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Excerpted from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 1994 by Jason Aronson Inc.
Although Torah gave it the same status as the other pilgrimages, Sukkot became the predominant agricultural celebration. Reference to HeChag‑-The Festival‑‑only meant Sukkot, and the biblical books covering the period of Israel’s independent kingdom mention this holiday more than any others. Having finished their work for the year, the peasant pilgrims did not have to rush home to tend crops and with peace of mind could tarry in Jerusalem. Consequently, the festival became known as Zeman Simchateinu, the Season of Our Rejoicing.
Even before there was a Temple in Jerusalem (the designated site of festivals before God), the Israelites made pilgrimages to sanctuaries in other locales, such as Shiloh (Judges 21:19‑21; 1 Samuel 1:3). When Solomon completed his Temple (955 B.C.E.) the very first observance held there was celebration of Sukkot, with which the dedication coincided. The focal point for pilgrimage shifted to the capital, and within a few centuries, provincial altars were abolished.
Getting everyone away from local pagan harvest rites to a common Israelite celebration gave the religious leaders at least a fighting chance to appropriately direct the level of joy, although being in the holiest place in the kingdom was still no guarantee. Two hundred years after Solomon’s reign, the prophets Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea observed that the overzealous pilgrims marching in sacred procession, singing hymns, and playing musical instruments in praise of God often overindulged, creating the atmosphere of a bacchanalia. The prophets’ protests about the drunkenness and disorderly behavior did not stop the Jews. Exile did.
During their sojourn in Babylon (beginning in the sixth century B.C.E.), Sukkot was suspended. It was, after all, a holiday tied to the Israelites’ territorial sovereignty and the Land’s agricultural abundance. Without them, there was not much reason to celebrate.
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