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D'var Torah: Shabbat Chol haMoed Sukkot


In Hebrew, when we use the term “chag,” we mean “festival.” But when the second-temple period Israelites said “chag” or “ha-chag,” “the festival,” they were referring to only one festival—Sukkot. Even hundreds of years earlier, when the stories that make up the Bible were being composed, Sukkot was called chag; you can look it up (see Lev. 23:39, 41; 1 Ki. 8:2, 12:32). In the tenth century BCE, Solomon chose Sukkot as the occasion to consecrate the Temple and according to Deuteronomy, the public reading of the Torah was to take place every seven years on Sukkot (Dt. 31:10–13).

After the return from exile in Babylon, Sukkot was the first sacred occasion observed following the resumption of sacrifices in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:2–4). And speaking of sacrifices, one measure of the importance of a holiday is the number of sacrifices prescribed. In today’s maftir we read about the sacrifices needed for the fifth and sixth days of Sukkot—seventeen bullocks, four rams, twenty-eight yearling sheep, and two goats, plus grain and libation offerings—all in addition to the regular Shabbat offering. Sukkot is unmatched by any holiday, or even Shabbat, in the quantity and diversity of its sacrifices: Numbers 29:12–39, twenty-eight verses, deal exclusively with the Sukkot sacrifices and no less than seventy bullocks are required along with fourteen rams, 98 lambs, seven goats, plus the copious grain offerings and libation offerings prescribed to accompany the animal sacrifices.

It was the world’s biggest barbeque, then and now. In fact, according to Maimonides, this was the origin of the football tailgate party and even the state fair. You can read it in his Hilchot Oleh shel Galut (“Laws of Barbeque in the Diaspora”).

Humor aside, Zechariah wrote that in messianic times, all of the world’s nations will come to Jerusalem on Sukkot to celebrate the holiday (Zech.14:16). And when the Hasmoneans recaptured Jerusalem from the Syrians in 164 BCE and rededicated the Temple, the dedication was celebrated as a delayed Sukkot—seven days of the holiday followed by Shemini Atzeret. This is why Chanukah is eight days long, not because of a miraculous vessel of oil—but that’s a story for a different season. (Which I’ll be doing in December for Chanukah, in fact.)

Besides Chag and Chag ha-Sukkot the holiday is called chag ha-asif, “festival of the ingathering” (Ex. 23:16), chag Adonai, “festival of the Lord” (Lev. 23:39; Judg. 21:19), chag ba-chodesh hashvei’e, “festival of the seventh month” (Ezek. 45:25; Neh. 8:14) and zeman simchateinu, “season of our rejoicing” (Dt. 16:14).

Sukkot is actually two holidays rolled into one, and its various names give you a clue to its two origins. The Torah says about chag ha-asif, “At the end of the year when you gather in your labors out of the field” (Ex. 23:16) and “...after you have gathered in from your threshing-floor and from your winepress” (Dt. 16:13), so clearly Sukkot was a harvest festival. However, the holiday has come to be called Sukkot, meaning “booths,” so we see that Sukkot was also thought of as a festival of commemoration of the Exodus. We know this from the command in the Torah: “You shall dwell in sukkot seven days ... so that your generations shall know that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:42–43). And herein lies a contradiction. Everywhere else the Torah says that while in the wilderness the Israelites dwelt in tents (see, for example, Ex. 16:16, 33:8, 10; Num. 11:10, 16:27, 24:5; Dt. 1:27, 5:27). So did they live in sukkot or in tents? Sifra (the halakhic midrash on Leviticus) records a rabbinic debate on just this topic. (It’s mentioned in the Talmud, also, but there the protagonists are switched [b. Sukkot 11b].)

R. Eliezer says: They were real sukkot. R. Akiba says: The sukkot were the clouds of glory (Sifra Emor 17:11 [103a–b]).

R. Akiba’s argument for his belief was apparently quite convincing because his interpretation became accepted as the majority rabbinic interpretation and is found in the targums (the Aramaic translations of the Torah) and in many later writings. Akiba’s idea of sukkot as metaphorical shelters provided by God for the people’s protection prevailed probably since he also argued that sukkot are not built in the desert; they are built in agricultural fields for the protection of the workers and their animals. They’re constructed of the kind of materials one would expect to find in an agricultural setting—tree branches, wood, straw, etc. Such materials are not found in the desert. Furthermore, the Bible has ample descriptions of the uses of a sukkah as a metaphorical shelter. For example:

And God will create over all Mount Zion ... a cloud ... [which] shall serve as a sukkah for shade from heat by day and for shelter and protection against storm and rain. (Isa. 4:5–6)

He made darkness His screen; dark thunder-heads, dense clouds of the sky were His sukkah round about him. (Ps. 18:11–12)

Can one, indeed, contemplate the expanse of clouds, the thunderings from His sukkah? (Job 36:29)

Except for that single Leviticus reference I cited, the exodus narrative never mentions sukkot, but it is replete with references to clouds—the pillar of cloud that guided the Israelites in the desert; the cloud over Mt. Sinai; the cloud inside the Mishkan from which God speaks to Moses; the cloud above the tent of meeting where God resides—there are many references to these clouds in the last four books of the Torah. And where does the pillar of cloud first appear to the Israelites? It’s at a place called—Sukkot!

And they journeyed from Sukkot and they camped at Ethom, in the edge of the wilderness and the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them in their way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give light to them.... (Ex. 13:20–21)

When did the custom of dwelling in sukkot as a matter of ritual law begin to be observed? Unlike most other such rituals, we actually might be able to date when the law of dwelling in sukkot began. After the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews returned to Jerusalem, they celebrated Sukkot by making and dwelling in sukkot. Nehemiah reported of this practice, “the Israelites had not done so from the days of Joshua” (Neh. 8:17). Since the book of Joshua is silent on the matter of dwelling in sukkot, we can safely assume that this mitzvah had its origins during the return from exile.

The mitzvah of dwelling in sukkot is totally unique and stands out among all of the 613 mitzvot. The mitzvah simply states, “you shall dwell in sukkot seven days...” (Lev. 23:42). This is a unique mitzvah because nothing more is required of the person than just being in a place. To fulfill the mitzvah, one simply enters the sukkah and remains, living in the space as if it were one’s home. You really don’t need to do anything else. For the seven days of the holiday, one is totally surrounded by the mitzvah.

Two years ago we had a presentation by Liz Harrow about the characteristics of a valid sukkah so I won’t repeat that discussion. But the two other special holiday mitzvot are also interesting as well as being unique. Those are: taking up the arba minim (four species) and rejoicing in the holiday. So what are the four species? The four species are the “lulav and etrog,” but the lulav actually consists of three different plants—three branches from the hadas (myrtle) tree, two branches from the aravah (willow) tree, and the lulav itself, which is a frond from a date palm. We are told about the four species in the Torah:

On the first day you shall take the pri etz hadar (fruit of beautiful trees), branches of palm trees, boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. (Lev. 23:40)

Okay, from this we can identify two species—palm and willow. What about the other two? They are identified by oral tradition; even from the perspective of the Talmudic period, knowledge of the plants that were used for the four species was considered ancient. The book of Nehemiah (mid-fifth century BCE) reports that the people...

“...go out to the mountains and bring branches of olive, and branches of wild olive, and branches of myrtle, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees to make booths” (Neh. 8:14–15).

According to the Talmud (b. Sukkot 23b), Nehemiah’s “myrtle” isn’t the myrtle (hadas) of the four species, but the Talmud identifies the “thick trees” as the hadas tree based on a characteristic of its leaf growth.

That accounts for three species, but the last one is the most difficult one to explain. Exactly what is an etz hadar, a beautiful or pleasant or goodly tree? The Gemara records a statement that hadar meant that “The ‘fruit of a goodly tree’ implies a tree the taste of whose ‘fruit’ and ‘wood’ is the same. Say then that it is the etrog” (b. Sukkot 35a). But since the rabbis of the Talmud knew full well that ancient tradition identified this species as the etrog, or citron, they took the easy way out and didn’t spend much additional time trying to make the biblical description fit that of the etrog.

So what characteristics do these species have in common? The palm, myrtle, and particularly the willow were indicators of the presence of plentiful water. The date palm is one of the principal plants found at oases, the source of water in arid lands. Isaiah identifies the myrtle with turning the wilderness into a place containing much water (Isa. 41:17–20) and in another chapter, Isaiah says “in the place of the thistle will arise the myrtle” (Isa. 55:13). Next, the willow, in particular, had no agricultural value but required prodigious amounts of water to grow. So celebrating with branches of this plant was a symbolic demonstration of the desire for plentiful rain. How the etrog fits in is a mystery. I mentioned earlier that the Gemara commented on the meaning of the word hadar. On this same page, after a number of other sages’ suggestions for the meaning of the word, Ben Azzai claims, “Read not hadar, but hydor, for in Greek water is called hydor. Now what fruit is it that grows by all water? Say, of course, it is the etrog.” Citrus trees do in fact need lots of water to grow fruit, but perhaps the etrog was used mainly because worshipers simply needed a hardy fruit that could stand repeated handling over the seven-day holiday; the etrog is capable of withstanding some pretty rough handling and will last the entire holiday period without spoiling. There are, of course, plenty of symbolic and homiletic explanations for the four species; as you can imagine some are quite fanciful.

In addition to identifying the four species, it’s interesting to speculate why these particular species were used to celebrate Sukkot. They certainly aren’t examples of anything harvested, except possibly the etrog, but the etrogim of early biblical times had heavy rinds and little pulp. The answer probably lies in the relationship between Sukkot and the prayers for rain. Rain prayers were an essential part of the Sukkot observance; the beating of the willow branches on Hoshanah Rabbah is a modern remnant of the rain-prayer ceremonies. Thus the use of these plants would have made perfect sense to the ancient Judean farmer.

The link between rain and Sukkot is shown very clearly by the Temple rites of the period. During Temple times, every morning during the festival (except Shabbat) was marked by a unique ceremony called the Nisukh haMayim (literally, “pouring of the water”), the Water Libation Ceremony. On the evenings preceding the Water Libation Ceremony, thousands would gather at the Temple for the celebration called the Simchat Beit haSho’eivah (Rejoicing at the Place of Water-Drawing), where worshipers would dance with torches and sing songs of praise and thanksgiving to God while being accompanied by the musical instruments played by the Levites. The celebrating lasted until dawn, culminating in the Water Libation Ceremony. According to the Mishnah, “He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Place of Water-Drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life” (b. Sukkot 51a).

After Sukkot ends, at Shemini Atzeret, in the Amidah we begin to recite the prayer for rain (mashiv ha-ruach u’morid ha-geshem), substituting it for the prayer for dew (morid ha-tal). We can trace this prayer all the way back to Temple times, and it was likely recited after Sukkot ended because no one particularly wanted to sit in their sukkah in the rain. (Also, traveling on muddy roads to and from Jerusalem for Sukkot would not have been very pleasant.)

The last mitzvah of Sukkot is that of rejoicing in the holiday. No other holiday mentioned in the Tanakh has as many references to its celebration with joyfulness as Sukkot; in fact, it is referred to as zeman simchateinu, “season of our rejoicing” in Deuteronomy 16:14. So we’re supposed to celebrate Sukkot with joy—it’s a commandment.

There are plenty of other really interesting facts about Sukkot and its supplementary holidays of Hoshanah Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, but exploring these special days must wait for another time.

Chag Sukkot sameach! Rejoice! God commands it!


October 2012





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