Reprinted with permission of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.
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:
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