Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Sukkhot

As the Jewish High Holy Days draw to a close, the focus of the Jewish community shifts from the solemnity of Yom Kippur to the jubilant celebration of the festival of Sukkoth.

In the Jewish diaspora Sukkoth is an eight-day festival beginning on the fifth day after Yom Kippur.

Sukkath is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, which refer to special huts, called sukkah, that Moses and the Israelites lived in as they wandered the desert for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land.

During Sukkath, observant Jews build similar huts and live in them during this eight-day festival. We do this in modern times to get closer to the Almighty, and remember how G-d protected the Jews in the desert thousands of years ago.

The huts, or sukkah, must be built a certain way. There are four walls, usually of wood. The roof is made of a special material called “schach.” Today bamboo is commonly used, but in days before there was no bamboo in Ukraine, tree branches with leaves were used. The roof must allow us to see the stars in the sky, to remind us of our connection to heaven and the Almighty.

Of course, if it’s raining or snowing outside, we are obliged to sleep and eat inside our homes. But when the weather is inclement, we are obliged to at least make a blessing in the hut.

The celebration of Sukkoth helps us renew our dedication and commitment to the Almighty and His laws. Therefore, while it is not always easy to live in these huts, it is ultimately a great commitment.

Sukkoth concludes with a special two-day holiday. The first is Shemini Atzeret, meaning “the 7th day of assembly.” On this day Jews pray for rain in Israel, to replenish the reservoirs so there would be sufficient water over winter and to irrigate the fields during the following spring and summer.

Sometimes on the Shemini Atzeres festival it is also raining in Ukraine. When this happens local Ukrainians always joke about this, calling the festival “Kuchki.” What they mean is that when it rains at this time of year it’s due to the Jewish tabernacles, or huts.

The final day of Sukkoth is Simchat Torah, or as Jews in Halychyna say in Yiddish … Simchas Toyreh. This means “the joy of Torah.” On this day we rejoice by singing and dancing with the Torah scrolls.

In translation, Torah means a code of civil law which governs a person from birth until death. Religious Jews consider the Torah a great gift because those who observe its laws faithfully are always happy and safe.

The dancing and the singing on Simchat Torah point us to something deeper than merely having fun. Simchat Torah celebrates an eternal joy that can sustain and comfort us in deepest sadness, and guide us safely through life’s most difficult journeys.

As the Yiddish saying goes: Gliklech iz der Yid vos lernt Toyre wos darf mir noch mer! “Happy is the Jew who learns Torah that we do need nothing more that that!”

In Ukraine, Jews can often be seen openly carrying a Torah scroll, called a Seyfer Toyre in Yiddish. In a country where Jews are a minority, it gives us great joy to be able to freely keep an observant Jewish life. We forget always very quickly that a mere 20 years ago, openly observant Jews risked losing their livelihoods.

As Jews around the world begin a new year, please allow me to extend to you, on behalf of Ukraine’s Jewish community, best wishes for the coming year, we wish the year shall be sweet, healthy and peaceful to the all People in Ukraine and in the World.

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