit in a tent. However, the blessing on sitting in the Sukkah is not recited.


5. On the last day of the holiday we finish reading the Torah. In the evening and in the morning we do Hakafos – go around the Bimah carrying all the Torah scrolls. On this day it is customary to give an Alliyah to everybody, so that every person can make a blessing over the Torah at least once a year. The last two Alliyahs are bought for a lot of money, they are called Choson Torah – the groom of Torah and Choson Breyshis. With this day, the holiday cycle and the Torah reading cycle are over, but this is not the end but just a new BEGINNING.