01 – Sukkot

01. The Names and Foundations of the Festival

There are three names for the festival which begins on the fifteenth of Tishrei:

Ḥag Ha-Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, after its primary mitzva;
The Festival of Ingathering (Ḥag Ha-asif), as it falls during the time of year when the gathering in of the harvested grain and fruit is finished;
The Festival (He-ḥag), as it is the festival par excellence. It is sometimes referred to this way without any further elaboration, as we read, “At that time Shlomo kept the Festival (He-ḥag) for seven days” (2 Divrei Ha-yamim 7:8). This is because it is the most joyous and festive of the festivals; it has the added joy of dancing at the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva celebration (Tosefot Yom Tov to Rosh Ha-shana 1:2; below, section 10), and Israel would offer more sacrifices on Sukkot than on the other festivals (Ha’amek Davar to Devarim 16:13). The special joy of Sukkot will be explained below (section 8).

There are three fundamental and interrelated elements of the festival of Sukkot:

The intrinsic holiness of the days (including Shemini Atzeret), which conclude the annual cycle of festivals, and during which we rejoice and give thanks to God for the year’s crops. This sanctity is expressed in the mitzva to refrain from melekhet avoda (occupational work; see Peninei Halakha: Mo’adim 11:1) on the first and eighth days, which are holidays, and in the partial abstention on the intermediate days of Ḥol Ha-mo’ed. The sanctity of these days is also expressed in the extra sacrifices that we are commanded to offer on this festival, as described in Bamidbar (29:12-34).
The mitzva of the arba’at ha-minim (four species), which adds to the joy of gathering in the year’s produce and of the repentance and atonement achieved during the Days of Awe.
The mitzva of sukka, which gives the festival its name, so that every generation knows that God redeemed Israel from Egypt and watches over His people. The sukka also alludes to a time in the future, when God will spread His sukka of peace over us, over all of Israel, and over the entire world.

These three elements are introduced in the section of the Torah that deals with the holidays (Vayikra 23:33-44). In contrast to other festivals, which are each described as a single unit, Sukkot is described in three stages. First:

The Lord spoke to Moshe saying: Say to the Israelites: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Lord’s seven-day festival of Sukkot. The first day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations; seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the Lord; it is a solemn gathering; you shall not work at your occupations. (33-38)

Second:

Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the seven-day festival of the Lord; a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day you shall take the fruit of a hadar tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of dense-leaved trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. (39-40)

Third:

You shall observe it as a festival of the Lord for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. You shall dwell in sukkot seven days; all citizens 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 Lord your God. (Ibid. 41-43)

02. The Festival of Ingathering

Sukkot is also called the Festival of Ingathering – “the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year” (Shemot 34:22) – because it occurs when the grain and other crops are gathered in from the fields and brought into homes and storehouses. Thus, the verse states: “Hold a seven-day festival of Sukkot when you gather in from your threshing floor and your winery” (Devarim 16:13, and similarly Vayikra 23:39).

The three pilgrimage festivals are connected to the agricultural seasons during which they occur, as the Torah states:

Three times a year you shall hold a festival for Me: the Festival of Unleavened Bread…at the ordained time of the month of Aviv…. The Festival of the Harvest of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field; and the Festival of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather your handiwork in from the field. (Shemot 23:14-16)

Pesaḥ is in aviv (spring), when everything is beginning to bloom; Shavu’ot is at the end of the grain harvest and the beginning of the fruit harvest; and Sukkot is at the completion of the ingathering of the year’s yield. The mitzva of each festival is to rejoice and thank God for the bounty with which He has blessed us. Sukkot, when we finish gathering in the produce of the whole year, is therefore the most joyful of all (Peninei Halakha: Mo’adim 1:2; 13:4-5).

These natural processes of this world reflect the spiritual processes that occur in the supernal worlds. Pesaḥ is a time of beginning and renewal, so we left Egypt then and became a nation. Shavu’ot is a time when the growth process reaches maturity, so we received the Torah then. Sukkot is when we finish gathering the grain and fruit into the house, so spiritually, it is a time to collect the spiritual fruits that Israel gained during the Egyptian bondage and the wanderings in the desert – and bring them into the home, that is, into Eretz Yisrael, Israel’s home. As Abarbanel wrote (Devarim 16:13), the primary joy of Sukkot is inheriting the land of Israel. Thus, Pesaḥ celebrates the uniqueness of Israel revealed at the time of the Exodus; Shavu’ot celebrates the giving of the Torah; and Sukkot celebrates inheriting Eretz Yisrael.

Two cycles culminate with Sukkot. The longer cycle is that of the three pilgrimage festivals, which correspond to the agricultural cycles and seasons, and which will begin anew with the winter planting. The second cycle is the repentance and atonement that we experience during the months of Elul and Tishrei. We do many wonderful things in the course of the year, but by our very nature, we are also prone to sin. In order to complete the year on the most positive note possible, we must repent, cleanse, and purify ourselves from any evil still clinging to us. This is our spiritual undertaking during Elul, Rosh Ha-shana, the Ten Days of Repentance, and Yom Kippur. By virtue of this repentance, atonement, and purification, the good we have absorbed during the course of the year is further refined, cleansed of the evil that has clung to it. This enables us to multiply our joy on Sukkot.

Rav Kook explains that although repentance is tremendously important, as it cleanses hearts and purifies disgraceful actions, it is also accompanied by pain, which causes the dulling of good will and saps vitality. Therefore, the season of repentance culminates with the joy of Sukkot, which restores our will to do good and our bold vitality (Orot Ha-teshuva 9:10).

03. The Four Species

The mitzva of the four species is connected to the joy of Sukkot, as we read, “On the first day you shall take the fruit of a hadar tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of dense-leaved trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Vayikra 23:40). The Sages explain that the joy in taking the lulav (which represents all four species) is related to both aspects of the Ingathering Festival – the material and the spiritual.

The material milestone celebrated is the end of the ingathering of all the year’s produce, when people experience abundant joy. To sanctify and connect this joy to recognizing the One Who created and sustains the world, we are commanded to take the four species as a symbol of our gratitude to God (Ramban on Vayikra 23:39; Sefer Ha-ḥinukh §324). The Sages ordained the shaking or waving of the four species upward, downward, and in all four directions, to express our faith in the Lord of the heavens, the earth, and everything in all four directions. It also conveys an implicit prayer for the upcoming year: May our crops flourish, and may God save us from harmful weather (Sukka 37b; below, 5:4).

The spiritual aspect of the celebration relates to our completion of the process of repentance for the past year’s sins. Waving the lulav is waving a banner to signify victory, for the success of our repentance and our drawing closer to God. The Sages compare this to two litigants who presented their cases in court. At the conclusion of the trial, no one knew who had won. Only after one of the litigants waved his sword did everyone know that he had won. Similarly, each year during the Days of Awe, the wicked of the world accuse Israel, claiming that they have not been fulfilling their mission, do not deserve to represent God in this world, and are not even worthy of preserving. The deliberations are tense, and no one knows whose claims prevailed – until Israel emerges holding their lulavim and etrogim, signifying that they prevailed, that they are God’s children and people. The nations of the world even celebrate with them, which is why we offered sacrifices on their behalf on Sukkot. This is why we were commanded, “On the first day you shall take” (based on Vayikra Rabba 30:2; Zohar I 221a).

The Sages also said that the four species tied together allude to the four types of Jews who must unite in serving God. Their unification sanctifies God’s name in the world (as elaborated in 4:2-3 below) and also leads to great joy. Thus, by taking the four species, we can rejoice before God for seven days.

04. The Sukka as Commemoration of the Booths in the Wilderness and the Clouds of Glory

The Torah explains the mitzva to dwell in the sukka for seven days: “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 Lord your God” (Vayikra 23:43). There is a disagreement in the Mishna as to what is meant by “sukkot.” According to R. Eliezer, they refer to the clouds of glory (“ananei ha-kavod”) that sheltered Israel in the wilderness; according to R. Akiva, they refer to the actual booths in which the Israelites dwelt when they left Egypt (Sukka 11b). Both positions can be supported by the verses:

Now when Pharaoh let the people go…they set out from Sukkot [i.e., they had built sukkot] and encamped at Etam, at the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people [i.e., they were protected by the clouds of glory]. (Shemot 13:17, 20-22)

In the opinion of R. Akiva, the mitzva of sukka commemorates the booths that Israel built to shelter themselves from sun and rain, reminding us of our humble beginnings, when God took us out of Egypt and led us from slavery to freedom, and when we wandered in the wilderness for forty years, sheltering in temporary booths to protect us from the sun and rain, without houses or inherited estates. By commemorating this, we will thank God for bringing us to the good and spacious land, a land where we could build homes and plant trees. Remembering our humble accommodations in booths helps ensure that the bounty of the good land will not cause us to become arrogant and forget God. Rather, we will recall that all is in His hands; He gave us the strength to conquer and settle the land, to eat its fruits and be satisfied by its bounty (Rashbam, Vayikra 23:43). This commemoration also redounds to the credit of Israel, who followed God into the uncultivated wilderness (Rabbeinu Baḥya ad loc.).

In the opinion of R. Eliezer, the mitzva of sukka commemorates the great miracle that God performed for Israel by providing clouds of glory to protect and guide them in the wilderness, as we read, “The Lord’s cloud kept above them by day, as they moved on from the camp” (Bamidbar 10:34). The clouds of glory expressed God’s love for us. Not only did He provide us with all our needs in the wilderness for forty years, with manna, quail, and the well, but His Shekhina also dwelt in our midst, and He covered us with clouds of glory, sheltering and protecting us (Ramban, Vayikra 23:43). The Sages state, “There were seven clouds of glory with Israel…one in each of the four directions, one above, one below, and one in front, clearing the way for them” (Mekhilta De-Rashbi, Shemot 13:21; Sifrei, Be-ha’alotekha 83). They further state that due to the merit accrued by Israel in following God into the wilderness, He enveloped them in clouds of glory (Zohar III 103b).

A cloud both reveals and conceals. On one hand, it is an expression of the Shekhina, but at the same time it conceals the intense divine illumination so that we can absorb it gradually. This is how God reveals Himself to us. First, He radiates a powerful illumination upon us, but since it is too powerful for us to comprehend, He masks it, so the light reaches us in accordance with our ability to absorb it. It is like the sun, which provides the world with energy, but since we cannot withstand its intensity, God created the atmosphere to protect us from its rays. This idea is alluded to in the verse (Tehilim 84:12), “For the Lord God is sun and shield.” (See Tanya, Sha’ar Ha-yiḥud Ve-ha’emuna, ch. 4.)

The sukka’s sekhakh also alludes to this. Physically, it protects us from most of the sun’s light, but it is not completely impenetrable, so that we can enjoy the light. Spiritually as well, the sekhakh protects us from most of the “enveloping light” (or makif) revealed on Sukkot, allowing us to absorb it according to our abilities (below, section 7).

05. The Reason for the Mitzva of Sukka – Practical Ramifications

In addition to the reasons for sukka given above – commemorating the booths in the wilderness according to R. Akiva, and the clouds of glory according to R. Eliezer – residing in a sukka also reminds us of the Exodus from Egypt, as the verse states: “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” (Vayikra 23:43). Not only Sukkot, but every Shabbat and holiday commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, as we acknowledge in kiddush and in our prayers. The Exodus is so important because the uniqueness of Israel, whom God chose as His treasured people and took out of Egypt, from bondage to freedom, was revealed through it. On a deeper level, He liberated our spirits from enslavement to materialism, for Egypt was a materialistic civilization. When we went free from Egypt, our spirits were freed from enslavement to the material, and we were free to accept the Torah (see Peninei Halakha: Pesaḥ 1:3).

It would seem that, if the sukka commemorates the Exodus, it should be built in the spring, the season when the Exodus took place. However, were we to build a sukka then, it would not be clear that it was to fulfill a mitzva, as during the spring there are people who sleep in booths or tents because they enjoy it. Therefore, we are commanded to reside in the sukka in the fall, to make it clear that we are doing so in order to fulfill a mitzva (Tur, OḤ 625).

Let us return to the debate between R. Eliezer and R. Akiva. The halakha follows R. Eliezer, which means that when we fulfill the mitzva, we must remember that the sukka is to commemorate the clouds of glory (SA 625:1). The Aḥaronim add that we must also keep in mind that the sukka is to commemorate the Exodus (MA; SAH; Pri Megadim; MB ad loc. 1). Some suggest that this is actually what R. Akiva meant – that we must remember the booths that Israel made when they left Egypt (Rabbeinu Ḥananel; Taz). Thus, if we recall both the clouds of glory and the Exodus, in practice we are following both opinions.

Although the reason for this mitzva is explicit in the Torah, as it states, “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” (Vayikra 23:43), nevertheless, if one forgot to have in mind that the sukka commemorates the clouds of glory and the Exodus, he has fulfilled his obligation, as long as he intended to fulfill God’s commandment (Pri Megadim; MB 625:1; below, 3:3, we explain that this law pertains to the first night as well).

06. A Temporary Residence

God wanted to bestow good upon us, so He chose us from among all the nations, brought us out of slavery, and gave us the Holy Land – a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So that we uphold the Torah and mitzvot in this land, we plant trees and build homes in it, eat of its fruit, and are satisfied by its bounty. In the land, we live our entire lives in holiness, thus fully revealing the divine, through body and soul, in all areas of life.

However, a great danger lurks as well, waiting to ambush us: as we reside in sturdy homes and enjoy abundant harvests, we are prone to becoming arrogant and forgetting the Lord our God and our mission in this world (which, after all, is the reason God took us out of Egypt). Sins could multiply to such an extent that we would lose the good land and be exiled. We would be forced to live among the nations, growing their fruits, and enriching them. Indeed, the Torah warns us about this danger:

Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God – Who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; Who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, Who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; Who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end – and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember that it is the Lord your God Who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case. If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish…. (Devarim 8:11-19)

This is why we are commanded specifically during the festival of ingathering, when we celebrate all the produce that grew in our fields, to dwell in a sukka, a temporary residence. We are thus reminded of the fleeting nature of human life, of being slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and of the forty years we wandered in the wilderness and resided in makeshift booths (based on Rashbam to Vayikra 23:43).

Let us elaborate further. Comfortably living at home is likely to mislead a person to believe that the walls of his home can protect him from all trials and tribulations. However, in truth, one’s life in this world is temporary, and even the strongest and best homes cannot protect one from disease, natural disaster, and war. And even if someone survives all these and lives to a ripe old age, eventually his time runs out; it becomes clear that his stay in this world was temporary. And even during all the years when he was privileged to reside tranquilly in his secure home, the tranquility and protection were from God. One who does not live with this awareness is living a lie; he thinks that the more he invests in the frivolities of this world, the more stable and the better his life will be. The truth is that the more he connects his activities in this world to the Source of life and to eternal values, the more meaningful, good, and truly happy his life will be. (See section 9, below, about Kohelet.)

Leaving our secure homes and entering the sukka on Sukkot allows us to absorb all these foundational lessons. It is for this reason that the sukka is referred to as “the shade of faith” (tzila di-mehemnuta). The timing of Sukkot is precise. Just before the winter arrives, and just as we are about to return to our homes for protection from the cold, wind, and rain, we are commanded to sit in the sukka and remember that God is our true guard and protector. “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain on it; unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman keeps vigil in vain” (Tehilim 127:1).

In the merit of our living in temporary residences which connect us to faith, God will allow His Shekhina to dwell in our midst. He will spread His canopy of peace over us and rebuild for all time the fallen sukka of David (the Davidic dynasty) and the Temple. We will live securely in permanent homes in the good land that God promised to our ancestors and to us, as we read:

On that day, I will set up again the fallen booth of David, I will mend its breaches and set up its ruins anew. I will build it firm as in the days of old…when the mountains shall drip wine and all the hills shall wave [with grain]. I will restore My people Israel. They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine; they shall till gardens and eat their fruits. And I will plant them upon their soil, nevermore to be uprooted from the soil I have given them – said the Lord your God. (Amos 9:11-15)

07. The Sukka – an Enveloping Light

The mitzva to dwell in a sukka is special in that it sanctifies routine life. When one eats and drinks, converses and sleeps in a sukka, it exalts and sanctifies these mundane acts, turning them into a mitzva. The kabbalists allude to this when they explain that the light of the sukka is an “enveloping” or “surrounding” light (“or makif”), as contrasted with the light of most mitzvot (including the four species), which is an “inner light.” Let us explain further:

The light that radiates from God is above and beyond our capacity to absorb and contain. We can thus speak of two parts: inner light (“or penimi”) and enveloping light. Inner light is the less powerful part, which we can absorb through thought and emotion. The more powerful part, which is beyond our ability to absorb, becomes a light that envelops us; although we cannot contain it, it surrounds us and gives us inspiration that deeply affects our lives.

The inner light allows us to exalt and sanctify the more obviously spiritual aspects of our lives. It is revealed by means of Torah study, prayer, and primarily mitzvot between one and God, which connect people to that which is beyond the mundane; their sanctity is more apparent. From the perspective of the inner light, the more spiritual something is, the higher a level it is on, and in contrast, the more practical and routine something is, the lower a level it is on. The four species allude to this, as we take them solely to fulfill a mitzva (below, 4:2-3).

Through the much greater or makif, on the other hand, we can repair and elevate the material and routine parts of life as well. This great light is revealed when faith and Torah illuminate mundane life: eating, drinking, sleeping, family life, interpersonal relationships, work, commerce, and scientific research. This is the primary mission of the Jewish people: to reveal to the world that God is one, in heaven and on earth, and that even mundane matters are connected to holiness. The mitzva of sukka alludes to this, as everything we do inside the sukka is sanctified and transformed into a mitzva, thus revealing a profound secret of faith (Zohar II 186b).

In this way, the mitzva of sukka is similar to the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael. Both of these mitzvot envelop us. When we enter into their holy atmosphere, our mundane activities are sanctified. The Vilna Gaon (Kol Ha-tor 1:7) says that there is an allusion to this connection in the verse, “Salem became His abode (sukko); Zion, His den” (Tehilim 76:3). Similarly, as we said above (section 2), the primary joy of Sukkot is celebrating our inheriting the land (Abarbanel to Devarim 16:13). These two mitzvot in particular reveal the special qualities of Israel, for the unique aspect of Israel is revealing sanctity on earth (see Avoda Zara 3b).

These two mitzvot complement one another. The sukka commemorates the clouds of glory, through which the Shekhina was revealed in the wilderness, as we read, “They turned toward the wilderness, and there, in a cloud, appeared the glory of the Lord” (Shemot 16:10). Similarly, we read that at Mount Sinai there was “a dense cloud upon the mountain” (ibid. 19:16), and that when God revealed Himself to Moshe, “The Lord came down in a cloud; He stood with him there” (ibid. 34:5). The reason the Shekhina revealed itself in the wilderness in the thick of the cloud is because we had not yet merited entering the Holy Land, where everything is linked to holiness. After we entered the land, our job became revealing the Shekhina in the land, such that everything we do is infused with the Divine Presence. However, there is a risk that when we busy ourselves with the practicalities of daily life in Eretz Yisrael, we will forget to focus on the holy. God gave us Sukkot as a constant reminder of the clouds of glory, the presence of the Shekhina, and the sacred mission of the Jewish people to reveal holiness within the world of action.

Revealing the holiness of Sukkot and Eretz Yisrael will bring the world to its complete perfection, as it is written: “In all of My sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done; for the land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord as water covers the sea” (Yeshayahu 11:9). This will also lead to world peace, as we read, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid” (ibid. 11:6). A similar sentiment is expressed in the chapter of Zechariah dealing with redemption and Sukkot: “And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one Lord with one name” (Zechariah 14:9). The nations of the world will ascend to Jerusalem and celebrate Sukkot with us. Even items which seem distant from holiness, like the bells of horses, will be designated “holy to God” (ibid. 14:20).

08. The Joy of Sukkot – Unity and Peace

There is a mitzva to rejoice on all the festivals, as the Torah says, “You shall rejoice in your festival” (Devarim 16:14). On Sukkot, though, we are to be extra joyful. Therefore, the mitzva to rejoice on all the festivals was stated in context of Sukkot:

After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the seven-day festival of Sukkot. You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities. For seven days you shall hold a festival for the Lord your God, in the place that the Lord will choose; for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy. (Devarim 16:13-15)

Similarly 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 seven-day festival of the Lord…and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Vayikra 23:39-40).

Joy is not explicitly mentioned in context of Pesaḥ. The Sages explain that this is because Pesaḥ is the time of judgment for the grain for the upcoming year. Additionally, since many Egyptians died then, our joy is incomplete. In reference to the festival of Shavu’ot, joy is mentioned once: “Then you shall observe the Festival of Weeks…and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God” (Devarim 16:10-11). By this point of the year, we already know that the grain has grown, and we are happy about it, but we are still worried about the rest of the produce. The word “joy” is not used in reference to Rosh Ha-shana, because it is a time of judgment for the entire world. But on Sukkot, after all the grain and fruits have been gathered in, and after we have repented and been atoned, we can truly and completely rejoice. This is why the verses speaking of Sukkot mention rejoicing three times (Pesikta De-Rav Kahana, Sukkot; Beit Yosef, OḤ 490:4; MB ad loc. 7).

The extra joy of Sukkot, then, is an end-of-year celebration, marking the ingathering of all the year’s produce – a material and spiritual ingathering of grain and fruits as well as of everything we learned and all the good things we did during the year. This ingathering is especially pure since it follows the season of repentance and atonement (as explained in section 2 above). The mitzva of taking the lulav also expresses the joy of the material and spiritual ingathering (section 3 above). Thus, we are elevated toward the Source of Life in ecstasy, and we gather to celebrate before the Lord our God. The sukka, surrounding us on all sides, symbolizes the ingathering of all the good things we did during the year. They all come together perfectly and envelop us, bathing us in divine light.

When we gather together every aspect and degree of goodness, even those which seem at first glance to be incompatible with one another, God spreads His canopy of peace over us, and Israel becomes cohesive and unified. For as long as each element stands on its own, there is no unity. But on the ingathering festival, all elements come together, revealing their unity. This is the meaning of the Sages’ statement: “All Jews can sit in one sukka” (Sukka 27b). Similarly, the four species hint at the different types of Jews who come together on Sukkot (below, 4:2-3).

Through the relative perfection that we attain on Sukkot in this world, we will reach the greater perfection in the messianic future, as the Sages said: “Of one who fulfills the mitzva of sukka in this world, the Holy One says, ‘He fulfilled the mitzva of sukka in this world; I will shelter him from the intense heat of the days to come’” (Pesikta De-Rav Kahana, Sukkot). This echoes a statement from the Gemara:

There will be no Gehinnom in the future. Rather, God will remove the sun from its sheath and intensify its heat. The wicked will be brought to justice by it, and the righteous will be healed by it. The wicked will be brought to justice by it, as it is written: “For lo! That day is at hand, burning like an oven. All the arrogant and all the doers of evil shall be straw, and the day that is coming – said the Lord of Hosts – shall burn them to ashes…” (Malakhi 3:19-20). The righteous will be healed by it, as it is written: “But for you who revere My name, a sun of victory shall rise to bring healing” (ibid.). Moreover, they will delight in it, as it is written: “You shall go forth and stamp like stall-fed calves” (ibid.). (Avoda Zara 3b)

The Sages tell us that the mitzvot which we perform in this world become garments that will allow us to absorb the great light in the future (Zohar II 210a). The sukka expresses this in our world, as it is the mitzva and shield that allows us to absorb the great light in a manner that is appropriate for us. (See the end of section 4.)

09. The Book of Kohelet

Many communities read the Book of Kohelet on Sukkot (Sofrim 14:1), as it teaches us how to celebrate truly. This is very important for people to learn, as we are naturally predisposed to find happiness in the trivialities and vanities of this world, thinking that the richer we are, the larger our homes, the fancier our clothes, the finer our food, the more expensive our drinks, the more exotic our gardens, and the more numerous our staff of servants, the happier we will be. In truth, all these things are merely instrumental; they can help us toward the ultimate objective, which is our spiritual stature, faith, and good character. But when material possessions become primary, it makes us forget our inner wellbeing and values, detaches us from the Source of Life, and leaves us hollowed out, empty, and joyless.

The idea of Sukkot is to experience true joy with all the produce that we gathered throughout the year. We achieve this by reinforcing our awareness that everything that we gathered was due to God’s kindness, and that its main purpose is to help us grow stronger in our faith and moral fiber and to give us the means and desire to help others and repair the world. We leave our secure, permanent homes for the temporary sukka, a place of mitzva and sanctity, and thus return to the foundations of the Jewish faith. We learn that our homes and possessions are tools to realize divine ideals.

This idea is expressed in Kohelet, which clarifies for us that wisdom, wealth, beauty, and other worldly virtues are trivial, “hevel.” Only one thing is important: “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His mitzvot, for this is the entirety of humanity” (Kohelet 12:13). I heard a nice explanation of this from my uncle. “Hevel” means “nothing” or “zero,” while reverence of God is “one” – it is the first among virtues like one is the first number (Shabbat 31b). If reverence of God comes first and it is joined by wisdom, the 1 joined to the 0 makes 10. If wealth, which is also a 0, is added, we reach 100. If beauty, which is also a 0, is added, we reach 1000. And so on. However, if reverence for God does not lead off, then all the other virtues are meaningless, a big fat zero (R. Avraham Remer zt”l).

Kohelet teaches us that joy which is not connected to a mitzva or moral value is unworthy. About this, it is written, “Of merriment [I said], ‘What good is that?’” (Kohelet 2:2). But about the joy of a mitzva, it is written, “I therefore praised enjoyment. For the only good a man can have under the sun is to eat and drink and enjoy himself” (ibid. 8:15). The Sages expound: “The Shekhina does not dwell with someone who is feeling sad, lazy, frivolous, or silly, or who is speaking nonsense. Rather, it dwells with one who is feeling happy on account of a mitzva” (Shabbat 30b).

Some Ashkenazic communities follow the practice of reading Kohelet from a parchment and reciting the berakhot of “al mikra megilla” and She-heḥeyanu beforehand. This is the practice of the students of the Vilna Gaon. Most Ashkenazic communities, however, do not recite berakhot before reading Kohelet, nor are they meticulous about reading it from a parchment (Rema 490:9; MB 490:19; Peninei Halakha: Mo’adim 2:10).

Ashkenazic custom is to read the megilla at Shaḥarit of Shabbat Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, before the Torah reading. Most Sephardic communities do not read Kohelet on Sukkot. Yemenites read part of Kohelet before Minḥa on Shabbat Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, and the rest on the last day of Yom Tov. (See Peninei Halakha: Mo’adim 2:10.)

10. Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva

When the Temple stood, a huge celebration, complete with music and dancing, was held in the Temple courtyard every night of Ḥol Ha-mo’ed Sukkot. This celebration was known as Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva. The Sages report: “Anyone who never witnessed the Simḥat Beit ha-sho’eva has never in his life witnessed simḥa” (m. Sukka 5:1). The celebration began after the afternoon tamid offering and continued all night long. As dawn approached, an official would make a declaration, and two kohanim standing at the upper gate would blow teki’a-teru’a-teki’a blasts on trumpets. They would lead everyone in a procession descending from the upper gate of the Temple. When the kohanim reached the tenth step, they blew teki’a-teru’a-teki’a blasts again. When they reached the women’s courtyard, they blew yet again. They continued blowing the trumpets until they arrived at the gate which exited the courtyard to the east. From there, the procession continued down to the Shilo’aḥ spring. There they drew water to be used for the libation that would accompany the morning tamid offering (Sukka 51b). When they ascended back to the Temple, they entered via the Water Gate, and the kohanim blew the trumpets once again. All of these blasts were celebratory, as we read (Yeshayahu 12:3), “Joyfully shall you draw water from the fountains of salvation” (Sukka 48a-b). The entire event was called the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva (lit. “the Celebration of the Water-Drawing Place”) on account of this water-drawing procession. The Sages further report that the joy of this mitzva imbued Israel’s leaders with divine inspiration. This was an additional reason for the name – “for they ‘drew’ divine inspiration from there” (y. Sukka 5:1).

This joy rested on two foundations: the joy that typifies Sukkot, and the special mitzva of the water libation that took place only on Sukkot. During the year, all offerings, both individual and communal, were accompanied by a wine libation, which was poured on the altar. Only on Sukkot, at the morning tamid, was there a special mitzva of pouring water, in addition to wine, on the altar. They would fill two receptacles – one with wine and the other with the water brought from the Shilo’aḥ – and pour them out simultaneously into the Shitin, a natural hollow space under the Temple floor, through two adjacent holes in the surface of the altar. During the construction of the Temple, they built the altar above the Shitin and left a narrow opening between the altar and its ramp, so that the water libations could be poured into the Shitin (Sukka 49a). The Shitin was in place from the moment of creation, designated for use in this mitzva, to ensure that the water libations reach the very foundations of the earth; all other wine libations could simply be poured onto the altar (Maharsha, Sukka 3b).

The water libations express the uniqueness of Sukkot, in which the sanctity of natural life and existence is revealed – just as the mitzva of sukka transforms natural activities like sleeping and eating into mitzvot. All year long, only wine libations accompanied the offerings, because normally, only the special elevation to which wine alludes can reveal sanctity. But on Sukkot, after the observance of all the festivals and days of repentance, and after the gathering in all the year’s produce, sanctity is manifest in routine life as well, which is sustained by water. This is the greatest, most complete joy, as it incorporates all facets of life.

The Sages tell us that on Sukkot we are judged concerning water and that through the water libations, the incoming year’s rainfall is blessed (RH 16a). We must note that water alludes to God’s great kindness, which sustains everything, without exception: grass and trees, fruits and vegetables, fish and fowl, wild and domesticated animals, Israel and the nations of the world. Usually we are not worthy of ascending to the level of this great kindness, but on Sukkot, after we have completed the entire cycle of festivals and repentance, we become worthy of pouring water on the altar, thus connecting with the very foundations of the world’s existence and thereby opening the gates of blessing to all creatures. The joy that accompanies the drawing of the water is therefore very great indeed.

11. The Proceedings of the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva

Large golden candelabra, atop poles fifty amot high, were erected in the Temple courtyard. Each candelabrum had four lamps, and four young kohanim were charged with lighting each candelabrum by climbing ladders to fill the lamps with enough oil to last all night and to kindle them. The wicks for the lamps were made from worn-out pants of kohanim. These lamps produced enough light to illuminate all the courtyards in Jerusalem (m. Sukka 5:3).

The celebration itself took place in the women’s courtyard, which was the outer courtyard of the Temple. Musicians stood on the fifteen steps that descended from the men’s courtyard to the women’s and played a variety of instruments: flutes, harps, trumpets, and cymbals (m. Sukka 5:4). Most of the musicians were Levites, but Israelites who knew how to play would join the orchestra.

The pious and virtuous would dance while juggling torches. Some could juggle four torches, and some could manage eight. They did not worry about their dignity. Rather, they danced, skipped, and jumped at the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva, like King David, who danced and whirled with all his might before the Ark of God (2 Samuel 6:16). The Sages recount that when R. Shimon ben Gamliel (the Nasi) rejoiced at the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva, he took eight torches in golden holders. He threw one and grabbed another, and they never collided with each other. He also bowed down, planting his thumbs in the earth and kissing the floor of the courtyard, then immediately straightening up. Those present sang songs and praises to God. The pious and virtuous would say, “Fortunate is our youth, which does not embarrass our old age,” while penitents would say, “Fortunate is our old age, which atones for our youth.” Both would say, “Fortunate is one who did not sin, and one who sinned can repent and be forgiven.” The joy of the sages led them to experience divine inspiration. It is said of the prophet Yona that he was inspired by the divine spirit and achieved prophecy as a result of his rejoicing at the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva (Sukka 53a; y. Sukka 5:1, 4).

Not everyone who wanted was allowed to dance in the presence of the people. Rather, the greatest sages, yeshiva heads, the members of the Sanhedrin, the pious, the elders, and the virtuous danced and rejoiced in front of the people. Everyone else, men and women, came to watch them dance and hear the marvelous singing (MT, Laws of Shofar, Sukka, and Lulav 8:14). Presumably they could sing and dance in place a little bit.

Originally, the women would stand in the women’s courtyard, and the men stood further away, on the open area of the Temple Mount. When the Sages saw that this led to frivolity and mixing, they instructed that a balcony be built for the women to stand on, with the men standing below them. The dancing then took place in the middle of the courtyard (Sukka 51b).

Yehoshua ben Ḥananya was a Levite who was among those who sang while the sacrifices were being offered. He testified that during all of Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, the Levites did not sleep in their beds. They sang in the morning, while the morning tamid was offered, then they prayed Shaḥarit, then sang again during the musaf offering, and then prayed the Musaf prayer. From there they went to the beit midrash to study Torah until after noon, whereupon they ate a festive meal, prayed Minḥa, and sang in accompaniment of the afternoon tamid. Right after that, the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva began and continued until dawn. When they grew tired, they would nod off a bit while resting their heads on their colleagues’ shoulders (Sukka 53a).

12. The Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva Nowadays

It is customary to hold celebrations on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed, in commemoration of the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva held in the Temple. Every celebration held during the festival is a mitzva, as we read, “You shall rejoice in your festival” (Devarim 16:14). These commemorative celebrations, also called “Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva,” fulfill an additional mitzva by invoking the Temple celebrations and thus hasten the Temple’s rebuilding (Sukka 41a).

This custom has become stronger in recent centuries, as Jews from all over the world began to gather in Eretz Yisrael, and the light of salvation began to glimmer. Originally, these celebrations were held only in Eretz Yisrael, but they spread to the Diaspora as well. As R. Ḥayim ibn Attar (the “Or Ha-Ḥayim”) wrote in a letter from Jerusalem in 5503 (1742): “On Ḥol Ha-mo’ed we had a Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva. I was the one who lit [the torches] one night, and we held a great celebration.” Elsewhere it is recounted that people would dance in circles, holding torches. Similarly, Ḥasidim who immigrated to Israel from Europe reported that a Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva with drums, dancing, and torches was held in Tzefat.

Yehosef Schwartz (d. 5625/1864) wrote a letter to his brother about the special celebrations that took place in Jerusalem. He described how in the Kahal Tziyon Synagogue they set up a special device that shot water upward during the celebration. R. Yehuda Leibish Orenstein (head of the Ḥasidei Yerushalayim rabbinical court) wrote (in 5633/1872) that the Sadigora Ḥasidim who immigrated to Jerusalem hired non-Jewish musicians to play every night of Ḥol Ha-mo’ed at their Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva (Responsa Moharil, p. 8). However, the general Ashkenazic custom was not to light torches (Ir Ha-kodesh Ve-hamikdash 3:25:8-9).
Ḥayim Abulafia instituted a Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva in the synagogue in Izmir, Turkey, to commemorate the Temple, in which they lit many candles in the synagogue and played hymns for about two hours, with dancing by elders and notables (Ḥayim Va-ḥesed 497:11). Similarly, the Rabbi of Tripoli in 5570/1810, R. Avraham Ḥayim Adadi, wrote that they customarily celebrated on Ḥol Ha-mo’ed nights, following the practice instituted by an emissary from Jerusalem. They sang and danced for two or three hours, with the sexton handing out candles to the dancers. Each dancer began by bowing in front of the holy ark (Vayikra Avraham, Kuntres Makom She-nahagu, p. 123). Some even permitted a mourner to play music at the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva, since its joy is that of a mitzva and it commemorates the Temple (Zera Emet 2:157). Some sang selected liturgical poems of the Days of Awe during the Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva (Yesod Ve-shoresh Ha-avoda 11:14).

Even though there is no obligation to hold a Simḥat Beit Ha-sho’eva, having one is a mitzva. It is especially important to encourage those who are not studying Torah to participate in the celebration, rather than to waste their time (R. Yaakov Ettlinger, Bikurei Yaakov 661:3).

At the beginning of the celebration, some have a custom to recite the fifteen “Songs of Ascent” (“Shir Ha-ma’alot”; Tehilim 120-134), which have special power to increase water and blessing. The custom is based upon the story that when King David opened the Shitin, the waters of the deep threatened to rise and flood the earth. David wrote the Tetragrammaton on a potsherd and placed it upon the water. The water sank 16,000 amot, and the world became very dry. Then King David recited the fifteen “Shir Ha-ma’alot” psalms, and with each psalm, the water rose 1,000 amot, and the world was once again hydrated (Sukka 53a-b).

13. The Jews and the Nations of the World

Sukkot is special in that the nations of the world also have a part in it. The Sages say that the seventy bulls that we are commanded to sacrifice during the seven days of Sukkot correspond to the seventy nations of the world (Sukka 55b). As we have already learned (section 7 above), on Sukkot it is revealed that nothing is not connected to sanctity, so the positive value of the world’s nations is illuminated as well. The order in which the sacrifices are offered is unusual. On the first day we offer thirteen bulls, on the second day twelve. The numbers continue to descend each day, until on the seventh day we offer seven bulls (Bamidbar 29:12-34). The idea is that on the inside, deep down, the root of every nation in the world is good, though sometimes their actions manifest terrible evil. It is therefore necessary to separate the good from the bad. By gradually decreasing the number of sacrificial bulls, the negative forces dissipate until, on the seventh day, we offer only seven, the number that is most suitable for revealing sanctity in this world, which was created in seven days (Ein Ayah on Shabbat 2:7).

The prophet Zechariah teaches us that in the future, Sukkot will serve as a litmus test for the nations of the world. Those who ascend to Jerusalem to worship God and to celebrate with the Jewish people will merit great blessing, as we read:

All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King, Lord of Hosts, and to observe the festival of Sukkot. Any of the earth’s peoples that do not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bow low to the King, Lord of Hosts, shall receive no rain. If the Egyptian people do not go up…the Lord will bring on them the plague He inflicts on the nations that do not go up to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. Such shall be the punishment of Egypt and of all other nations that do not come up to observe the festival of Sukkot…. (Zechariah 14:16-19)

Our relationship with non-Jews is complicated. Over the course of our long history, they have often treated us very badly; nevertheless, our basic attitude toward them is positive. The Sages tell us, “Woe to the non-Jews, who sustained a loss that they are not even aware of. During Temple times, the altar atoned for them. Now, what atones for them?” (Sukka 55b). A midrash makes a similar point. “Israel said: ‘Master of the world, we sacrifice seventy bulls on their behalf. By rights they should love us. Yet they hate us!’ The verse (Tehilim 109:4) attests to this, stating, ‘They repay my love with accusations, but I continue to pray’” (Bamidbar Rabba 21:24).

Zohar explains in many places that we offer seventy bulls for the seventy nations out of love, in order to increase abundance and blessing for them (Zohar I 221a; III 256a). Even if they hate us, by offering the bulls on their behalf, we ensure that they are too preoccupied with their bounty to torment us (ibid. I 64a; II 187a). Ultimately, though, if they are ingrates and still hate us out of wickedness, the abundance they receive will become a stumbling block for them. Mishlei (25:21-22) attests to this: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. You will be heaping live coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Zohar III 259a and 24a-b).

The responsibility that we show for the entire world reveals more of Israel’s special qualities. These qualities find expression on Shemini Atzeret, when we experience the special love between God and Israel. For this reason, we offer only one bull then. In the words of our Sages (Sukka 55b), “Why do we offer only a single bull on Shemini Atzeret? It corresponds to a singular nation. This can be compared to a king of flesh and blood who told his servants, ‘Make me a big feast.’ Then on the last day of the celebration he said to his favorite, ‘Make me a small banquet, so that I can enjoy your company alone.’” (See 7:2 below.)

14. The Custom of Ushpizin

As we have seen (Peninei Halakha: Mo’adim 1:11), the Torah commands us to include the poor and lonely in the festivities and to invite them to share our meals, as we read, “You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities” (Devarim 16:14). These are the guests (ushpizin) whom it is a mitzva to invite into the sukka. According to Zohar, it is also appropriate to invite “supernal guests” (“ushpizin ila’in”) into the sukka. These are the souls of seven righteous people, Avraham, Yitzḥak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, and David, whose light shines on Sukkot. On each day of the festival, the light of one of them shines brightest, and he enters the sukka first, accompanied by the other six.

Zohar on Parashat Emor tells of the practice of R. Hamnuna Saba. Entering the sukka made him happy, so he would stand in its doorway and say: “Sit down, supernal guests, sit down. Sit down, guests of faith, sit down.” He would then joyously raise his hands and exclaim: “Happy is our lot, happy is the lot of Israel, who sits in the sukka!” For everyone who has a share in the holy nation and the holy land is sitting in the shelter of faith and receiving the light of the seven righteous visitors. He will rejoice in this world and the next.

Nevertheless, one must make sure to bring joy to the poor, since the share of the seven righteous whom he invited to the sukka belongs to them. If one sits in the shelter of faith and invites supernal guests of faith but does not give their share to the poor, these righteous guests get up to leave. They are not interested in being hosted by a miser, as Scripture states: “Do not eat of a stingy man’s food; do not crave his dainties” (Mishlei 23:6-7). The table he set for the meal is his own table, not God’s table, and of him it is written: “I will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festival sacrifices” (Malakhi 2:3). Woe to this host when the supernal guests desert his table. When our patriarch Avraham – who spent his whole life standing at the crossroads inviting guests and setting the table for them – sees that this person has set his table without including the poor, he gets up and announces, “Move away from the tents of these wicked men” (Bamidbar 16:26). All the rest of the supernal guests then file out after him. On their way out, Yitzḥak says, “The belly of the wicked will be empty” (Mishlei 13:25), and Yaakov says, “The morsel you eat you will vomit” (ibid. 23:8). The rest of the righteous say, “For all tables are covered with vomit and filth without the Omnipresent” (Yeshayahu 28:8).

Zohar further states that one should not say, “First I will eat and drink to satiety, and then I will give what is left to the poor.” Rather, he should first give to the poor. If he acts properly, bringing joy to the poor and filling them to satiety, God delights in him. Avraham says of him, “Then you can seek the favor of the Lord. I will set you astride the heights of the earth” (Yeshayahu 58:14), and the rest of the righteous apply various positive verses to him. Happy is the person who merits this (Zohar III 103b-104a).

We must add that if someone gives charity to the poor before the festival in accordance with his means, he is also fulfilling the mitzva by making sure that they are included in the festival joy. Nevertheless, hosting them in his sukka is a greater mitzva. Nowadays it is particularly important to make a point of inviting people, as there are very few people today who are actually starving, but there are many people who are sad and lonely. It is a great mitzva to make efforts to invite them to join in the celebration.

Many siddurim include a formula for inviting the ushpizin ila’in each day. The traditional order is: Avraham, Yitzḥak, Yaakov, Moshe, Aharon, Yosef, David. This is the custom of Sephardim and Ḥasidim (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 639:8). In Ashkenazic custom, the order is Avraham, Yitzḥak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, David (Siddur Ha-Shlah). Some people make a point of having Torah discussions each day about that day’s guest. Some people, who share a name with one of the ushpizin, make a party in their sukka on the night of “their” supernal guest, setting out refreshments and wine for their human guests, and inviting Torah scholars to speak.

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