4 Experiences Not To Miss When Spending Sukkot in Israel

August 4th 2013

Priestly Blessing at the Western WallCelebrating Jewish holidays in the Disapora can be highly meaningful, but it’s nothing like the experience in Israel, where the traditional Jewish holidays are national holidays for an entire country. Here, newer, vibrant, local holiday traditions are accessible to visitors and Israelis from all walks of life.

The holiday of Sukkot generally takes place during September or October. In Temple times, Jewish people from all over the Land of Israel came to Jerusalem each year on Sukkot to offer sacrifices at the Holy Temple. Today, Sukkot remains an extraordinarily popular time to visit Israel, with a flurry of fun activities for the entire family to enjoy, both literally related to the holiday’s customs and simply good fun that has taken hold as traditional for when everyone’s on vacation and the weather is perfect. Here are four distinctly Israeli Sukkot experiences not to miss when you’re visiting for the festival.

1. Shuk Arba Minim in Jerusalem

One of the strongest rituals of Sukkot is gathering and shaking the arba minim – the four species (date palm, willow, myrtle and etrog). In Jerusalem, in a large, tented area adjacent to Shuk Machane Yehuda is the world’s largest arba minim shopping opportunity. In the days and nights leading up to Sukkot, you’ll see experts painstakingly examining and selecting each of the four species according to their individual criteria. Sukkah decorations are also on sale here. Esoteric spiritual tradition and contemporary urban commerce have never melded so perfectly.

2. Birkat Kohanim at the Kotel

Twice a year, during the intermediate days (chol hamoed) of Sukkot and Passover, thousands of Kohanim, male descendants of the priestly class who officiated in the days of the Holy Temple, gather at the Western Wall to bestow blessings upon the Jewish people as a whole. The blessing of the Kohanim occurs twice during the morning service. The entire Kotel plaza is bursting with people hoping to participate, either as issuers or recipients of the auspicious blessings. For many, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

3. Live Music on Chol Hamoed

In the Bible, Sukkot is referred to as “Our Time of Rejoicing.” In Israel, the first and the last days of Sukkot are full holidays, and the middle days have the status of semi-holidays. These days of chol hamoed are perfect for fun outings, with live concerts and street dancing scheduled in most major cities in Israel. Especially noteworthy are the Tamar Music Festival in the Dead Sea area and the Aluminum Show, a traveling music and dance show that uses recycled aluminum as props. Note, though, that celebrations held in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods are only open to men.

4. Eating in Restaurants’ Streetside Sukkot

Nearly every kosher restaurant (and some non-kosher ones too!) in Israel constructs a sukkah, a temporary booth, on its premises so patrons can eat inside the sukkah during the holiday, fulfilling a biblical commandment. These restaurant sukkot are often cleverly decorated, are sometimes open to street traffic on one side, offer an unconventionally fun way to enjoy your falafel, pizza, foie gras or whatever.