The Festival of Sukkot in the Holy Temple
The special joy that marks the celebration of the Festival of Sukkot in the Holy Temple renders Sukkot unique among the Three Festivals. One of the many reasons for the holiday’s enthusiastic happiness is that Sukkot is the Festival of Harvest. The Jewish farmer, having gathered the fruits of his labor into his home and enjoying the abundance of G-d’s blessing, comes to the Temple with his heart filled with exuberance and thanksgiving for all that G-d has given him.
A man of Israel comes to the Holy Temple to express his utmost joy. He takes in hand the four species, fresh and green, and arrives at the courtyards of the House of G-d to fulfill the Torah commandment, “On the first day [of Sukkot], take the etrog, and lulav… and rejoice before Hashem your G-d for seven days.” (Leviticus 23:40).
The mitzvah of the Four Species is fulfilled in its most perfect form with all of Israel gathered together as one in the Temple courtyard in Jerusalem, lulavim (palm fronds) in hand, marching around the altar, singing the Hallel prayer and calling out, “Ana Hashem Hoshiya Na!”
The “rejoicing before G-d” was manifest, as well, in the singing and music performed by the Levites in the Holy Temple throughout the festival. Though the Levites sang and played every day of the year, on Sukkot it was especially felt – as the Mishna states (Arakhin 10a): “On twelve days each year the flute was played before the altar, [including] the eight days of Sukkot.”
The streets of Jerusalem took on a holiday flavor during Sukkot, with many sukkahs standing proud on the roofs, in yards and on the streets, for the use of both residents and visitors from across the land. The streets were also filled with people carrying their four species wherever they went.
The uniqueness of the Sukkot festival is manifest as well in the many offerings that are brought in the Temple during the holiday. Dozens of animals were offered as communal offerings, including 70 bulls corresponding to the 70 nations of the world. In addition, from all over the country came Jews with their many holiday offerings, as specified in the Torah. Many also brought first fruits of the season as well.
Several special joyous events are held on Sukkot. These include the Joy of the Water Drawing (Simchat Beit HaShoeva), the willow-branch beating in the Courtyard, the water libation, and the Hak’hel ceremony every seven years with the participation of all of Israel – men, women and children.
The days of Sukkot were long and very full. The Talmud quotes R. Yehoshua ben Chananya: “When we celebrated the Simchat Beit HaShoeva, we did not sleep at all. The first hour was the morning Tamid offering, and from there we went to pray, and then to the Musaf offering, from there to the Musaf prayers, then to the Study Hall, and later to partake of the festival meal, continuing to the Mincha prayer, from there to the afternoon Tamid offering, and finally – to the Simchat Beit HaShoeva festivities.”
A summation of the great joy of these days is this famous phrase in the Mishna (Sukkah 5:1): “He who has not seen the Simchat Beit HaShoeva, has not seen joy in his life.”
A Jerusalem Street on Sukkot
The streets of Jerusalem in Holy Temple days took on a unique appearance during Sukkot. Jerusalemites would generally walk around carrying their lulavim (palm fronds) and etrogim (citrons) wherever they went, and sukkahs were erected all along the streets.
The Talmud teaches (Sukkah 41b): “Thus was the custom of the men of Jerusalem: A person leaves his house with his lulav in hand, goes to the synagogue with lulav in hand, prays with lulav in hand… goes to visit the sick or comfort mourners with lulav in hand…”
Another Jerusalem practice at this time was that of generous hospitality. The residents prepared sukkahs for the many pilgrims, such that people could both walk the streets during the day and sleep in sukkahs at night. The Sages stated: “The Jerusalemites would lower their beds down through the windows… and place s’khakh (the 'roof ' of the sukkah, made from plants) over them, and sleep under them” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 2:2).
This painting depicts an early evening scene, when sukkahs are being prepared for the night; the Temple can be seen at the end of the street.
Taking the Lulav on the Sabbath in the Holy Temple
On the Sabbath, too, the Temple worshipers would take the four species and walk around the altar, just as on every other day of Sukkot. However, carrying outside is forbidden on the Sabbath, and so the four species had to be left there on Friday and “picked up” on the Sabbath. The Mishna (Sukkah 42b) explains how this was done in the early Second Temple days: “They brought their lulavim to the Temple Mount [on Friday], and the attendants received them and arranged them upon the portico (the eastern portico is seen at right, with the Tadi Gate seen in the north; the Gemara explains that there was a double colonnade around the Temple Mount); the elders placed theirs separately in a chamber… The next morning they came early, and the attendants threw down their lulavim before them; the people grabbed at them, and it came to blows – so the Beit Din (rabbinical court) instituted that each man should wave his lulav in his own home.”
Circling the Altar
The Mishna (Sukkah 4:5) describes the daily Sukkot practice of hakafot: walking around the altar while carrying the four species and reciting “Ana Hashem Hoshiya Na (Please, HaShem, save us)!”
The painting depicts the practice in accordance with the Jerusalem Talmud and Maimonides’ ruling (Lulav 7:23): Everyone – kohanim, Levites and Israelites – would walk once around the altar each day, and seven times on Hoshana Rabba (just as the Israelites marched seven times around Jericho, as described in the Book of Joshua). Though non-kohanim were generally not permitted between the altar and the Sanctuary (the entrance to which is seen at left, where the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) stands with his four species), this prohibition was suspended for the hakafot.
It is a matter of dispute whether only the four species were carried during the hakafot, or also an additional willow branch (arava), as Maimonides rules; there is even an opinion that only a willow branch was taken.
The Seventy Bulls
During the course of the seven days of Sukkot, the Musaf offerings included 70 bulls – beginning with 13 on the first day, 12 the next, and so on. This painting shows the animals that are to be offered as sacrifices on the first day. The Rambam writes (Temidin UMusafin 10:3): “On the first day of Sukkot, the Musaf sacrifice is brought as follows: Thirteen bulls, two rams, and 14 sheep – all burnt-offerings – and a goat as a sin-offering, to be eaten by the priests in the Azara.” The Musaf offering on the rest of the days was the same, except for the decreasing number of bulls, which reached seven on the seventh day.
Beautifying the Lulav
In order to fulfill the commandment of the four species with extra splendor, some Jerusalemites would bind them together with gold bands, as seen here. The Mishna (Sukkah 3:8) stipulates that the willow and myrtle branches must be tied to the bottom half of the lulav with a lulav leaf, while on the top half, gold bands were allowed to be used as adornments. The Rambam, however, rules that the gold bands can be used anywhere on the lulav, because their purpose is to beautify it and are therefore not considered an invalid “obstruction.” The man at right in the picture is holding invalid gold bands, as they do not unite the various species, but rather separate between them.
The Seventh-Day Offering
The seventh day of Sukkot is known as Hoshana Rabba, and the bulls of its Musaf offering numbered only seven. The Sages of the Talmud (Sukkah 55b) liken the 70 bulls to the 70 nations of the world – and the daily decrease in the number of bulls symbolizes the weakening of those nations that harm Israel. Israel, on the other hand, “rises in sanctity” and adds holiness to the world.