Sukkot and Simchat Torah
For forty years, as our ancestors traversed the Sinai Desert prior to their entry into the Holy Land, miraculous "clouds of glory" surrounded and hovered over them, shielding them from the dangers and discomforts of the desert. Ever since, we remember G-d's kindness and reaffirm our trust in His providence by dwelling in a sukkah--a hut of temporary construction with a roof covering of branches--for the duration of the Sukkot festival (Tishrei 15-21). For seven days and nights, we eat all our meals in the sukkah and otherwise regard it as our home.
Another Sukkot observance is the taking of the Four Kinds: an etrog (citron), a lulav (palm frond), three hadassim (myrtle twigs) and two aravot (willow twigs). On each day of the festival (excepting Shabbat), we take the Four Kinds, recite a blessing over them, bring them together in our hands and wave them in all six directions: right, left, forward, backward, up and down. The Midrash tells us that the Four Kinds represent the various types and personalities that comprise the community of Israel, whose intrinsic unity we emphasize on Sukkot.
Sukkot is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths.
‘You shall dwell in sukkot seven days...in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your G-d’. Leviticus 23:42
The seventh day of Sukkot is called Hoshaana Rabbah ("Great Salvation") and closes the period of Divine judgment begun on Rosh Hashanah. A special observance is the Aravah--a bundle of willow branches that is carried around the synagogue.
Immediately following the seven-day festival of Sukkot is the two-day festival of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. (In the Land of Israel, the festival is "compacted" in a single day).
Shemini Atzeret means "the eighth [day] of retention"; the chassidic masters explain that the primary purpose of the festival is to retain and "conceive" the spiritual revelations and powers that we are granted during the festivals of the month of Tishrei, so that we could subsequently apply them to our lives throughout the year.
The "Four Kinds" are not taken on Shemini Atzeret. We still eat in the sukkah (according to the custom of most communities), but without making the special blessing on the sukkah. On the second day of Shemini Atzeret (i.e., the ninth day from the beginning of Sukkot)--and in the Land of Israel--we go back to eating in the home.
The second day of Shemini Atzeret is called Simchat Torah ("Rejoicing of the Torah"). On this day we conclude, and begin anew, the annual Torah reading cycle. The event is marked with great rejoicing, especially during the "hakafot" procession, in which we march, sing and dance with the Torah scrolls around the reading table in the synagogue. "On Simchat Torah," goes the chassidic saying, "we rejoice in the Torah, and the Torah rejoices in us; the Torah, too, wants to dance, so we become the Torah's dancing feet."
Other festival observances include the special prayer for rain included in the musaf prayer of Shemini Atzeret, and the custom that all are called up to the Torah on Simchat Torah.