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Sukkot: The Universal Holiday

Sukkot (Leviticus 22:26-23:44 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

On Sukkot, our physical and spiritual lives coexist.

The Talmud relates that in the future, when the pagans will complain to God about His preferential treatment of the Jews, He will tell them that this is because the Jews accepted and followed the Torah. They were not so much the "chosen people," as the "choosing people," so to speak; they chose to follow God's law.

The pagans will then plead, "Offer us the Torah anew and we will follow it." "You foolish people," God will answer, "he who prepares in advance of Shabbat can eat on Shabbat, but he who made no preparations, what can he eat? Nevertheless, I have an easy commandment called Sukkah, go and fulfill it..." Why is it called an easy commandment? Because it has no expense. Immediately each one will build a booth, a Sukkah, on his roof, but God will cause the sun to blaze as if it were the summer solstice. Each one will then kick his Sukkah, and leave... Thereupon God will laugh, as it is said, "He that sits in heaven and laughs." (Talmud - Avoda Zara 3a)

Although this passage is difficult for several reasons, I would like to focus on one of its main themes: that pagans will not be able to keep the commandment of Sukkah. The reason this is so strange is that of all the holidays, Sukkot has been perceived as the most universal, encompassing all the nations of the world.

The Talmud teaches:

Rabbi Eliezer said: "Why are 70 offerings brought on Sukkot? For the (merit of the) 70 nations of the world." (Sukkah 55b)

Rashi comments:

To bring forgiveness for them (the 70 nations which comprise the world), so that rain shall fall all over the earth.

The Sages stress that Sukkot has a universal element which is clearly absent in the other festivals: Passover represents the exodus from Egypt and the emergence of a Jewish nation; Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jews. It seems paradoxical to find this expression of the inability of the pagans to relate to God specifically in the context of Sukkot. 


We may theorize that specifically on Sukkot, when the Jews concerned themselves with the welfare of non-Jews, pagans were expected to respond and to relate to God directly. There is, however, another passage which makes this approach untenable.

"And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations who came up against Jerusalem, shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the God of Hosts, and to keep the holiday of Sukkot. And whoever does not come ... to Jerusalem ... upon them there will be no rain." (Zechariah 14:16)

This passage from the prophecy of Zechariah describes the aftermath of apocalyptic battles, when the vanquished nations will celebrate Sukkot. This heightens the difficulty of the story from the Talmud quoted earlier. While the Talmud contains many explanations of biblical teachings, it does not have a mandate to argue with the prophets. Our question, then, is quite simple: How can the Talmud relate that in the future the pagans will be unable to keep Sukkot - when the Prophet tells us clearly that they will?

I believe that in the resolution of this apparent contradiction lies the essence of Sukkot. There are two distinct aspects to the holiday of Sukkot, represented by two commandments in the Torah:

"Also in the 15th day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep a feast to the Lord seven days; on the first day shall be a Sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a Sabbath. And you shall take on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. And you shall keep it a feast to the Lord seven days in the year. It shall be a statute forever in your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths seven days; all who are Israelites born shall dwell in booths. That your generations may know that I made the people of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God." (Leviticus 23:39-43)

The Torah speaks on the one hand of taking four species of fruit at harvest time, and on the other hand of sitting in the Sukkah, as the people who left Egypt did. We therefore see two commandments: 1) taking the four species, and 2) living in booths. One commandment has an agricultural impetus, the other a historical one. The agricultural aspect of the holiday is clearly universal, while the historical aspect is particular to the Jews. 


Let us analyze these two commandments.

The relationship between the gathering of the fruit and the four species seems clear: After gathering the new fruits, to express our gratitude to God, we collect these four species. The species which we gather are a tool used for prayer, in order to thank God for the produce we have just harvested and implore that a generous amount be allocated for the coming year. Our rabbis teach that the allocation of water for the year takes place on Sukkot:

On [the] holiday [of Sukkot] we are judged regarding water. (Talmud - Rosh Hashana 16a)

In fact, much of the celebration which took place in Jerusalem on Sukkot was connected to water, including prayers for rain and the Simchat Beit HaShoeva ceremony. This, too, was a ritual connected to water, of which the Mishnah says:

Whoever did not see the Simchat Beit HaShoeva never saw real joy in their life. (Mishnah Sukkah 5:1)

The verse spoke of "rejoicing before your God", referring to the Temple in Jerusalem. Sukkot was uniquely celebrated in Jerusalem - armed with the four species, the Jews would come to the Temple and pray for more rain and bounty. [The four species were used in the Temple for all seven days of the Festival. In the rest of the Land of Israel they were used only on the first day. The rabbis legislated the use of the four species for the duration of Sukkot even outside of the Temple.]

What, however, is the meaning of the other aspect of Sukkot, dwelling in booths?

We are commanded to dwell in booths, because God delivered us in booths. But what is the symbolism of these booths? 


The Talmud records two opinions. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the word "sukkot" refers to the clouds of glory with which God protected the Jews. Rabbi Akiva teaches that it refers to actual booths. Both opinions agree that the "sukkot" - whether clouds or booths - signify the special relationship which the Jews have enjoyed with God.

The difference lies in respect to the historical reality. Were we protected metaphysically by a cloud, or were we protected via a physical entity, a Sukkah?

Either way, the Jews ventured into the desert, vulnerable to the elements, putting their faith in God. This is what we commemorate today. This faith in God is the key to Sukkot. For the Jew to leave the comforts of his home and live in a booth, a temporary abode, is the essence of the Sukkah experience.

We are commanded to make these temporary abodes into our homes for the duration of the seven days of Sukkot. This serves as a reminder of the temporary nature of our existence, helping us focus on the proper relationship between the physical and the spiritual. But most importantly, the Sukkah is an expression of trust, the trust that we had in the desert and the trust that we hope to have today.

Now, perhaps we can resolve the seeming contradiction regarding the pagan ability to observe Sukkot, as indicated in the verses in Zechariah, and the inability as indicated in the Talmud.

There are two sides to Sukkot: the need for the physical, on the one hand, and the need to replace the physical with trust in God, on the other. The need for physicality is real, and nothing is as representative of our physical needs as rain. The Hebrew word for rain is geshem, which means "physical." Yet the source of rain is the clouds referred to by Rabbi Eliezer -- clouds of glory, symbolizing the spiritual, the metaphysical. Clouds are ethereal, beyond our grasp, beyond our understanding. 


Specifically on Sukkot, we pray for rain. In the wake of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when we prayed for our very existence, on Sukkot we are concerned with "quality of life." We pray for the physical; we pray for rain. With dialectical elegance a synthesis is created. We are commanded to leave our homes, the physical anchor in our lives, and enter a home under the clouds, protected by our trust in God. Our physical existence is brought into sharp contrast with our spiritual life, and the two aspects of Sukkot coexist.

Now we return to our original question: Will the pagans be able to observe the holiday of Sukkot? Surely, the answer must consider each aspect of the holiday separately. The passage in Zechariah that spoke of the pagans' observance of Sukkot stressed that it was in Jerusalem "before God." This aspect of Sukkot finds unique expression in Jerusalem; this is the aspect of thanks and prayer for rain. In fact, the verse explicitly states:

"And whoever does not come ... to Jerusalem ... upon them there will be no rain."

The reason for coming to Jerusalem was to receive the blessing for rain. This aspect of Sukkot surely can be fulfilled by pagans. It is, in essence, a recognition of cause and effect; it is pragmatic. The pagans can perform this type of service, although Zechariah states later (14:18-19) that not all the peoples of the world will be willing to keep Sukkot in Jerusalem.

However, the other aspect of Sukkot, the building of the Sukkah, what the Talmud called a "simple Mitzvah," is what the pagan religious experience found so foreign. Here there was no pragmatism, merely trust - trust and love.

"Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, 'Thus says God: I remember in your favor, the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, when you followed me into the wilderness, into land that was not sown.'" (Jeremiah 2:2)

The Sukkah is testimony to that love, expressed by simply being "with God," transcending the physical. Perhaps minimizing the physical is foreign idea to the pagan mindset. The pagans were accustomed to difficult commandments which involved giving, sacrificing something dear, in order to find favor with the gods. Conversely, the Talmud reports that God said: I have a simple Mitzvah, an "easy Mitzvah," involving no expense.

This the pagans found bizarre: What is a god who asks for nothing?

The Talmud further relates:

But does not Rabba say whoever is vexed (by the Sukkah) is freed of the obligation of Sukkah?

According to Jewish law, someone extremely bothered by the Sukkah is exempt; therefore, the pagans who found themselves in a hot Sukkah were technically exempt. This is even more alien to pagan ideas - if a god asks for something difficult, are you exempt? The response of the pagans was to kick down the Sukkah, as if to say: "Enough is enough. How can man be expected to relate to such a deity?"

This then is the aspect of Sukkot is a uniquely Jewish experience: living with God, remembering the days of our youth when we followed God like a bride blindly in love, not questioning, but accepting, trusting.

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