7 months ago • Nov 23, 2023

Sukkot in Layers


To understand the full significance of the Festival of Sukkot, we have to go back and see how it develops, over the course of the Torah’s narrative. We’ll look at it in four layers:


Layer 1: Agricultural Holiday

In its first mention in the Torah, the holiday is not even called Sukkot. It appears as the last in a cycle of three pilgrimage festivals, and is referred to here as Hag HaAsif, the Festival of Gathering. It seems to have a purely agricultural significance so far. That is true also for Hag HaKatzir, the Festival of Gathering, which will later become Shavuot.

However, notice that the first of the three is referred to as the Festival of Matzah, and has the extra commandment of not eating unleavened bread. In other words, the Spring Festival has already taken on extra significance as the Passover commemoration. So far only one of the three pilgrimage festivals is being used in this way, but this move sets up a template for the assignment of historical significance to an agricultural holiday, which Sukkot and Shavuot will eventually both receive.

Exodus 23: 14-17

Three times a year you shall hold a festival for Me: You shall observe the Festival of Matzah – eating unleavened bread for seven days as I commanded you – at the set time in the month of spring, for in it you went forth from Egypt. No one shall appear before me empty-handed; and the Festival of the Harvest, of the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field; and the Festival of Gathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the result of your work from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before their Master, the Eternal.

יד ָשׁשְׁרגִָלים ָתּחֹג ִלי ַבָּשּׁנָה׃טו ֶאת־ַחג ַהַמּצּוֹת ִתְּשׁמֹר ִשְׁבַעתיִָמיםתֹּאַכל ַמצּוֹת ַכֲּאֶשׁר ִצִוּיִת ְלמוֵֹעדחֶֹדשׁ ָהאִָביב ִכּי־בוֹיָָצאָת
מ ִמּ ְצָריִם ְוא־יֵָראוּ ָפנַי ֵרי ָקם׃טז ְו ַחג ַה ָקּ ִציר ִבּכּוֵּרי ַמ ֲע ֶשׂי ֲא ֶשׁר ִתּזְַרע ַבּ ָשּׂ ֶדה ְו ַחג ָהאָ ִסף ְבּ ֵצאת ַה ָשּׁנָה ְבׇּא ְס ְפּ ֶאת־ ַמ ֲע ֶשׂיִ
מן־ ַה ָשּׂ ֶדה׃ יז ָשׁשׁ ְפּ ָע ִמים ַבּ ָשּׁנָה יֵ ָר ֶאה ׇכּל־זְכוּ ְר ֶאל־ ְפּנֵי ָהאָד ֹן ה׳׃


Layer 2: Historical Commemoration

Only now, in the book of Leviticus, is Sukkot first described as Hag HaSukkot, the Festival of Booths. Now also we are given specific mitzvot for Sukkot: the taking of the four species and the dwelling in the Sukkah for a week. And finally, we are now linking the holiday to some part of the Torah’s historical narrative: just as the spring festival will commemorate the Exodus, so the fall festival will commemorate the desert journey. (Eventually the summer harvest festival will be linked to the Revelation at Mount Sinai, and finally converting all three pilgrimage festivals into historical commemoration holidays, but we will have to wait for the rabbis of the Talmud to make that link.)

Leviticus 23:42-43

You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt – I am the Lord your God.

מ ב ַבּ ֻסּ כּ ֹת ֵתּ ְשׁ ב וּ ִשׁ ְב ַע ת י ָ ִמ י ם ׇכּ ל ־ ָה ֶא ז ְ ָר ח ְבּ י ִ ְשׂ ָר ֵא ל י ֵ ְשׁ ב וּ ַבּ ֻסּ כּ ֹת . מ ג ְל ַמ ַע ן י ֵ ְד ע וּ ד ֹר ֹ ֵת י ֶכ ם ִכּ י ַב ֻסּ כּ וֹ ת ה וֹ ַשׁ ְב ִתּ י ֶא ת ־ ְבּ נ ֵ י י ִ ְשׂ ָר ֵא ל ְבּ ה וֹ ִצ י ִא י
אוֹ ָתם ֵמ ֶא ֶרץ ִמ ְצ ָריִם ֲאנִי ה׳ ֱאקי ֶכם.


Layer 3: Part of the High Holidays?

Once the Torah lays out its calendar and gives dates for all the holidays – as we see below in Numbers Ch. 29 – we quickly notice that Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot are all in the same month. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, of course, are connected in a very deep way. But Sukkot is technically linked to a different cycle, those other two holidays that began as part of a pilgrimage cycle. Over the years, however, Sukkot’s proximity to the High Holidays has lent it a feeling of being a part of the High Holiday cycle. So Sukkot has come to be experienced as a holiday of relief and relaxation after the intensity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – moving from ten days of hardcore inner work and fasting to a week of sitting outside eating meals with family and friends.

Numbers, Chapter 29

V. 1: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion and you shall do no work, you will have a day of sounding the horn.

א וּ ַב ח ֹ ֶד שׁ ַה ְשּׁ ִב י ִע י ְבּ ֶא ָח ד ַל ח ֹ ֶד שׁ ִמ ְק ָר א ־ ק ֹ ֶד שׁ י ִ ְה י ֶ ה ָל ֶכ ם ׇכּ ל ־ ְמ ֶל א ֶכ ת ֲע ב ֹ ָד ה א ַת ֲע שׂ וּ י וֹ ם ְתּ ר וּ ָע ה י ִ ְה י ֶ ה ָל ֶכ ם .

v. 7: On the tenth day of the same seventh month, you shall observe a sacred occasion when you afflict yourselves, and you shall do no work.

ז וּ ֶב ָעשׂוֹר ַלחֶֹדשׁ ַה ְשּׁ ִבי ִעי ַהזֶּה ִמ ְק ָרא־קֶֹדשׁ יִ ְהיֶה ָל ֶכם ְו ִענִּי ֶתם ֶאת־נַ ְפשֹׁ ֵתי ֶכם ׇכּל־ ְמ ָלא ָכה א ַת ֲעשׂוּ.

v. 12: On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, you observe a sacred occasion and you shall do no work – seven days you shall observe a festival of the Eternal.

יב וּ ַב ֲח ִמ ָשּׁה ָע ָשׂר יוֹם ַלחֶֹדשׁ ַה ְשּׁ ִבי ִעי ִמ ְק ָרא־קֶֹדשׁ יִ ְהיֶה ָל ֶכם ׇכּל־ ְמ ֶלא ֶכת ֲעבָֹדה א ַת ֲעשׂוּ ְו ַחגֹּ ֶתם ַחג ַליהָֹוה ִשׁ ְב ַעת יָ ִמים.


Layer 4: A Festival of Joy

Finally, toward the end of the Torah, Sukkot is singled out among the holidays as a time of particular joy, with the famous injunction to “be happy on your festival.” And the rabbis taught that this is exactly how it was celebrated, and that anyone who had not seen the festivities on the week of Sukkot, had never witnessed true joy in their lives.

Deuteronomy 16:13-14

After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. You shall be happy in your festival, with your son and daughter, your servant and maidservant, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your communities.

יג ַחג ַה ֻסּכּ ֹת ַתּ ֲע ֶשׂה ְל ִשׁ ְב ַעת יָ ִמים ְבּ ׇא ְס ְפּ ִמ ׇגּ ְרנְ וּ ִמיִּ ְק ֶב יד ְו ָשׂ ַמ ְח ָתּ ְבּ ַח ֶגּ ַא ָתּה וּ ִבנְ וּ ִב ֶתּ ְו ַע ְב ְדּ ַו ֲא ָמ ֶת ְו ַה ֵלּ ִוי ְו ַה ֵגּר ְו ַהיָּתוֹםְ
ו ָהאַ ְל ָמנָה ֲא ֶשׁר ִבּ ְשׁ ָע ֶרי


Tha, then, is the last layer of Sukkot, like a cherry on top, giving us the full depth of the holiday that the Torah has developed for us:

  1. It will contain agricultural elements, like the taking of the four species, which will connect us to its significance as a time of gathering up the harvest.
  2. It will serve as a commemoration of our long difficult journey through the desert and the nomadic lifestyle we had to adopt then.
  3. It will feel like the “third high holiday,” and act as a release valve for the built-up intensity of the first two.
  4. It will be a time of particular joyousness, when we will surround ourselves with food and loved ones and nature in order to cultivate the highest possible state of joy we can.