Sukkot: Rabbinic and Medieval Development

Celebrating the land while in the Diaspora

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Excerpted from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 1994 by Jason Aronson Inc.

Sukkot changed little after the destruction of the Second Temple, and despite our extended exile, remained the most joyous of Torah festivals. People continued to build booths. In remembrance of the Temple, during the first century Rabbi Yokhanan ben Zakkai instructed that ceremonies using the four species be performed every day of the week except on Shabbat, even though it was a biblical commandment only for the first. (Leviticus 23:40 says to take the four on the first day, and rejoice with them before God-‑which meant only in the Temple-‑on all seven.) 

Though it sounds extreme, the midrash includes the lulav and etrog--along with circumcision, study of Torah, and eating matzah--as a religious obligation for which we are to be prepared to struggle and die. An Aramaic letter on papyrus, sent before Sukkot 134 C.E.  by the Jewish military commander (and found among the Dead Sea documents) attests to the great effort of Bar Kokhba and his soldiers to obtain sets of the four species during the Hadrianic persecutions of Jews remaining in Palestine.

As symbols of a revived Jewish state, the lulav and etrog were depicted on coins of the Bar Kokhba period (as they had been on the first coins minted by a Jewish nation, under Simon the Hasmonean). For centuries they were popular decorations, engraved on ritual items and patterned into floor mosaics in ancient synagogues, among them the fifth‑century Mount Carmel and sixth‑century Beit Alfa. (The lulav even became important for the Christians, who adopted it for their Sunday rite.)

The willow ceremonies were temporarily discontinued, then established for one day, in post‑talmudic terms called Hoshanah Rabbah ("the many hoshanahs"--a contraction of hoshiah na‑‑or 'The Great Salvation”). With prayer the accepted replacement for sacrifice and the scripture‑reading table (bimah), like the dining table at home (both sanctified by words of Torah) recognized as the stand-in for the Temple altar, the processions and beating of the willows eventually resumed. During the Middle Ages, customs of Yom Kippur, such as dressing the Torah in white vestments and the cantor's wearing a kittel,were adopted for Hoshanah Rabbah, this day of judgment.

Despite loss of the original agricultural significance of Sukkot, the erection of booths brought a bit of nature to the gray ghetto and urban conditions of the Jews in past centuries. In deteriorating Diaspora situations, Sukkot increasingly was associated with exile and wandering: The Jews were again like the homeless former slaves in the wilderness, dreaming of entering the Promised Land. Willow in particular became entwined with the despair of exile that resulted from sin, based on our first experience of it and as immortalized in Psalms (137:1‑4): "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion. There on the willows we hung up our harps."

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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.