Joy Is A Religious Obligation

Jewish tradition recognizes Sukkot as a celebration and sharing of our material possessions.

Reprinted with permission of the author  from
The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays

Most Jews still think that fasting is more righteous than feasting. Yet the Talmud suggests that in the world to come a person will have to stand judgment for every legitimate pleasure in this life that was renounced. The Nazirite–the person who gave up the pleasures of wine and family life to devote himself entirely to God–was called a sinner on the grounds that he gave up the joys of wine when the Torah did not require him to do so.

The perception that asceticism is superior to enjoyment is wrong. Many Jews who observe only one holiday a year make it Yom Kippur, a day of great deprivation, since eating, drinking, washing, and sex are not permitted. Furthermore, Yom Kippur is a day of self-criticism, of repeated confession of sins, and even a day of Yizkor in which the memories of departed loved ones usually bring up a good deal guilt. Since all this is hardly fun, presumably the one- or three-day observers feel that all this angst makes it the most holy day of the year. Sukkot gives the lie to this perception; because of its joys, it is known throughout the Talmudic period as Ha-Chag, the holiday.


rejoicing on sukkot

In Jerusalem, Yemenite musicians play for crowds on Sukkot

Rabbi Israel Salanter once wrote that to be a good Jew one has to have every human quality and its opposite. The Torah does not consecrate prohibition; it offers the full range of human emotion and behavior. There is “a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Correct behavior consists of when one does all these acts and how.

As a harvest festival, Sukkot incorporates frank recognition and celebration of material goods. Jewish tradition sees material possessions as a necessary but not sufficient basis for spiritual fulfillment. As Maimonides writes: “The general purpose of the Torah is twofold: the well-being of the soul and the well-being of the body. The well-being of the soul is ranked first but … the well-being of the body comes first.” The well-being of the soul is more important, but the well-being of the body comes first, for it is the context for spiritual development. Thus, appreciation and enjoyment of material things is a legitimate spiritual concern. It all depends on how it is done. Prosperity frees the individual for personal development; but worshiped or made absolute, wealth disrupts personal growth.

In many ways, Sukkot has become the model for this worldly enjoyment, which is why it is called the time of rejoicing. The depth of the joy also grows out of its relationship to Yom Kippur. Sukkot comes just four days after Yom Kippur, the most ascetic, self-denying, guilt-ridden, awesome holy day of the Jewish year. On the Day of Atonement, Jews reenact their own death, only to be restored to life in the resolution of the day. Only those who know the fragility of life can truly appreciate the full preciousness of every moment. The release from Yom Kippur leads to the extraordinary outburst of life that is Sukkot. On this holiday, Jews are commanded to eat, drink, be happy, dance, and relish life to the fullest in celebrating the harvest and personal wealth.

But making joy holy means being selective in the enjoyment of God’s gifts, not worshiping those gifts or those who own them. The first and foremost expression of this insight is to share the bounty and the joy. Gifts from the harvest were given to the poor: “You shall rejoice before the Lord. You, your son and daughter, manservant and maid, the Levite… the stranger, the orphan, the widow in your midst” (Deuteronomy 16:11).

A special holiday feature is the ushpizin, hospitality for honored guests. By tradition, every night a different biblical personality is invited to visit the sukkah and join the company. A custom that has been growing recently is to invite great matriarchs of the Jewish people as well. Families invite stand-ins for these biblical figures–fellow human beings, especially those who are needy or who need a sukkah in which to eat. This mitzvah is especially important in contemporary society; since bureaucracies and institutions take care of welfare and medical coverage, people often forget the importance of personal acts of gemilut chasadim (loving-kindness). The Rabbis say that such acts are the foundations of the world because they are fundamental expressions of human solidarity and human contact in a largely impersonal world.

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