Sukkot Observances Through the Second Temple Period
Observances are associated with the land.
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.
When the displaced returned to Palestine in the next century, they enthusiastically embraced the Torah commandments about Sukkot that were read to them on Rosh Hashanah by Ezra. The newly motivated Israelites ran out to get olive, pine, myrtle, palm, and other leafy branches for construction of their temporary shelters, which they set in every available space, public and private. Nehemiah observed that "the whole community that returned from captivity made and dwelled in booths" (8:17), which they had not done since the generation of Joshua, the first to inhabit the Land. (He may have been referring to the extent of celebration or use of certain materials rather than the ritual of booths itself.)
Even though the Jews were back on their own ground, the rabbis recognized the need to refocus this land‑oriented festival. As with other annual events, Sukkot was separated from its physical aspects of agriculture, nature, and the seasons. Instead, its religious, moral, and nationalistic content was stressed.