Sukkot

Each of the three major festivals, the sacred seasons sanctified by the G-d of Israel, has a designation by which it is known in the texts of Jewish liturgy and tradition. Passover, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt, is known as "the time of our freedom;" this is the holiday of national emancipation. Shavuot, the anniversary of the Sinai Revelation, is "the time of the giving of our Torah." These holidays, wherein the entire nation makes the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, each possess a special quality. At the same time, each presents its own timely challenge as well.

Biblical Verses - Lev. 23:33-44

"And the L-rd spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them, the 15th day of this seventh month shall be the Festival of Sukkot - seven days for the L-rd... for seven days, you shall present a burnt offering to the L-rd... "

"On the first day, you shall take for yourself a fruit of the citron tree (Hebrew: etrog), a palm frond (lulav), myrtle branches (hadas) and willows (aravah). You shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d for seven days. During these seven days each year, you shall celebrate to G-d. It is an eternal law for all generations that you celebrate in the seventh month."

"During these seven days you must live in thatched huts; all Israelites must live in thatched huts. This is so that your future generations will know that I caused Israel to live in huts when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the L-rd your G-d."

Background: The Time of our Joy

"All seven days of the festival, each one should turn the hut into his permanent residence, and his house into the temporary one" (Sukkah 2, 9)

It is most apropos that the Festival of Sukkot is referred to as "the time of our joy." For although it is marked by the observance of special, highly visible commandments such as the "four species" (see the Biblical verses quoted above); and while on the surface level, it commemorates a specific period and event in Jewish history - the huts in which the Jews lived after they left Egypt - nonetheless, the central theme of this season is the pure joy of having a relationship with the Creator. It was none other than King David who taught us that this is the epitome of true happiness - and true religious experience.

Now, some of our sages have stated that those original "huts" of that generation were actually G-d's Clouds of Glory, which He spread over Israel in His protection and Divine grace (BT Sukkah 11:B; Rashi). Whether or not this statement is taken literally is irrelevant - for what it symbolizes is a concept that not only personifies the very essence of this holiday, but the essence of Israel's faith as well.

Israel's calendar - G-d's calendar of sacred seasons - is a Divine plan; a schedule whereby man is given the capability of plugging into a network of vast Heavenly resources. Each festival arrives just in time; each in its respective season. As these seasons change, just at the time when man needs to find a way of renewing himself, his belief, and his spiritual strengths, the festival knocks upon his door... "the voice of my beloved knocks" (Song of Songs 5:4). The unique observances and commandments associated with each festival are the vessels which hold the radiance of G-dly light; they are the tools, tailor-made to fit the needs of each season by the Tailor who created man and knows exactly what he lacks.

What is the Source of this Great Joy at Sukkot?

We can find no better illustration for this than the unique festival of Sukkot. For the booths in which Israel live during these days symbolize her rock-steady, unshakable faith in the One G-d of Israel. Just in the fall, as the days are getting shorter and colder, most people are coming indoors. It is no longer pleasurable to sit outside as it was in the summer. But this is just when "every citizen in Israel" moves from the comforts and security of home, and takes up residence in temporary dwellings, thanking G-d for the harvest in this season and recalling His constant, enveloping presence. This knowledge is true joy! Unconcerned with sunshine or warm weather, these temporary dwellings do not appear to be "secure" in the physical sense... they may shake a little in the wind; their roofs are but thatches open to the stars. But yet Israel sits within, unmoved and unaffected by what may be mistakenly perceived as a hostile world - for like the booth, this world is temporary, and we are but temporary dwellers within her. But just as the walls of this hut surround us, so we are surrounded by the constant, protective presence of G-d Himself. The winds may shake and the elements may confront us, but the shadow of the Sukkah is the shadow of the Divine Presence.

"Escaping into the Sukkah"

Herein lies the exquisite precision of G-d's calendar, answering the need of every human emotion by providing strength, encouragement and opportunities to connect with the Divine. For this great time of year follows just 4 days after Yom Kippur, the time of awesome reckoning and the dispensing of justice. And lest one feel dejected, despondent or fearful that perhaps his judgment was not favorable, and he has lost that Divine connection - immediately after the Day of Atonement he is given bundles of commandments to fulfill, the construction of the booth and the preparation of the 4 species. Then he goes out into the booth itself, symbol of Divine mercy; instead of running away from the Holy One he flees directly into His presence, as it were. There, he is overwhelmed by the realization of the depth of G-d's love and concern. Commenting on the juxtaposition of these holidays and the great Divine wisdom which plans for every human contingency, King Solomon was moved to write (Ecc. 9:7) "Go your way, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a glad heart, for G-d has already accepted your works."

"The Place Which He Will Choose"

Nowhere is this great wave of Sukkot joy felt so strongly as in the Holy Temple, focal point of worship, thanks, and connection to G-d... the connection which imbues the human condition with the vision of that which is real, and that which is merely illusion. For this is "the place which He will choose;" here He has chosen to cast asunder the imaginary veils which separate Him from His precious creations - for those veils exist only in the minds of men.

True Joy is Only Experienced "Before the L-rd your G-d"

The Biblically ordained expression of this happiness is the taking of the "4 species;" this is the vehicle through which G-d instructs Israel to demonstrate their joy to Him: "... you shall take for yourself a fruit of the citron tree, a palm frond, myrtle branches and willows. You shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d for seven days."

Indeed, it was only in the Holy Temple that this joy was given the opportunity to burst forth in true expression. For while today we are accustomed to rejoicing with the lulav (meaning all the species collectively) and reciting the festive hallel prayers all during the festival, this was not always the case:

The Mishna (Sukkah 3, 12) describes that in the time when the Holy Temple stood, the lulav was taken all week long only by those who worshipped in the Temple itself. However, outside the Temple-even for those in the holy city of Jerusalem proper - the lulav was only held on the first day; for the remainder of the week it was not used except in the Holy Temple. This is solely on account of the verse (Lev. 23:40) which reads "... and you shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d for seven days." The great sages understood that the place which is "before the L-rd your G-d" is only the Holy Temple itself, the place of constant Divine revelation. The verse makes it clear that it is only there that an individual is required by the Biblical commandment to rejoice with the 4 species all week long; everywhere else is referred to by the words "And you shall take for yourselves on the first day" (ibid.).

"A Remembrance for the Temple"

It was only after the Holy Temple was destroyed that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, head of the Sanhedrin-in-exile at Tiberias and composer of the Jerusalem Talmud, enacted that hallel should be recited with the lulav everywhere during the entire festival of Sukkot - as a remembrance for the Holy Temple! This is the origin of our practice today.

Background: Rabban Yochanan and the Destruction

Rabban Yochanan was an eye-witness to the Temple's destruction. Acting out of a firm belief that the Temple would be rebuilt speedily, and concerned that its practices and procedures should remain fresh in Israel's collective consciousness, Rabban Yochanan enacted a series of measures which fully demonstrate the centrality of the Holy Temple in the lives of the Jewish people... a centrality so vibrant and a force so powerful in her life, that it remains not merely a memory, but a fire which refuses to be extinguished. Truly, all other factors in Israel's national life are eclipsed by the importance of the Holy Temple.

Other Temple Remembrances

In addition to this measure concerning the use of the lulav throughout Sukkot as it was done in the Temple, here is another aspect of Rabban Yochanan's legislation: Priests who can keep track of the day on which their shift serves in the Temple service should behave themselves on those days as if the Temple still stood -meaning, they should abstain from drinking wine, so that they will remain in a state of readiness to resume their priestly duties.

Similarly, other customs were adopted by the majority of Israel which were designed to keep the Temple's memory at the forefront of their awareness. For example, the famed sage Hillel's custom of eating the matzah and bitter herb together in a sandwich on the seder night, in the same manner that the Passover celebrants ate in Jerusalem in the shadow of the Temple. Likewise, to paraphrase Psalms 137:6, "Jerusalem is to be raised above our chiefest joy." Thus at the hour of a man's chiefest joy, his wedding, he breaks a glass under his foot to symbolize the destruction of the House of the L-rd. The message is clear: Even this great moment of joy, perhaps the greatest of his life, cannot be complete as long as the Temple still lies in ruins.

In section 560 of Rabbi Joseph Caro's (1488-1575) monumental Code of Jewish Law, we find other instances of these remembrances which were enacted by the great sages living in the generation of the Second Temple's destruction. For example, when an individual builds a home, he must leave a small section of the wall opposite the entrance blank and unplastered.

What is the "Hallel?"

The hallel prayer, a collection of songs of thanksgiving and praise to the Almighty, is one of the oldest and most original examples of traditional Jewish liturgy. It consists of the following chapters from the book of Psalms: 113-118, plus a number of important additional verses. The sages speculate (BT Pesahim 117:A) as to its exact source and time of origin of the recitation of hallel, and essentially they are of two opinions: Either it was sung the first time by Moses and the Children and Israel when the sea split before them; or, it was written by King David.

In all probability, both opinions are correct. Ever since its inception as a nation, Israel has collectively given praise to G-d through the songs of the hallel. But it was the sweet psalmist of Israel, the anointed King David, who later organized the ancient songs and put them in order. He also completed the book of psalms with many of his own original work.

Historical Background: "Ten Elders"

This approach to understanding how the hallel came to be written as we know it today can apply to the entire book of Psalms, as well. For while David wrote most of the Psalms and published them, some had been transmitted to him from previous generations (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:3). There is a discussion in the Talmud as to whether the Psalms were written prophetically (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 2:45).

In addition to King David, there is a tradition (BT Bava Batra 14:B) that ten elders wrote and contributed portions of the book of Psalms:

  1. Adam Psalm 92
  2. Malkitzedek Psalm 110
  3. Abraham Psalm 89
  4. Moses Psalms 90-100
  5. Heiman Psalm 88
  6. Yeduthun Psalms 39,62, 77
  7. Asaph Psalms 50, 73-83
  8. Assir ben Korah Psalms 42, 49, 78, 84, 85, 88
  9. Elkanah ben Korah Same as above
  10. Aviassaph ben Korah Same as above