We have arrived at the festival that the early rabbis called ‘the season of our rejoicing’ – z’man simchateinu. After laying bare our souls and immersing ourselves in the depths of Yom Kippur, the new year begins in earnest with a celebration of the bounty of life. On the surface the contrast between Yoma, ‘the day’ devoted to confessing our misdeeds and seeking atonement, and Sukkot, the festival of the late harvest could not be greater.
After all, the Torah makes it clear that Sukkot is an agricultural festival, the last of the shalosh r’galim, the three pilgrim festivals mentioned in the Torah, when our ancestors would bring the fruits of their harvests to the Temple in Jerusalem. We read in Mishpatim, the first code of law in the Torah, at Exodus chapter 23:
Three times in the year shall you keep a festival to Me. / The festival of unleavened bread you shall keep; seven days shall you eat unleavened bread, as I command you, at the time appointed in the month of Aviv, for in it you came out of Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty; / and the festival of harvest, the first fruits of your labours, which you sow in the field; and the festival of ingathering, at the end of the year, when you gather in your produce from the fields. / Three times in the years your males shall appear before the Eternal God.
So, Sukkot is Chag Ha-Asif, the ‘Festival of Ingathering’, celebrating the last harvest of the year. On the other hand, the seven-day festival of Sukkot and Sh’mini Atzeret, the ‘eighth day of closure’ that follows immediately after it, conclude the sacred days of the seventh month of the Jewish year, that begin on the first of that month. Sukkot intersects two cycles of three: Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot; Rosh Ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot; which makes Sukkot the sacred destination for both cycles.
The relationship between Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot is obvious, since each coincides with a crucial stage in the agricultural year: Spring, when the Earth puts out its new green shoots, early summer, when the first fruits are harvested, autumn, when the last harvest is gathered in and stored in readiness for the winter. In ancient times, when our ancestors were an agricultural people, Sh’mini Atzeret, the ‘eighth day of closure’ following Sukkot was indeed a closure, representing an end to communal pilgrimage until Pesach in the spring.
So, what about the other cycle of three that occupies the first sixteen days of the seventh month? The relationship between the first and tenth days is obvious and came to be expressed by two designations: yamim nora’im, literally, ‘awed days’, more commonly referred to as ‘days of awe’ and aseret y’mei t’shuvah, ‘ten days of return’ to ourselves and others, inaugurated with the blasts of the shofar. But where does Sukkot fit in? At first glance, there are no clues in the Torah to the relationship of Sukkot to the ten days at the beginning of the seventh month. Indeed, the details provided in the festival calendar in the parashah, Emor at Leviticus 23 seem to reinforce the agricultural character of the festival. We read:
Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Eternal seven days, a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. / On the first day you shall take the product of hadar citrus-trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Eternal your God seven days.
But then the passage concludes:
You shall dwell in sukkot seven days; every citizen in Israel shall dwell in sukkot, / in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelites dwell in sukkot, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Eternal, your God.
In the wilderness, our ancestors dwelt in tents – ohalim – not sukkot. Sukkot were the booths our ancestors set up in the fields for the ingathering of the last harvest. So, what does it mean to say that in the wilderness the Eternal One made the Israelites dwell in sukkot?
At the festival of Sukkot, we remember the time when our ancestors wandering in the barren wilderness were completely dependent for their survival on the sheltering presence of the Eternal One. This sheltering presence is evoked at the end of the Book of Exodus as a cloud that rested over the oheil mo’eid, ‘tent of meeting’ – a cloud that only moved forward when the people moved on. This notion of the sheltering presence of the Eternal was later expressed in the liturgy as a sukkah. In the prayer recited in the evening at the end of the section known as the Sh’ma and its blessings, as we prepare to lie down for the night, we address God as the One ‘who spreads a sukkah of peace over us’ – ha-poreis sukkat shalom aleinu.
The onset of the night is a time when our anxieties and fears come to the fore. When I was a child, sharing a bedroom with my younger sister, we insisted that our bedroom door was kept open with a light left burning on the landing. And not only this, after saying our prayers with our Mother – the Sh’ma and a prayer asking God to bless our family – we insisted that as she left our room each night, she stopped at the doorway and said: ‘Goodnight, God bless you, see you in the morning – and I hope I do!’ Those last five words were particularly important to us; Mum had to say them for us to feel secure about closing our eyes and going to sleep.
Sukkot is not simply a time for celebrating abundance, it is also a time for acknowledging our vulnerability and our longing for a sheltering presence over us as we face in the darkness the eternal mysteries of existence.
This awareness is reflected in the rituals associated with Sukkot. And so, the instructions for building a sukkah outlined in rabbinic literature make it clear that the covering of greenery that forms the roof must have spaces, so that we can look up and see the sky above us – and at night, the stars. The word sukkah is based on the Hebrew letters Sameich Kaf Kaf meaning to weave together, and the covering of greenery we lay over the sukkah is known as s’chach – from the same root. The s’chach must not be complete. Ultimately, there is nothing that we build in this world that can protect us from the vicissitudes of life …
As we can see, Sukkot is complex, embracing contradictions. In this way, Sukkot also provides a fitting conclusion to the Days of Awe. As the trees shed their withering leaves, everything is laid bare and we, too, are called to shed our old ways. We cannot begin again until we have stripped everything back.
Sukkot is ‘the season of our rejoicing’; it is about abundance and plenty. And it is also about fragility and vulnerability as we endure the elements, the wind and the lashing rain and face the winter ahead. And so, the sukkah is a shelter, but it is open to the sky. And Sukkot, has still another dimension: the festival confronts us with eternity. Being open to the sky above is not only about exposure to the weather; it is also a reminder of eternity beyond the material elements of life. It is for this reason that when we wave the lulav and etrog, we wave them in all the directions of the compass, east, south, west and north, acknowledging the world around us – and also, upwards towards the sky and downwards towards the earth. Sukkot beckons us to inhabit eternity as we dwell in the sukkah. And so, the different dimensions of Sukkot become one: We can only really appreciate the blessings of material abundance if we acknowledge that our lives are finite and that, ultimately, we will have to let go of our lives and the gifts life brings us. And so, the early rabbis selected the biblical book of wisdom, Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, for reading at Sukkot; a book containing wisdom so profound, one passage has become very well-known. We read: ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted.’ Staying with this thought, I would like to conclude by sharing with you a Sukkot poem I wrote a few years ago:
The season turns
Summer’s seemingly seamless mask
Leaf by leaf
The bark of Life
Stark and raddled
We camouflage but cannot escape
So, we celebrate our blessings
While they last
Build fragile temporary shelters
Of light and shadows
And take refuge in
And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue
15th Tishri 5781 – 3rd October 2020
The rabbinic sages referred to Yom Kippur using the Aramaic word, Yoma, meaning ‘The Day.’ Yoma is also the name given to the new tractate dealing with the laws for Yom Kippur in the Mishnah, the first rabbinic code of law edited c. 200 CE, and in the Babylonian Talmud, edited around the year 500. ↑
Mishpatim, Exodus 23:14-1. See also: R’eih, Deuteronomy 16:13-17. ↑
Emor, Leviticus 23:39. ↑
In the Halachah, Jewish law, the instruction was interpreted as referring to an etrog (a citrus fruit), accompanied by a lulav (date-palm branch), three branches of hadass (myrtle) and two of aravah (willow). ↑
Lev. 23:42-43. ↑
See P’kudei, Exodus 40:34-38 – where the oheil mo’eid, ‘tent of meeting’ is also described as a mishkan, ‘dwelling place’ or ‘tabernacle’. ↑
From the concluding words of the blessing that begins Hashkiveinu Adonai Eloheinu l’shalom, ‘Cause us to lie down in peace Eternal One our God.’ ↑
These rules are found in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Joseph Caro, who was born in Toledo in 1488 and died in Safed in 1575, in the section Orach Chayyim. Moses ben Isserles, who was born and lived in Krakow, Poland (1520-72), the leader of Ashkenazi Jewry, provided the glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, making it acceptable to the Ashkenazi Jewish world. His glosses are known as the mappah, meaning, ‘table cloth’. ↑
Kohelet is the fourth of five books known as Chameish M’gillot, ‘Five Scrolls’, because they are produced as individual scrolls, each one wound around a single wooden roller, for reading at five sacred moments in the year, beginning in the springtime: Shir Ha-Shirim (the Soul of Songs) at Pesach, Rut (Ruth) at Shavuot, Eichah (Lamentations) at Tishah B’Av, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) at Sukkot, and Esteir (Esther), at Purim ↑
Kohelet, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. ↑