Sukkot Observances Through the Second Temple Period

Observances are associated with the land.

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Torah had provided a means for spiritual rejuvenation of the landed Jewish nation, at least once every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:10‑13). On the second day of Sukkot at the end of each sabbatical year, all the people were to gather for a public reading of Deuteronomy, the Torah book that reviews the laws of Israel. The priests blew trumpets throughout Jerusalem to summon all, including women and particularly children, who would be influenced by what they heard for the rest of their lives. Surrounded by the populace, the king sat on a large wooden platform erected in the Temple's Women's Court and read aloud. In reviewing their responsibilities and duties, this ceremony, called Hokheil (gathering), was a source of inspiration for the assembled.

Second Temple

After the connection to the Land had been minimized and Pesach overtook Sukkot as the greatest Jewish holiday, Sukkot retained its joyousness and appeal. As described in Flavius Josephus' Jewish Antiquities(which includes reports of Sukkot celebrations in particular years) and the Talmud (which in addition to references scattered throughout has a tractate, Sukkah, devoted to the holiday), pilgrims came from throughout the Land of Israel and every Jewish community in the world. Gathering in regional centers for the trip, in colorful caravans the set out by chariot donkey, camel, boat (as far as the Mediterranean shore), and most often on foot (as the great Hillel is said to have done from Babylon, a journey of two weeks). Although the commandment obligates only men, entire peasant households trav­eled.

Once in Jerusalem, which was festive in garlands olive palm, and willow branches, fragrant with and flowers, they participated in prayers, hymns and singing and watched religious proces­sions in the Temple. The four species (definitively identified through Oral Tradition as palm, willow, and myrtle bound together into a lulav, and an etrog [citron]) were now part of the ritual: Each day of Sukkot, the priests, holding the lulav and etrog in hand, marched around the altar, which had been adorned with freshly cut willow branches. As they circled, they recited a psalm asking God to "please save us" (Hoshiah na).

Seventh Day

During the Temple service at the end of Sukkot week, the priests' procession circled the willow‑adorned altar seven times instead of once. Each time they recited a refrain of Hoshiah na. At the conclusion of the seventh circle, they struck the willows‑the branches of trees associated with life‑giving water since they thrive near rivers and brooks‑‑ on the ground around the altar, an unexplained custom that was possibly another rain rite.

The sacrifices made throughout the week-‑a total of 70-‑were understood to represent the 70 nations that then existed in the world. Their well‑being, like Israel's, depended on whether or not they would receive the rain needed for food supplies. Blessings like rain were understood as rewards for proper behavior (Deuteronomy 11:13‑15).

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Lesli Koppelman Ross is a writer and artist whose works have appeared nationally. She has devoted much of her time to the causes of Ethiopian Jewry and Jewish education.