THE JOY OF RENEWED FELLOWSHIP
As my readers probably know, the number 7 has always been regarded by the interpreters and commentators of the Torah, as the number of completeness. Therefore, 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, and I’ve already tried to express the beauty of Rosh HaShanah and the solemn atmosphere of Yom Kippur on these pages. Now, finally, we are approaching the last of the “solemn assemblies” of Tishrei, the Feast of Tabernacles. For me personally, this Feast has always stood out among all the feasts of God’s sacred calendar; and I’m sure it is not just me, after all, it’s not by chance that in the Bible it 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 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. We finish the fast of Yom Kippur, and on the same night, we start building sukkot – tabernacles. Years ago, I lived in a house with a large common yard and I loved watching my religious neighbors rejoicing in erecting their sukkah in this yard on the evening right after Yom Kippur.
According to Jewish tradition, Moses came back with the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, God forgave His people after their terrible sin of the Golden Calf. However, it is only at Sukkot that God’s presence returned to abide among His people; it’s 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 OR 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, a 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? Let us try to reconcile them.
The word “sukkah” can be related to 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 were also privileged to enjoy an even greater protection, one that surpassed not only booths but fortresses. Israel was enveloped by God’s Clouds of Glory. This was totally unlike the protection provided by steel and solid rock.” Thus, in these two approaches, we can see a reflection of Israel’s twofold experience in the wilderness, both extremely difficult and extremely glorious—living in humble huts but lead and covered by God’s Glory!
THE FOUR SPECIES: THREE PLUS ONE
“And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. You shall keep it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It shall be a statute forever in your generations. You shall celebrate it in the seventh month”
Torah commands us to take four species (ארבעת המינים arba’at ha-minim). In Leviticus 23:40 the Hebrew terms for the four plants are: 1) etz hadar (עֵץ הָדָר), which may be translated as “beautiful/splendid tree” or “citrus tree”; 2) t’mārîm (תְּמָרִים), palm trees; 3) etz-avot (עֵץ־עָבֹת), thick (leafy) trees and 4) arvey nahal (עַרְבֵי נַחַל), willows of the brook. Today, the species are identified as:
- Etrog (אתרוג) – the fruit of a citron tree
- Lulav (לולב) – a branch from a date palm tree
- Hadass (הדס) – boughs with leaves from the myrtle tree
- Aravah (ערבה) – branches with leaves from the willow tree
In Jewish tradition, these Four Species represent the people of Israel.
The Etrog has both taste and fragrance – it represents Jews who possess both learning and good deeds.
The Lulav has taste (date) but no fragrance – it represents Jews who possess learning but not good deeds.
The Hadass has fragrance but no taste – it represents Jews who possess good deeds but not learning.
The Aravah has neither taste nor fragrance – it represents Jews who possess neither learning nor good deeds.
In Midrash we read: “God says: ‘Let them all be tied together in one band, and they will atone one for another.’” Therefore, the Jews tie together these four species (in reality, we tie together three types of branches– lulav, willows and myrtle, leaving the etrog unbound but held close to the others) and wave them before God during this joyful festival.
 Succos, Artscroll Mesorah Series, 2002, p.22
 Vayikra Rabbah, 30
Excerpts from my books are included in this article (and many other posts here), so if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them from my page: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/