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Sukkot 2011: Dates, Customs, Prayers Explained

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The Jewish Feast of the Tabernacle, Sukkot, begins at sundown on Oct. 12, 2011, and ends at nightfall on Oct. 19. The Festival of Booths, as Sukkot is also known, is observed from the 15th to the 21st of the Tishrei in the Jewish year of 5772.

For the eight days and seven nights of Sukkot, Jews traditionally eat and sleep in a sukkah, a temporary dwelling with a thatched roof, from which the holiday gets its name. Two other components of the holiday are inviting guests, or ushpizin, and waving the four species, known as the lulav and etrog.

Sukkot is one of three biblically mandated holidays for which the ancient tribes made a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. The holiday is based on the verse: "Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 23:42-43). The sukkah is a physical remembrance of the "clouds of glory" that surrounded and protected the Israelites as they wandered the desert after escaping from Egypt.

The commandment regarding the "four species" -- the lulav (palm, willow and myrtle) and etrog (citron) -- also comes from chapter 23 of Leviticus: "And you shall take for yourselves on the first day [of Sukkot], the fruit of the hadar tree [myrtle], date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven day period" (23:40). The lulav and etrog are held together and, after reciting a blessing, waved in six directions -- forward, backward, left, right, up and down -- in acknowledgment of God's dominion over all creation.

Another important aspect of Sukkot is welcoming of guests (ushpizin in Aramaic) into the sukkah. While people actually invite friends, family and strangers into their hand-built temporary homes, on each night of Sukkot a different ancestral guest, leading the entire group of "holy shepherds," is said to enter the sukkah, and Jewish teachings are invoked in their names. The ushpizin -- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David -- embody seven different spiritual paths that, together, bring humanity and all of creation to a more perfected state: Abraham is lovingkindness, Isaac is strength, Jacob represents harmony, Moses is eternality through Torah, Aaron is divine splendor, Joseph is spiritual foundation and David embodies sovereignty.

Check out these photos from NYC's Sukkah City of 2010:

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