The holiday of Sukkot has been blessed with many beautiful laws and customs: the recitation of Hallel, Ushpizin (welcoming our ancestors as honored guests), reading the book of Kohelet [Ecclesiastes], and, of course, blessing and waving the Arba’ah Minim–the four species. Yet, needless to say, the most basic mitzvah is that of dwelling in a sukkah. But why do we sit in the sukkah?
The Torah itself gives two reasons, one agricultural and one historical.
The agricultural reason is found in two places in the Torah:
1) Exodus 23:16: “…and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field”.
2) Deut. 16: 13, 15: “After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days…You shall hold a festival…in the place that the Lord will choose, for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy”.
Thus, according to these verses, Sukkot is a holiday of thanksgiving for the harvest.
The historical reason is found in the book of Leviticus (23:42-43):
You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths. 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…
Thus, according to Leviticus, we sit in the sukkah in order to retain a historical link with our ancestors and to remember all that God did for us when we left Egypt.
These are the simple reasons given by the Torah for observing this holiday, but Jews are never satisfied with the simple reason for anything! A few verses in the Bible were frequently expounded upon by later Jewish philosophers and rabbis. Sukkot is no exception.
Remembering the “Bad Old Days”
Philo was a Hellenistic-Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria in the first century C.E. In his many works written in Greek, he gave allegorical interpretations to stories and commandments in the Bible. In his book De Specialibus Legibus, On the Special Laws (2:204, 206-211), he adds a number of reasons to those mentioned above. He writes:
Another reason may be, that it should remind us of the long wanderings of our forefathers in the depths of the desert, when at every halting-place they spent many a year in tents. And indeed it is well in wealth to remember your poverty, in distinction your insignificance, in high offices your position as a commoner, in peace your dangers in war, on land the storms on sea, in cities the life of loneliness. For there is no pleasure greater than in high prosperity to call to mind old misfortunes.
But besides giving pleasure, it is a considerable help in the practice of virtue. For people who having had both good and ill before their eyes have rejected the ill and are enjoying the good, necessarily fall into a grateful frame of mind and are urged to piety by the fear of a change to the reverse, and also therefore in thankfulness for their present blessings they honor God with songs and words of praise and beseech Him and propitiate Him with supplications that they may never repeat the experience of such evils.
Philo says two things: He says that it’s a pleasure for a prosperous person to remember the “bad old days.” But he goes one step further; he says that sitting in the sukkah reminds us how far we have come and leads us to praise and thank God for all the kindness He has bestowed upon us.
A Lesson in Humility
The Rashbam, R. Shemuel Ben Meir, lived in France in the 12th century. He was one of Rashi‘s brilliant grandsons and is known for his Talmud and Bible commentaries. In his commentary to the verse from Leviticus quoted above (23:43), he gives still another reason for sitting in the sukkah:
Why do I command you to do this?… Do not say in your hearts, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me. Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). Therefore, the people leave houses filled with good at the harvest season and they dwell in sukkot as a reminder that they had no property in the desert or homes to inhabit. This is why God designated Sukkot at the harvest season, so that a person’s heart should not grow haughty because of houses filled with everything good, lest they say: “Our hands made all of this wealth for us.”
In simple English, the Rashbam is saying: The sukkah is a lesson in humility; it comes to prevent a swelled head. God commanded us to sit in the sukkah precisely at the harvest season when we are congratulating ourselves for our successful harvest and our fancy homes. The humble sukkah reminds us: Everything you eat and everything you own comes from God.
The Rambam [Maimonides], incidentally, combines the reasons given by Philo and the Rashbam. In his Guide to the Perplexed (3:43), he says that sitting in the sukkah teaches Jews “to remember his evil days in his day of prosperity. He will thereby be induced to thank God repeatedly and to lead a modest and humble life.” Thus, according to Maimonides, the sukkah is meant to induce both a feeling of gratitude and a feeling of humility.
Increasing Our Faith
Rabbi Yitzhak Aboab lived in Spain in the 15th century. In his classic book of Jewish ethics, Menorat Hamaor, he gives still another explanation for sitting in the sukkah (Ner 3, Kelal 4, Part 6, Chapter 1, ed. Mossad Harav Kuk, p. 315):
When the Sages said in the Tractate of Sukkah (fol. 2a): ‘Go out from your permanent dwellings and live in a temporary dwelling,’ they meant that the commandment to dwell in the sukkah teaches us that a man must not put his trust in the size or strength or conveniences of his house, even though it be filled with the best of everything; nor should he rely upon the help of any man, even though he be the lord of the land. But let him put his trust in Him whose word called the universe into being, for He alone is mighty and faithful, and He does not retract what He promises.
This explanation is the subtlest of all we have seen thus far. R. Yitzhak Aboab thinks that the main point of living in the sukkah for seven days is to increase our faith in God. When we live in a sturdy house, we are protected from the elements; rain and cold and heat do not harm us. As a result, we begin to have faith in our homes, not in God.
Likewise, we tend to place all of our trust in men, especially influential rulers and leaders. By living in a flimsy sukkah for seven days, exposed once again to the elements, we realize that ultimately we must put our trust in God who rules over our houses, the elements, and all human rulers.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was the leader of neo-Orthodoxy in Germany in the 19th century. In his book Horeb, he says that the sukkah is a symbol of universal peace and brotherhood, as we recite in the evening service on Shabbat and festivals: “ufeross aleinu sukkat shelomekha“–“spread over us Your sukkah of peace.”
The term sukkah is used in this prayer to symbolize peace and brotherhood, which shall be based not on economic and political interests, but on a joint belief in one God (Horeb p. 126, quoted by Rabbi Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 159).
Remembering the Less Fortunate
The last reason for sitting in the sukkah is my own, although I’m sure someone has said it before. By sitting in a flimsy sukkah, exposed to sun and wind (and in some places, rain and snow!), we are reminded of those less fortunate than ourselves. Precisely at harvest time when we thank God for the bounty he has given us, we must remember to share it with the poor and the hungry.
And if you should ask me, what is the real reason for dwelling in the sukkah for seven days, I would immediately answer with the Talmudic phrase (Eruvin 13b) “Both these and those are the words of the living God.” Every one of these explanations can speak to us, but, “lo hamidrash hu ha’ikar ela ha’ma’se“–“more important than expounding the Torah, is observing it” (Avot 1:17). While sitting in the sukkah, every Jew will find his or her own religious, national, or personal reason for observing this beautiful mitzvah.
Reprinted with permission of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronounced: SOO-kah (oo as in book) or sue-KAH, Origin: Hebrew, the temporary hut built during the Harvest holiday of Sukkot.
Pronounced: sue-KOTE, or SOOH-kuss (oo as in book), Origin: Hebrew, a harvest festival in which Jews eat inside temporary huts, falls in the Jewish month of Tishrei, which usually coincides with September or October.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: eetz-KHAHK, Origin: Hebrew, Hebrew name for Isaac.