Jewish festivals are fixed times in the year when Jews gather to perform the required mitzvot as a group of the house of Israel. The Jewish identity is best defined by codes of laws observed and ceremonies repeated yearly, as commanded by Hashem. From one generation to the next, these sacred traditions are passed down through Jewish families and the ever-expanding communities at large across the globe. And as far as the world is concerned- the Jewish religion is one of the oldest faith known to have passed through many turbulent times in history- yet managed to have survived till this very day. Nevertheless, the whole reason for this is firmly rooted in the resolute to remembering to keep the Shabbat and festivals as the basis. Every generation of Jews that have lived in the world did a pretty good job to transmit the oldest truth and traditions to their children and the ones after them.
From a holistic point of view, Jews are believers and keepers of the Torah given through the prophet Moshe (peace be upon him). Three times in a year it is commanded that every Israelite should appear before the Almighty Father and creator of the whole universe:
#NumberOne: Pesach- celebrated in the month of Abib, to remember the freedom from slavery in the land of Egypt
#NumberTwo: Shavuot- known as the feast of weeks, coinciding with a 7 weeks count from the second day of Pesach.
#NumberThree: Succot festival- is the peak of the high holidays- known as the feast of booths.
Succot, just like Pesach- is celebrated for seven whole days. However, the major difference being that the former is characterized by the eating of matzah while we dwell in the sukkah in the latter. This post covers the celebration of the feast of succot in some parts of Nigeria as the Jewish people marked the beginning of the 5781 Jewish year.
Building The Sukkah
Tishrei is the seventh month according to the Jewish calendar. Before it is Elul (the 6th month) and Cheshvan stands next to it as the eight-month. The uniqueness of the seventh month compared to all the other months is the high-holidays consisting of three Jewish festivals taking place in the same month. Interestingly, the law to build and dwell in the sukkah is fulfilled only during the seven days of succot.
Why do Jews build and dwell in the sukkah on succot? There is a short answer and a long answer to the question:
Short Answer: To dwell in the sukkah is a mitzvah. Building a sukkah, dwelling in it, as well as assisting in dismantling the structure- are all counted as merit to anyone who fulfilled these activities as a Jew.
Long Answer: To remember that some thousands of years ago, our ancestors dwelt in the tent (sukkah) on their way out of the land of Egypt as they were headed to the Promised Land. The children of Israel lived in sukkah right there in the wilderness, under the protection of Hashem who brought them out of bondage. Therefore, to remember this event and pass it down to many generations to come, Jews celebrate the festival of succot every year.
Once the Yom Kippur day is over, everyone begins to think about building a sukkah in their home or within the synagogue. There is always merit for the person who lends a helping hand in erecting the sukkah, and in whatever manner of support that is offered. Also, depending on the available space, the required specification for the height, size, and nature of the construction material should be used to make the sukkah valid following the Jewish laws. It is important to ensure to construct a stable structure that can remain strong till the end of the 7 days. Throughout the duration of the festival, the sukkah will serve as a place for resting, eating, studying, praying, and sleeping. Nevertheless, in most traditions- only the men are allowed to sleep in the sukkah.
Shabbat Shalom/ Chag Sameach From Har Shalom
Har Shalom Knesset is home to about 80 member congregations in Aba, the second-largest commercial town east of the Niger. Under the leadership of Derekyahu Nwede, the congregation has grown from not having a minyan to the point of having two regular minyan on Shabbat. A large part of this zealous Jewish group is made up of children who are passionate about Judaism. Counting just a few years on their journey practicing Judaism in Abia State, yet they have managed to grow in the study of the Torah, and making commendable efforts to help the younger children learn how to read and pray in the Hebrew language.
Flagging off my succot travel tour, I joined the brothers and sisters in Har Shalom to say Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! It was a double coincidence, two special feasts on the same day- Shabbat and erev Succot. The build-up to the double event saw last-minute input from a group of children who made sure that everything was set before the start of the big night.
As usual, the occasion begins with the lighting of the festival light about 18 minutes before sundown. And within a space of time, the venue was filled with members as they gathered to fulfill the mitzvot of Shabbat and say the prayers for the eve of Succot. The prayers were led by the two young cantors in the synagogue- Tovia Daniel ben Derekyahu and Gideon ben Yisrael.
Welcoming The 7 Guests
Apart from building the sukkah, another interesting thing is what goes on inside these succot booths. Not particularly in terms of what we do or say, but in the arrangement of the seats inside the sukkah. Even though things can slightly vary from one congregation to the other, one thing that is traditionally common is the seven reserved seats for the 7 spiritual guests, comprising of the following:
Following the festival payer proceedings, these exalted guests are welcomed into the sukkah, starting from the eve of every day, one day for each of them, corresponding with the seven days of succot. Each of them, announced as the leader of the other seven guests, for a particular day. No doubt, this is one of the remarkable features of Succot- a rare opportunity to connect with the souls of the patriarchs. The feelings, mixed with intense and absolute belief regarding the presence of the patriarchs as they dwell in our tents.
Back in Har Shalom Knesset, everyone was excited to enter the sukkah at the end of the kabbalat Shabbat. The leader of the synagogue said the prayers to welcome the 7 guests into the sukkah, with Avraham Avinu as head of the table that night. Usually, seven seats are positioned at a corner in the sukkah, mostly in the synagogue, for the spiritual guests.
Kiddush Under The Sukkah
Once in a year is all we’ve got to experience the sukkah way-of-life, which cannot be compared to the regular baking of challah every weekend for Shabbat. Every Jew yearns to enter the sukkah, fulfilling the mitzvah first and foremost, and then partaking in other activities permitted inside the festival tents. Beginning from the first day of succot, a person is supposed to spend some good time in the sukkah, till the conclusion of the feast.
Apart from Torah discussions, Kiddush is a major ritual performed in the sukkah. The festival is known as a time of in-gathering, a period of feasting, and time to celebrate a noteworthy event in the history of our Jewish ancestors while they sojourned in the wilderness. It is common for synagogues to hold Kiddush service in the evening to usher in every day of succot. The sukkah at home is no different- one can find pleasure and satisfaction eating bread and food under the tent.
The Kiddush on the second eve of succot was said by Derekyahu Nwede, the spiritual leader of Har Shalom. We left the sukkah to wash hands, following an ordered manner and then returning to eat bread. At the end, members of the synagogue chorused the “brikat hamazon” cheerfully, bringing the long day to an end. The grace after the meal was led by the young chazzan of the synagogue, Tovia David ben Derekyahu.
The Story Of The Origin Of Succot
How Judaism has become one of the oldest and surviving religions in the world still baffles a lot of folks till today. The fact, unknown to the majority, is because Jews instead see Judaism as a traditional way of life, and not a religion specifically. By simply knowing and sticking to what Hashem wants, and then passing these traditions from one generation to the next, this commitment has brought us a long way to this present generation of the Israelite. Both in the Holy land and diaspora.
The Torah is a living book, a light radiating through the people who keep the mitzvot. From the onset, the instruction is for us to remember firstly, and then to keep the commandment of the Holy One (Blessed is He). Through the hand of His servant, prophet Moshe (peace be upon him), the Torah was transmitted into the world at Mount Sinai, where the laws for Shabbat and Festivals were introduced. Looking critically at it- Jewish festivals coincide with an important period in the history of our Israeli ancestors as they left Egypt for the Promised Land, going through the wilderness.
The origin of succot is traced back to the time of our ancestors lived in tenths in the wilderness. It was also at the season of in-gathering, a time of harvesting and gathering, celebrated in the seventh month, starting from the fifteenth day of the month, till the next seven days- a festival solemn to the Elokim of Israel. A time for the unification of the house of Israel, a time to appear before the Almighty Father in joy and happiness. Acts of welcoming and showing kindness to friends and strangers is another remarkable feature of the festival, which is popularly known as the pilgrimage festival, a historic period when people from the surrounding regions visit Y’rushalayim. Both Jews and non-Jews. A time when tens of thousands of sukkah are erected all over the land of Israel.
Kabalistic Views Of The Sukkah
“You shall live in booths seven days. All citizens of benei Israel shall dwell in booths” (Va-yikra 23:42). The mitzvah commanded here centers around the sukkah, for which the festival derived its name. While this period coincides with the time in history our forefathers lived in tents, after the exodus from the land of Egypt as they journeyed towards the Promised Land- however, the constructed sukkah has deeper meanings.
The roof of the sukkah, which is mostly made of organic natural material, is the most important part that makes a sukkah valid or not. Kabbalists refer to it as the ceilings of consciousness through which divine connections can be made between the upper world and lower realms. Supernatural wisdom and understanding can be absolved through this spiritual medium, which serves as a covering over those who fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah for 7 days.
The partitions of the sukkah represent in the spiritual realm some key parts of the Sefirot. Hence, the reason the height of the roof should not be higher than twenty cubits for the sukkah to be valid. This is because according to kabbalah, the Zeir Anpin and Nukva, in which each is standing beneath each have ten Sefirot- making it altogether twenty cubits. Also, the stars must be visible from within the roof of the sukkah. This allows for the light from above to descend and become visible from within the sukkah.
Another spiritual reason for the sukkah is for divine protection against the forces working against the Jews. The model of the sukkah is viewed as a powerful and spiritual shield that Hashem used to protect the children of Israelite in the wilderness as they marched to the Land of Promise. Exhibiting the consciousness of the deeper kabbalistic meanings is required for a person to experience the full miracle of the sukkah.
Waving the Lulav
When people refer to the lulav and etrog, they are referring to all four species mentioned in (Leviticus 23:40). The four species mentioned in the Torah are: etrog (fruit of goodly trees), lulav (branch of palm trees), myrtle (boughs of leafy trees), and hoshanot (willow of the brook). It is a mitzvah to wave the lulav on each of the first seven days of succot, as we came to rejoice before Hashem our maker.
Before waving the lulav, a blessing is recited in the siddure. “Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu Melech Ha’Olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat lulav”.
On the first day, the “shehehiyanu” is added to the blessing. The lulav is usually waved during the morning service immediately before Hallel. While standing and facing east, the lulav is pointed and waved in 6 directions: front (east), right (south), back (west), left (north), upward, and downward. The whole waving procedure is repeated two more times before the lulav is dropped. According to the tradition, the etrog is first held pointing downward before saying the blessing. After the blessing, it should be pointed upward, joined with other species, and waved accordingly. Preferably, the lulav is waved inside the sukkah for some Kabbalistic reasons. Waving is also not permitted on Shabbat.
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Hoshana Rabbah/ Shemini Atzeret/ Simchat Torah With Members of the Association Of Jewish Faith
Hoshana Rabbah is the seventh day of Succot- a special day with notable significance in the entire Jewish year. The judgment, which begins on Rosh Hashana and continued till Yom Kippur is finalized on Hoshana Rabba (known as the final day of judgment). It is believed that the fate of the New Year is dependent on the decree made on this day. Tashlich, a prayer made by the banks of flowing water during Rosh Hashana can be said on the seventh day of Succot. Apart from staying awake the night preceding Hoshana Rabbah to read the book of Deuteronomy, the blessing for eating in the sukkah is recited for the last time on Hoshana Rabbah.
In Owerri, the capital of Imo State, the special day was celebrated in grand style. Congregants of the Association of Jewish Faiths, dressed in traditional Igbo attire, as they welcomed a set of non-Jews who were invited by the host Synagogue. And to make the day a memorable outing, a bar mitzvah was celebrated during the service.
At the end of the day, we welcomed Shabbat, ushering in the Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Succot. The synagogue was filled up, with some people sitting outside the main hall. The service was led by Avishalom and two other chazanim. By the time we got to havdalah, everyone moved with so much cheerfulness to the display of music-laden closing prayers to bring the long day to its end. And gazing into the star-studded night sky, it was time to wave goodbye to Succot as we enter Simchat Torah, a special day dedicated to celebrating the Torah.
Traditionally- every male is called up to the Torah on Simchat Torah. I was honored with the second Aliyah, which was my first ever in the Owerri Synagogue. It was such a spiritual exercise as every male ascended to the Torah to say the blessing before and after reading from the Torah scroll. And then to receive the blessing from the chazan officiating the Torah service before descending from the bimah. Even the younger males, not yet bar mitzvah, were called up as a group to come to the Torah. It was indeed a colorful day, as we celebrated the Torah, dancing around the beit Knesset with the small Torah scroll.
After the shacharit service, there were few moments of making new acquaintances, and taking some group photos. Little did I realize that the celebration of the Torah would still be taken to the neighborhood, on the streets of the state capital! Marching out as a group through the gates of the Synagogue, brothers and sisters proudly displayed their Jewishness in the open. All through the 6 kilometers walk, our voices echoed into the busy streets as we caught the attention of passersby and onlookers. And by the time we got back to the Knesset- there was a feeling of satisfaction, especially celebrating the Torah on Simchat Torah. Such pleasant memories will remain for long, serving as a template for consequent Simchat Torah events.
Photo Gallery I
Wishing Everyone A Prosperous 5781. Check Out the Upcoming Kulanu’s Hannuka Musical Event!
Signs of a better year ahead are already unfolding right in its first month of Tishrei. There were two brit mila occasions in two spots in Jewish Nigeria on Simchat Torah day- Gihon Hebrew Synagogue and Har Shalom Knesset. Another general global breakthrough was announced in the second month of the new year, Cheshvan. After a terrible 2020 coronavirus era, it was such a relief to hear that Pfizer and Moderna have discovered Covid-19 vaccines with 90% and 95% effectiveness respectively. What this simply means is that the world will have a normal 2021, void of the restrictions, limitations, and shrinking economies. What else can one wish for, if not for a prosperous and fulfilling year to make up for most of the setbacks experienced. However, in everything, we say Baruch Hashem!
Lastly- using this medium to notify our readers that Kulanu is inviting you to a Chanukah Zoom-a-thon to celebrate the music of our partner communities across the globe. The Kulanu in Song Chanukah Benefit will be aired on Tuesday, December 15 at 8 pm EST and again on Thursday, December 17, at 1:00 pm EST. Take this opportunity to bring your menorah and celebrate the “nes” or miracle of the strength and diversity of the Jewish people for over two millennia since the Maccabean Revolt. Click on this link https://kulanu.org/zoom-a-thon/ so you can learn more about the upcoming Hanukkah music Festival!
ABOUT THE WRITER: Avraham ben Avraham is a Nigerian Writer, Business Consultant, International Tour Guide and a Jewish Travel Blogger. He is the founder of the Jewish Nigeria Blog (his 2nd blog after the Jewish Standards). Avraham is also a contributory writer in the diaspora section of The Jerusalem Post Magazine. Some of his upcoming projects include: the Jewish Nigeria Online Forum, Jewish Nigeria Directory, the “Book of the Returning Jews,” and Parnasah Network (Nigeria). He is a member of the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce (New Jersey).
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