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Following on the heels of the High Holidays, the holiday of Sukkot represents a shift from somber reflection to joyous celebration, and from introspection to an outward display of thanks for the earth’s bounty. Unlike the High Holidays that precede it, Sukkot is a seasonal agricultural holiday and one of the three pilgrimage festivals.
According to the Torah, on this holiday we should “live in booths (sukkot) seven days…in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 23:42-43). These “booths,” therefore, are a visible symbol of God’s beneficence, one that has its origins in the agricultural tradition. We view Passover not only as a commemoration of the redemption of the people from Egypt, but also as a time of planting. In a similar manner we view Shavuot not only as the time of the giving of the Torah, but also as the season of the first harvest. Like them, Sukkot is understood as Hag Ha’asif–“the holiday of the ingathering” of the harvest.
The booths that characterize the holiday may originally have been temporary structures that people would have used while taking in the harvest. Exodus 23:16 explains this connection: “…and the feast of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field”– it is a holiday of great joy, on which we celebrate the great bounty that God has given. The centrality of this holiday is even more apparent in biblical texts such as Nehemia, Ezekiel, and I Kings, where Sukkot is referred to simply as Hehag–“The Holiday.”
The holiday became known as a time to celebrate other great events; for example, Solomon’s Temple was consecrated on Sukkot. Even Hanukkah, another re-dedication of the Temple, was really a celebration of Sukkot that was likely moved back due to the political situation during the Sukkot’s normal season.
The booths, sukkot, which have lent their name to the holiday, have a somewhat hazy origin. According to the verse quoted above from Leviticus 23, we are to dwell in these booths because our ancestors lived in booths when God brought them out of Egypt. This is, however, the only reference we have relating the Exodus narrative to these temporary dwellings, leading scholars to speculate that the holiday’s connection to the Exodus developed rather late.
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