By Shlomo Riskin
One of the most creative festivals of the year is the Festival of Sukkot – when the entire family is involved in building and decorating a special “nature home” to live in for an entire week. But what are we actually celebrating and what is the true meaning of the symbol of the sukkah? Is it the sukkah of our desert wanderings, the temporary hut that the Israelites constructed in the desert when they wandered from place to place? If so, then the sukkah becomes a reminder of all of the exiles of Israel throughout our 4,000 year history, and our thanksgiving to God is for the fact that we have survived despite the difficult climates – which threaten to overwhelm us.
Or is the sukkah meant to be reminiscent of the Divine “clouds of glory” which encompassed us in the desert with God’s rays of splendor; the sanctuary which served as the forerunner of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
The Talmud (B.T. Sukkot 11b) brings a difference of opinion between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer as to which of these options is the true significance of our celebration. I would like to analyze which I believe to be the true meaning and why.
The major Biblical description of the festivals is to be found in Chapter 23 of the Book of Leviticus. The three festivals which are considered to be our national festivals, and which also Biblically appear as the “desert” festivals, are Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot; commemorating when we left Egypt, when we received the Torah at Sinai and when we lived in desert booths. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are more universal in nature and not at all related to the desert sojourn. It seems strange that, in the Biblical exposition of the Hebrew calendar, Pesach and Shavuot are explained, after which comes Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and only at the conclusion of the description comes Sukkot.
Of course, one can argue that this is the way the months fall out on the calendar year. However, that too is strange. After all, the Israelites left Egypt for the desert; presumably they built their booths immediately after the Festival of Pesach. Would it not have been more logical for the order to be Pesach, Sukkot, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
Secondly, the Festival of Sukkot is broken up into two parts. Initially, the Torah tells us: “and the Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘… on the fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the Festival of Sukkot, seven days for God… these are the Festivals of the Lord which you shall call holy congregations… ‘” (Leviticus 23:33-38). It would seem that these last words conclude the Biblical description of the festivals and the Hebrew calendar. But then, in the very next verse, the Torah comes back again to Sukkot, as if for the first time: “but on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the crop of the land, you shall celebrate God’s festival for a seven day period… You shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a citron tree, the branches of date palms, twigs of a plaited tree (myrtle) and willows of brooks; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven day period… You shall dwell in booths for a seven-day period… so that your generations will know that I caused the people of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them from the Land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God’” (ibid. Leviticus 23:39-44). Why the repetition? And if the Bible now wishes to tell us about the four species which we are to wave in all directions in thanksgiving to God for his agricultural bounty, why was this verse not linked to the previous discussion of the Sukkot booths? And why repeat the booths again this second time?
I have heard it said that this repetition of Sukkot with the commandment concerning the four species is introducing an entirely new aspect of the Sukkot festival: the celebration of our entering into the Land of Israel! Indeed, Maimonides explains the joy of the festival of Sukkot as expressing the transition of the Israelites from the arid desert to a place of trees and rivers, fruits and vegetables, symbolized by the four species (Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3 Chapter 43). In fact, this second Sukkot segment opens with the words “But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month when you gather the crops of the land (of Israel) you shall celebrate this festival to the Lord…”
Hence, there are two identities to the festival of Sukkot. On the one hand, it is a desert festival, alongside of Pesach and Shavuot, which celebrates our desert wanderings while living in flimsy booths. From that perspective, perhaps it ought to have found its place immediately after Pesach in terms of the calendar and certainly before the description of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Biblical text. However, this second identity of Sukkot, the four species that represent our conquest and inhabitancy of our homeland signaling the beginning of redemption, belongs after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the festivals of God’s kingship over the world and his Divine Temple which is to be “a house of prayer for all the nations.”
This aspect of Sukkot turns the sukkah into rays of Divine splendor and an expression of the Holy Temple.
So which Sukkot do we celebrate? Both! But when we sit in the Sukkah, are we sitting in transitory booths representative of our wandering or rather in a Divine sanctuary protected by rays of God’s glory? I think it depends on whether we are celebrating the festival in the Diaspora or in the Land of Israel.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.