Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Teachings for Sukkot

“You shall dwell in Booths for Seven days”

Sukkot, more than any other Jewish holiday, is defined by its symbolic mitzvot and the enterprise of their interpretation. Pesah or Shavuot commemorate definite historical events, to which their characteristic observances connect quite directly. Likewise Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Purim, all have more-or-less definite, universally accepted meanings. But with Sukkot we seem to start from the concrete acts—building and living in a sukkah, a temporary booth; taking four species of branches and fruit, shaking them during the reading of the festive psalms, and parading around the synagogue with them —whose meaning is open to dozens of possible interpretations. Yet, on a certain level, religious symbolism is meant to explain itself. Or, more precisely, to be felt; to speak directly to the soul (or the subconscious) on a pre-verbal level. Thus, our Sages consistently insist (albeit in a somewhat different context) that ta’amei hamitzvot, the reasons or justifications for the commandments, are in a sense secondary and even superfluous to their simple doing.

Sukkot, then, is rich in symbols: not only the sukkah and the lulav and etrog, but also the aravot, the bunch of willow branches taken independently on the seventh day of the festival; and the special rites observed in the Temple in ancient times: the libation of water upon the altar; the all-night celebrations of Simhat Beit ha-Sho’eva in connection with the drawing of that selfsame water; the processions around the altar. Many interpretations have been offered for these, and this holiday was a particularly favorite subject for mystical interpretations by the masters of Kabbalah. The number seven repeats itself constantly: the seven days of the festival; the seven “shepherds” or “supernal guests” (Ushpizin) who are invited into the Sukkah during each of the seven nights; the seven processions around the Bimah (Reader’s Desk) with lulav and etrog on Hoshana Rabba, and thereafter, on Simhat Torah, with Torah scrolls; even the four species, which really consist of seven individual items (3 + 2 + 1 + 1).

Thus, the festival of Sukkot does not commemorate any historical event. True, the Sukkah is described by the Torah as intended for future generations to know that God caused our ancestors to dwell on booths when He took them out of Egypt (Lev 23:43). But the sukkah corresponds to the period of wandering in the desert in general, painted by the prophets in retrospect as a kind of romantic idyll between God and Israel (see Jer 2:2; but compare the reality described in Numbers, as we discussed there at length), and not to any specific event. Indeed, the Rabbis debate whether the sukkot referred to were real, corporeal booths (sukkot mamash) or “clouds of glory” (an’nei kavod). The latter suggests the Divine, fatherly protection enjoyed by the Israelites while living in the desert, in a childlike state of trusting dependence.

My own interpretation of Sukkot begins with its name: “the time of our joy.” Simha is understood, not as wild ecstasy (although there is place for that as well), but as a kind of quiet contentment and tranquility, coupled with gratitude to God, of people simply living in the world. Ideally, this is also a celebration of living in Eretz Yisrael, the natural sequel to Exodus and Revelation, experienced as menuha venahala (“peace and inheritance”). It is also the last festival of the year. After all the great and dramatic processes, national, spiritual, and developmental: from Egypt, to Sinai, to Crowning God on Rosh Hashana, to Judgment, contrition, repentance, and atonement, we turn to simply being in the world.

The Sukkah is, quite simply, a place where one is at home: a symbolic locus of domesticity, as is appropriate to a holiday dedicated to the theme of being and contentment. The central mitzvot of Sukkot all involve natural materials, things that grow from the earth, a fact that perhaps augments its mood of quietness and simple being, and of harmony with the world. The Sukkah is covered with skhakh, a term referring specifically to branches or other forms of vegetation. The four species are also taken from the natural world: a palm frond, two willow branches, thee myrtle branches, and an etrog—a special citrus fruit grown which is, I suspect, cultivated largely by Jews for this purpose.

But the sukkah may also be thought of as sacred space: it is the only mitzvah in the Torah whose fulfillment merely requires presence in a particular place. The Kabbalists described it as tzila dimhemnuta, “the shadow of faith.” There is a sense of enjoying direct Divine protection; or, perhaps, mere presence within the sukkah conveys, in a certain pre-conscious sense, a certain kind of spiritual awareness. Interestingly, the sukkah as metaphor for peace and Divine compassion appears in the Shabbat liturgy for the entire year: “and stretch over us the Sukkah of your peace. Blessed You, O Lord, who stretches the sukkah of peace over us, and over all Israel, and over Jerusalem.”

But there is also a deep tension here: it is celebratory, but also a symbol of human mortality and the transitory nature of our lives. The sukkah is defined halakhically as a dirat ara’i, a temporary dwelling, but the manner in which we dwell in it as yeshivat keva, treating it during that week as our fixed dwelling place. True, one is minimally required to enter the sukka only to eat, and even then only for “fixed meals” (and to sleep there if feasible), but the ideal is for one to spend all ones time there: eat, sleep, chat with ones friends, study, etc. The notion of dwelling in a permanent manner in a temporary dwelling seems pregnant with existential insights. What can encapsulate more succinctly our being on this earth?

My grandfather, Rabbi A. N. Gallant, wrote of the three pilgrimage festivals as corresponding to the three ages of man: youth, maturity, old age (which also match the seasons in which they fall: spring, early summer, and summer’s end with winter just over the horizon). Thus, Sukkot contains more than an intimation of mortality. This is likewise the reason for the choice of Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, as the scroll read during this festival.

Turning to the four species: here, we go from simply “being” to certain active gestures: to “take to yourselves” the four kinds enumerated and to “rejoice before the l.ord” (Lev 23:40). There are numerous midrashim on the significance of the four kinds; in particular, Leviticus Rabbah Ch. 30 is filled with a whole series of them. The one in which the four species are seen as corresponding to four human types, with varying degrees combinations of good deeds and learning, is repeated almost ad nauseum. But there are others as well: that they correspond to the Sanhedrin, seated together with the senior scholars, disciples and functionaries; or they are the patriarchs and Joseph; etc. My two favorites include the midrash in which they are seen as equivalent to four parts of body—the spine, the heart, the eyes, and the lips—so that their ritual use is an acting out of “all my bones say: Who, O Lord, is like unto You?” (Lev Rab 30.14). But most intriguing of all is the one which sees each of them as alluding to the Holy One blessed be He Himself, citing a series of somewhat far-fetched proof texts, such as that in which God is “he who stands among the myrtles”; or “he who rides upon the Aravot (which can be read either as ‘heavens’ or as ‘willows’; Lev. Rab. 30.9). Perhaps it was this which inspired the Kabbalistic interpretation in which the four species correspond to the four letters of the Divine name, brought together in an act of mystical unification, followed in turn by the na’anu’im, the shaking of the lulav to all six cardinal points, suggesting the spread of this unity throughout the cosmos.

Apocalypse, Redemption, and Sukkot

We asked earlier why haftarot relating to the messianic age, particularly the passages from Zechariah and Ezekiel describing violent apocalyptic events, are read during Sukkot? One answer is to be found in Franz Rosenzweig’s famous three-fold scheme in the Star of Redemption, in which the three pilgrimage festivals are seen as corresponding to the three stages of sacred history in Judaism: Creation, Revelation and Redemption. The Exodus from Egypt, commemorated by Pesah, in a certain metaphorical sense may be read as the moment of creation and beginning of the Jewish nation; Shavuot, the festival of the great epiphany at Sinai, is of course Revelation; while Sukkot, as the final, and in a sense unhistorical one of the triad, points toward the future, as yet unknown, age of Redemption.

But the three festivals also correspond to the three ages of the individual: youth, maturity, and old age. The three scrolls read on these days illustrate this clearly: Song of Songs, at least on the literal level, portrays the lyrical romance of youth, the total absorption of the two lovers in one another. The Book of Ruth depicts the serious, practical concerns of maturity, of middle life; even the “romantic” interest is depicted in terms of responsibility within a social context. Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, looks back upon life with a certain sense of distance that is only possible in old age, drawing conclusions in retrospect about the entire course of life. So too Sukkot comes at a time of completion, of fulness, of harvest—but also a point at which one awaits the beginning of the next cycle, where one must first go through the chill and hibernation of winter, a kind of “mini-death” in the natural world. (Interestingly, in Rabbinic doctrine the judgement on Rosh Hashana is seen as a kind of miniature or muted version of the judgment passed on each person at the end of his/her life. This may also take on an added meaning in light of the equation: Sukkot/Tishrei = old age/death = passage to the future.

To take the analogy one step further: just as death, even if seen by the believer as a transition to a new stage, is fraught with fear, pain and uncertainty, the prospect of life after death being “the great unknown”; so too the Eschaton, the age of messianic Redemption, as the “third stage” in history, is the great unknown in the historical sense. Like the Afterlife, knowledge of its existence altogether is a matter of faith, rather than of concrete, empirical knowledge.

Having said all this, we may now understand that the joy of Sukkot is of a very peculiar sort: not the unfettered, spontaneous, almost instinctive joy of youth, of simple joy in life itself, but rather a kind of enlightened, almost philosophical, bitter-sweet joy, tempered by the knowledge of the passing nature of all things, and rejoicing in the eternity of God, of the Torah and mitzvot, and of the Jewish people.

I remember, as a young man, visiting the Gerer shteibl on Manhattan’s West Side on one of the days of Sukkot. After the davening, an elderly man sitting in the sukkah kept on repeating (in Ashkenazic pronunciation) the phrase from Pirkei Avot, hayeludim lawmoos (“those who are born are to die”), with a strange sort of joy. I interpreted this as a deeply religious, almost quietistic, acceptance of his, and our, mortality, which somehow epitomized the essence of Sukkot.

Sukkah and Lulav

A few more insights concerning some of the customs and mitzvot of the festival. First, regarding Ushpizin, the custom of inviting “supernal guests”—the seven “shepherds,” the central figures in Jewish history—into ones sukkah on each of the seven nights of the festival. This may be understood on two levels. First, as an extension of the mitzvah of inviting flesh and blood guests during Sukkot. Extending hospitality to others, particularly to the poor and unfortunate, is regarded generally as an important act of hesed, of practicing lovingkindness towards others; it is told that Rav Amram Blau, better known as one of the most extreme zealots of Jerusalem, never sat down even to an ordinary weekday meal without at least one indigent guest at his table. But this is doubly so on Sukkot. Perhaps it is because the sukkah as such creates a certain sense of levelling: it comes to teach a sense of the frailty of our existence, of the tenuous nature of our hold on our possessions, and by extension on life itself; an awareness of our ultimate dependence on God, and of the ultimate equality of rich and poor. All this is expressed in the idea that “It is fitting that all Israel dwell in one sukkah”—related, perhaps, to the idea that each individual family’s sukkah is somehow a branch of a universal, metaphysical sukkah.

But beyond that, each of the Ushpizin or supernal guests invited symbolizes one of the seven lower sefirot, the “building blocks” of the cosmos, and thus invites a certain meditation on the sefirot. This is in turn reinforced by the seven-fold processions conducted both on Hoshana Rabbah (with lulav and etrog), and on the night and day of Simhat Torah (with the Torah scrolls), replete with verses and other readings focused upon each of these sefirot.

I already mentioned last year that I see Simhat Torah as a latter-day borrowing or transferal of the intense, explosive joy of Simhat Beit Hashoevah in olden times to a slightly different phase of Sukkot. It occurs to me that this may also explain an interesting custom. In almost every synagogue I’ve ever visited for Simhat Torah, the last of the seven hakkafot is concluded with a dance to the words “Next Year in Jerusalem Rebuilt”—the same words used to conclude both the Passover Seder and the Neilah prayer that concludes Yom Kippur. In both these cases, this cry reflects the idea that the observance of these two holidays, rich and deep as they may be, are nevertheless felt as lacking something essential in the absence of the rebuilt Jerusalem with the Temple at its heart. Passover without the paschal sacrifice, offered and consumed by each extended family in the courtyards of Jerusalem; Yom Kippur, without the impressive atonement ritual for the entire Jewish people, are but a pale shadow of what they are with these elements. So, too, Sukkot, is classically the pilgrimage festival par excellence: with numerous sacrifices, public and individual; with its unique ritual of pouring water upon the altar, preceded by the ceremonious drawing of the water from the depths of the Shiloah, in turn preceded by an all-night ecstatic celebration with pious elders dancing and juggling torches; the processions around the altar with lulav and etrog; the long willow branches placed leaning upon the altar, to cries of “Beauty to you, O altar”—all these are but distant memories, known from ancient tomes. So, at the very end of Sukkot, we declare our hope that this festival, like Pesah and Yom Kippur, will soon be renewed in its ancient splendor.

Yet another aspect to Sukkot. The aspect of hiddur mitzvah, of glorifying or beautifying the mitzvah, is specifically emphasized in connection with all the mitzvot of Sukkah. It is well known that the requirement of hiddur, of physical beauty and perfection, applies to the selection of the four species. But there is also a kind of sliding scale in terms of the manner of its performance as well. The minimum Torah requirement is that one simply hold the four species in ones hands for a brief moment on the first day. But Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai already introduced the practice of taking them all seven days, in memory of the Temple. Beyond that, it is customary to hold them throughout the recitation of Hallel—the psalms of joyous praise recited on the holiday—as a way of “rejoicing before the Lord,” waving them toward all six directions of the cosmos at certain key verses. Finally, the Talmud tells that there were certain people—Yakirei Yerushalayim, the “distinguished men of Jerusalem”—who used to hold the four species in their hands throughout the day: during all the prayers, when they went to make a social call or visit the sick, and even during meals would place them prominently in view.

Similarly, the mitzvah of sukkah has a kind of ”sliding scale.” The mitzvah may be fulfilled in a minimal way: eating an egg’s worth of hallah in the sukkah on the first night, and refraining from eating a “fixed meal’ outside the sukkah the other seven days. But many of the pious, from the time of the Talmud, were careful to eat everything, even the smallest morsel, even fruit, light drinks, and water, in the sukkah. Beyond that, the ideal is to literally “live” in the sukkah: to sleep there, to spend time there in between meals, to study or talk with ones friends there, to “hang out” there (metayel basukkah). It is told that the Gaon of Vilna did not leave the Sukkah between the first night of the festival until the night of Simhat Torah. There are even hasidim who (incorrectly) refuse to leave the sukkah when it rains. The Talmud calls such people “fools,” to which they reply that at least they are “holy fools” (I have known such people personally!). There is also a concept of noy sukkah, of beautifying and decorating the sukkah: already the Tosefta mentions the practice of adorning the sukkah with “decorated carpets and woven stuff, nuts and almonds, peaches and pomegranates, clusters of grapes, sheaves of wheat, wine, oil and flour” (Tosefta Sukkah 1.4; quoted in b. Sukkah 10a).

I see all this as related to the idea of simha: of the mitzvot as the instrument of our connection to God. Since this religious connection is the source of true joy in life, we emphasize hiddur on every level of Sukkot.


A few comments about Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes read on Sukkot. This book is a perennial riddle: filled with scepticism, a seemingly nihilistic negation of every conceivable aspect of life, the obvious question is: what is this book doing in the Bible, anyway? Indeed, the consensus of modern scholarship on the subject is that it is rather more influenced by Greek philosophy, perhaps of the school of the cynics, than by indigenous Hebrew thought.

Be that as it may, I have found the following reading of it useful. Typically, religious-ethical exhortations and sermons are based upon what might be described “deductive” thinking. The preacher starts by asserting initial faith axioms—the existence of God, the Divine origin of the Torah, etc.—and then proceeds to demonstrate why one must live a pious, god-fearing life of Torah and mitzvot. The mood of such “Mussar” is often heavy and puritanical, negating the world as ”traif” as opposed to the world of holiness and purity of the Torah.

Kohelet starts from the opposite end of the pole, beginning with a thorough examination of life and of the world. Using what one might call the “inductive” mode (the term is used, in a somewhat different context, in Peter Berger’s The Heretical Imperative), the vast bulk of the book is a rather meandering, unsystematic presentation of the authors’ varied experiences during a long and busy life. He describes how he tried just about everything: the pursuit of wealth, of pleasure, of political power, of wisdom, etc., finding in the end that “all is vanity.” The words hevel, sikhlut, holeleut—“vanity,” foolishness,” “empty-headed hilarity”—are repeated almost endlessly. Life seems meaningless, first of all, because it is filled with injustice and unfairness: the diligent and industrious man leaves his carefully saved, hard-earned wealth to a stupid, hedonistic lout of a son who blows everything he worked so hard to build in a giant spending spree. The rise and fall of entire nations is similarly dependent upon such quirks of fate as whether they have a wise or a foolish king? Secondly, the fact of death, the transitory nature of life, makes a mockery of everything. The fool and the wise man, the good person and the wicked, the pious and the sacrilegious, all end up in the same place. At one point, given all this, he suggests as his preliminary conclusion something that may be roughly paraphrased as follows: Since nothing lasts or matters in the long run anyway, live as best as you can, with a woman you love, and enjoy yourself during your few days on this earth (9:9-10). But then, in the peroration, he reaches a more pious conclusion: in the final analysis, the only thing that makes sense, that lasts, is to fear God and do His commandments (12:13). It is as if he is saying: since all human answers to the riddle of life have been shown to be full of holes, and ultimately unsatisfying, one can only fall back upon the old truths of religious tradition.