As my readers probably know, the number “seven” has always been regarded by interpreters and commentators of the Torah as the number of completeness. It comes as no surprise then, that the seventh month of the year, Tishrei, is indeed a very important month in God’s sacred calendar. It is full of the special solemn days – mo’adim. We spoke already about Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur on these pages. Now, we have entered the last of the “solemn assemblies” of Tishrei, the Feast of Tabernacles. In the Bible, Sukkot is sometimes simply called “The Feast” (1 Kings 8:2) or “The Feast of the Lord” (Lev.23:39). Why? What is so special about Sukkot?
At first glance, there seems to be no reasonable explanation: usually the Feasts of Israel commemorate some particular event which saved the Jewish people from grave danger that occurred on that particular date (such as Passover, Chanukah, or Purim), but nothing happened on the 15th of Tishrei that would explain the establishment of a holiday on this date. So, what do we celebrate and why do we rejoice?
Sukkot starts almost immediately after the solemn and sober Days of Awe—the days of trembling and repentance. Our Sages teach that we have to start constructing the succah immediately after Yom Kippur: only because of the atonement of Yom Kippur, is the joy of Succot possible! This transition, from the solemn and sober Days of Awe to the Festival of Joy, is incredibly profound. According to Jewish tradition, on Yom Kippur, God forgave His people after their terrible sin of the Golden Calf, and Moses came back with the second set of tablets. However, it is only at Sukkot that God’s presence returned to abide among His people; it is only at Sukkot that those Divine clouds covered the hand-made booths. This is the mystery and the joy of Sukkot—the mystery and the joy of God’s return and of renewed fellowship. That is why Sukkot is indeed the holiday of divine intimacy and divine presence! That is why Sukkot is the most joyous of the Biblical festivals: if Passover is called the “Season of our Liberation,” and Shavuot is called the “Season of the Giving of our Torah,” Sukkot is called zman simchateinu, the “Season of our Joy”—because God, in His mercy, came to tabernacle with His people!
Booths and Clouds
“You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. ”
In Jewish texts, we find two different approaches regarding the symbolism of sukkah. According to the first, sukkah symbolizes the divine clouds that God protected His children with in the wilderness—the Clouds of Glory which miraculously surrounded the Jews for the forty years they spent in the desert. According to the second approach, the people of Israel actually built booths in the wilderness to protect themselves, and we are commanded to build sukkot in order to remember those sukkot in the wilderness we lived in when God took us out of Egypt (Leviticus 23:43). Are these two approaches mutually exclusive?
The word “sukkah” can be derived from the ancient root סכה, to see. Therefore, it might be understood as an allusion to the higher degree of spiritual sight acquired by Israel in the wilderness. Even though the Jewish people probably did build themselves little huts, in order to gain some safety and shelter in the desert, they also enjoyed an even greater protection, one that surpassed not only booths but also fortresses: God’s Clouds of Glory enveloped these man-made booths! Thus, in these two approaches, we can see a reflection of Israel’s twofold experience in the wilderness, extremely difficult and extremely glorious at the same time: living in humble huts but lead and covered by God’s Glory!
Community and Unity
Torah commands us to celebrate Sukkot not only by dwelling in sukkah, but also by taking so called four species (ארבעת המינים arba’at ha-minim). Does Torah refer to specific plants here or does it simply give general instructions?
In Leviticus, the Hebrew terms for the four plants are: 1) etz hadar, which may be translated as “beautiful/splendid tree”, or “citrus tree”; 2) t’mārîm, palm trees; 3) etz-avot , “thick trees” and 4) arvey nahal, willows of the brook. In the 1st century CE, commentaries began to identify the species from Leviticus as citron, date palm, myrtle and willow, which is how these species are identified today; accordingly, they are called, Etrog, Lulav, Hadass and Aravah.
In Jewish tradition, the Four Species represent the people of Israel. Etrog has both taste and fragrance – it represents Jews who possess both learning and good deeds; Lulav has taste (date) but no fragrance – it represents Jews who possess learning but not good deeds; Hadass has fragrance but no taste – it represents Jews who possess good deeds but not learning; Aravah has neither taste nor fragrance – it represents Jews who possess neither learning nor good deeds.
These four species are tied together (in reality, we tie together three types of branches – lulav, hadass and aravah, leaving the etrog unbound but held close to the others) and wave them before God during this joyful festival. “Let them all be tied together…, and they will atone one for another,’ Midrash says. This is a beautiful example of how the sages see Israel: as one community coming together before God in pursuit of His ways.
However, there is yet another, personal aspect that is related to the Four Species. Some Jewish comments liken the Four Species to the various organs of human body. The etrog is shaped like a heart, the myrtle leaf like an eye, the willow leaf like a mouth, and the straight lulav is likened to a man’s spine. As the Sages teach, all these organs can be united in sin, – however, by combining these species in mitzva, we express our repentance and desire to unite them for God. “The taking of the Four Species, which symbolize major organs, represents this resolve to utilize the body and its emotional and intellectual drive for the good – and thereby, the mitzvah is an instrument of atonement.”
 Lev. 23:42-43
 Vayikra Rabbah, 30
 Succos: its significance, laws and prayers, Mesora Publications, NY, 2002
If these articles whet your appetite for deeper understanding of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher wonderful courses (firstname.lastname@example.org). Also, If you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them here. Chag Succot Sameach, my dear readers,! May the joy of the Lord fill your hearts and your homes!
Join the conversation (3 comments)
Different parts of the body functioning together with each part’s gift at work, but one body. Gee, this sounds familiar. You’ve got the cogs in my brain turning, Julia!
Thank you for pointing it out Nick! I’ve never thought about it, but it does sound familiar!
Thank you Dear Teacher Julia,
Thanks for the insights into what Sukkot is all about . Thank you also for answering my previous question in the blog before this one . The answer you gave satisfied my wondering about the two different sides of God ..
Julia you truly are a God send for my learning and deep in my soul I believe what you teach is true . I appreciate that you take time out of your busy schedule to answer all our replies .
May God Bless you and everything that you love and hold dear .