Sukkot through the Ages


Ancient Origins

A. Abraham

The Book of Jubilees, composed about 130 B.C.E., claims that Sukkkot was celebrated long before the granting of the Law and that Abraham was the founder of the custom of the Festival of Sukkot:

When he came to live in Beersheba he set up his tents and instituted a ceremony which centred round these tents; he erected an Altar and made circuits around it accompanied by prayer:

'And Abraham built Sukkot for himself and his servants in the seventh month, and he was the first to celebrate the festival of Sukkot in the Holy Land.'

(Book of Jubilees 16.26)

It maintains that this celebration was the inspiration for the law of Sukkot found in our Torah.

B. Jacob

There is also an ancient legend based on Genesis xxxiii.17,

'And Esau went to Seir (lit: goat) - and Jacob came to Sukkot.'

In this legend Esau represents sin and temptation and Seir stands for the Day of Atonement. (Leviticus xvi. gives the law of Seir [Heb.: goat] on the Day of Atonement.)

When Seir, i.e. the Day of Atonement, departed, Jacob came to the Sukkah. This is the origin of the custom of beginning the building of the Sukkah soon after the termination of Kippur.

There is also a Midrash which tells us that Jacob not only observed Sukkot but also added Shemini Atzereth.

In the Days of the First Temple

In the days of the First Temple Sukkot was considered the culminating Festival and because of its importance became known as HAHAG, "The Festival." King Solomon chose this Festival as the occasion for the celebration of the dedication of the Temple. (I Kings, Ch. vii, 2) - see also: Hakhel (Communal Customs file).

Ezra and Nehemiah instructed those who had returned to Zion to build Sukkot. Apart from the Mitzvah of the Sukkah which was taught in the Torah (they wished to establish the new State on the basis of the Torah), they were also anxious to recapture some of the splendour of former times, and Sukkot with its rich ceremonial could provide this atmosphere.

The Bible tells us that those who returned co-operated with enthusiasm in the observance of the Festival and celebrated it so that the glory of former days returned.

The Water Libation Ceremony

"He who has not witnessed the rejoicing at the water-drawing huts has, throughout the whole of his life, witnessed no real rejoicing."

(Sukkah 53b)

A. Ceremony

This passage refers to a ceremony for the blessing of abundant rainfall that the Jews had when they dwelled in the land of Israel.

In addition to the colourful procession in the Temple in which the Lulav and the Etrog were carried by the worshippers whilst the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) was recited there was the libation of water in the Temple on each of the seven days at the morning Service.

According to the Mishnah, a young Cohen took a golden pitcher to the spring of Shilo (Siloam) where he filled it with water and carried it up to the Water Gate, where the procession was greeted by three calls on the ram's horn by the priests.

The officiating priest then led a large torch-lit procession to the Bet Hamikdash (The Temple), ascended the ramp on the south side of the great Altar, and turned to the left (west), where there were two silver basins, one for the pouring of the wine, the other for the water was poured. At this point, the people broke out in jubilant singing and dance, and wished one another:

"May G-d bless you out of Zion so that you see the goodness of Jerusalem all the days of your life."

In later days, at the moment when the priest was about to pour the water into the basin, the people shouted to him "Raise your hand!" because once, Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.E.), king and high- priest, showed contempt for the rite by spilling the water at his feet and was pelted with etrogim by the worshippers standing around.

B. Origins

The pouring out of water had no Biblical support.

According to R. Nehunya it was a law given by God to Moses at Sinai, but was not recorded in the Scriptures.

Scholars maintain that there was a belief current amongst many nations that the pouring out of water at the time when the first autumnal rains were due would magically induce rain to fall.

Judaism would not tolerate this superstition and so it took an ancient custom of the nations and incorporated it in the Temple service, and the libation of water became a symbol of rain.

The prayer of rain began to be recited in the Tefillah in the days of the Second Temple.

Temple Celebrations

"The Light was so Brilliant it seemed more like Day than Night"

The Talmud gives a vivid description of the festivities on the termination of the first day of the festival.

Tall candelabra were erected in the "Court of the Women." Each candelabrum bore four bowls, which held seven and a half gallons of oil; the cast off branches and girdles of the priests were used as wicks. Young priests ascended ladders and poured their jars of oil into the basins. The light was so brilliant that it seemed more like day than night.

Two galleries were built around three sides of the court for the spectators; in the upper one sat the women; in the lower the men, because of the "levity" of the occasion.

Men distinguished in the Community by their purity and character danced, with flaring torches in their hands, reciting appropriate verses in which God was praised. In the TRACTATE SUKKAH we are told Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel was so adept that, with eight torches going, not one of them touched the ground when he prostrated himself, touched his fingers to the pavement, bent down, kissed it, and at once sprang up (Sukkah 53a).

There was an orchestra consisting of many instruments played by the Levites, who stood on the fifteen steps that led down from the court of Israel to the court of the women. These fifteen steps corresponded to the fifteen "Songs of the Degrees/Steps," SHIR HAMA'ALOT, found in the Book of Psalms (120-134).

There was a march through the court of the women, beginning at a signal on trumpets played by two priests, and moving to the sound of continuous trumpeting to the gate opening to the East. There they turned about facing west and said:

"Our fathers who were in this place stood with their backs to the Temple and their faces eastward, and worshipped the sun toward the east but our eyes are unto the Lord."

(Ezekiel viii.16)

The joy at this ceremony gave rise to the Talmudic quotation about the rejoicing.

In the Middle Ages

A. Significance

In Medieval Times,the Sukkah brought the atmosphere of the countryside to the squalid quarters of the ghetto. The green leaves represented the fields and orchards of the Holy Land for which they yearned and prayed.

The Rabbi delivered a discourse on the laws of Sukkot some time before the Festival and he appointed certain learned individuals to tour the Jewish quarters between Yom Kippur and Sukkot to supervise the building of sukkot. The bond of fellowship was fostered by families uniting to share one Sukkah.

B. Special Customs

The medieval Sukkah was bedecked with the fruits which the Bible mentions grow in the Holy Land, to bring the Holy Land to the Sukkah.

In the Middle Ages it was often difficult to acquire an Etrog to comply with all the requirements. It was to be a "goodly" fruit. The distance from the countries which grew the Etrog to the ghetto areas of Europe was considerable, and travelling was not easy. Yet men went on long journeys to obtain the fruit.

John Buxtorf (17th c.), a Christian Hebraist, recorded the fact that he saw a Sukkah which was decorated with eggs upon which were inscribed verses relating to Sukkot. He wondered as to what was the origin of the custom.

In some communities it was the custom to kindle a light each night of the Festival, in honour of the Ushpizin (one of our heavenly guests or spirits of our ancestors) for that day and in other communities seven lights each night for the seven heavenly guests.

In some communities it has been the custom to distribute charity throughout the town so that the poor might not find the task of building a Sukkah and adorning it beyond their means.

A Hassidic Rabbi, known as the Tzanzer (d. 1876), when asked why he insisted upon special charity for Sukkot replied, "We are commanded to adorn the Sukkah. And what better ornament can there be than the distribution of charity among those who lack the means wherewith to be glad in the 'season of rejoicing'?"

In Modern Times

In Western countries, the Sukkah has become an important adjunct to the Synagogue, today. The Synagogue Sukkah draws large congregations for Kiddush after service and it has become a centre for the gathering of people - congenial because of its pleasant surroundings and distinctive atmosphere.

The Sukkah of the home is making way for the Communal Sukkah, bringing people together, but removing the custom from the family milieu. On the one hand, it affords people in apartments - or those who have never built a sukkah at home - the opportunity to experience the mitzvah (precept) of "sitting" and eating in the sukkah; on the other hand, many may no longer feel the need to build their own sukkah nad take their meals within its walls...

In Israel, today, the situation is different. Whether the season is mild or hot, sukkot sprout up on balconies, open spaces and even in parking lots. Easy-to-build sukkot make it more convenient; weather- proofing is unecessary and Sukkot takes to the streets of every town as the "s'hah" (leafy roofing) is brought round on trucks from seasonal tree-trimming.


The materials in this file have been adapted and extended from the "SUCCOT" folder written and produced by the former Publications Division of the Youth and Hechalutz Department, WZO



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08 Jun 2005 / 1 Sivan 5765 0