Sukkot

(Tabernacles)

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> Background

Sukkot is the last of the three foot festivals (according to the biblical tradition the beginning of the year is the month of Nissan).. The festival starts on the 15th of Tishrei and continues for seven days. At its conclusion we celebrate another festival “Shmini Atzeret” which over th years has also become Simchat Torah.

 

The main characteristic of the festival is sitting in the Sukkah: “You shall sit in the Sukkah for seven days; every citizen in Israel shall sit in the Sukkah so that the generations shall know that at Sukkot I sat the Children of Israel in tabernacles when I took them out of Egypt” (Leviticus 23: 42-43). The Sukkah constitutes a simple temporary dwelling the ceiling of which is branches and its walls fabric or wood panels, which symbolize the lifestyle of the Children of Israel during their wanderings in the desert, after leaving Egypt. The first peg of the Sukkah is customarily placed on the conclusion of Yom Kippur. During the festival it is customary to live in the Sukkah which is built adjacent to the family’s permanent home, to spend time in it, to eat and to sleep in it.  Guests (Ushpizin) are received and various social activities take place there. During the festival we bless the four species – the etrog, lulav, myrtle and willow: “On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees--from palms, willows and other leafy trees--and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.” (Leviticus 23:40). The role of the four species is to remember the relationship of the festival to nature and to working the land however over the years the Jewish tradition has given them deep spiritual meanings.

Sukkot is a harvest festival: “Celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns” (Deuteronomy 16:13-14). At this time of the year, the end of the summer, the farmer gathers his crops and notes the end of the agricultural year. On the conclusion of the harvest he opens the new agricultural year and anticipates the rain. The Prayer for Rain is one of the clear symbols and customs of this festival, which is well planted in the agricultural experience of a people who work the land.

> The Story

The Sukkah is a temporary dwelling. Its simplicity links between the national-agricultural experience of the festival and the beginning of the history of the people of Israel – leaving Egypt. The simplicity of the Sukkah enables us to create, even for one week, a measure of financial equality between the social classes of the people. Both the rich and the poor live in a small dwelling, which is not fancy or particularly comfortable. Philo of Alexandria says: “The purpose of Sukkot is to remind us in our wealth of poverty, as every man is required to remember poverty when he is wealthy, in the days of his glory to remember his humiliations” (...About the Laws, 204). The revoking of luxury and comfort are a break in the routine of a consumer culture which obligates the desire of property and money and it can teach us an important chapter in humility and sufficing with little.

 

Over the years the Sukkah has also received a spiritual significance relating to the value of peace. The Sukkah is called “the tabernacle of peace” and in the Temple they customarily sacrificed seventy bulls, as the number of nations in the world (according to the tradition), and as a symbol of the aspiration to global peace.
 

The structure of the tabernacle is well known to the farmer who coordinates from it the work for harvesting the crops before the rains come. This is an inherently agricultural festival which is connected to the calendar and which was designed in the reality of a people sitting on its land and working on it. The great joy, which constitutes one of the commandments of the festival, relates to the joy of the farmer who has finished harvesting his crops. The tension and uncertainty characterizing the period of the growth of the crops is replaced by the joy and tranquillity following it, when all the crops have been gathered into the stores before the rain comes. The customs of water and the prayer for rain also characterize the festival relating to the season of the year in which they are found and its agricultural context. In autumn, at the end of the summer and just before the winter, we stand before a new agricultural year which could be blessed with an abundance of rain however could also be dry. This has, of course, a far reaching effect on the farmer and his work.

> In Zionism

At the start of the pioneering Zionism and the return of some of the Jewish people to settle on their land and work on it, the festival of Sukkot again received its original agricultural significances. These significances, which in the Diaspora became distant and disconnected symbols, return to be realistic for the famers and the settlers. Also the social-equality values of the festival suited the pioneering Zionistic spririt which wanted to establish in the Land of Israel a good and modest society without extreme disparities between the poor and the rich.

 

It seems that specifically today, in Israeli society of the 2000s, these values are more relevant than ever. The social disparities in Israel are some of the greatest in the western world and the consumer culture has become the principal characteristic of our culture. A break for a week from the never ending race after money and wealth could be significant in educating ourselves to the values which we wished to establish in our society, only slightly more than one hundred years ago.