"Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of Adonai [to last] seven days: a complete rest on the first day and a complete rest on the eighth day." (Leviticus 23:39)
For each of our festivals and holidays specific Torah readings were chosen that refer specifically to each of the holidays. This is about the holiday of Sukkot, known also as 'Chag ha-asif - the feast of ingathering,' 'Chag ha-sukkot - Feast of Booths,' and 'z'man simchataynu - season of our joy.'
During the Jewish year we have many wonderful holidays to celebrate. Several of our holidays have an agricultural origin to which an additional spiritual significance was given. Sukkot celebrates the final harvest of the year. One aspect of our celebration is the building of booths known in Hebrew as sukkot. These sukkot are like the temporary dwellings the Israelites occupied as they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after the Exodus. These flimsy huts demonstrate our belief in the continued loving kindness and protection that God bestows upon us and upon the Israelites of long ago.
Don Isaac Abravanel explained that on Sukkot the harvest cycle is completed, in ancient days those making pilgrimage to Jerusalem had no further worries about their crops and had no need to hurry back home. They could celebrate Sukkot in complete joy. This contrasts with the pilgrimage holidays of Passover and Shavuot. While both of those holidays also celebrate harvests, there were still crops to manage during those festivals. It is only with Sukkot and the start of winter that the yearly cycle of growing and harvesting comes to a close (from Perush ha-Torah, Deuteronomy 16, see The Sukkot and Simchat Torah Anthology p.56-7).
Once winter begins, the people can relax without the stress of needing to attend to crops; Sukkot signified the end of a year of hard physical labor. In addition to the end of hard physical labor, we are commanded to celebrate Sukkot in joy. In the book of Deuteronomy we read, "After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days…in the place that Adonai shall choose…and you shall have nothing but joy." (Deuteronomy 16:13-15) Abravanel also taught that the phrase, "and you shall have nothing but joy" is an assurance that if one is joyous and glad on Sukkot, one will be happy and kindhearted throughout the year. If one is sad at the beginning of the year one will be sad throughout the year. For this is the way of the world: one who is satisfied with one's portion will gain joy and happiness.
The Talmud teaches that, "Rejoicing on a festival is a religious duty. Commenting on that teaching Rabbi Eliezer said: 'a person has nothing else to do on a festival but to eat and drink or to sit and study.' Rabbi Joshua said: 'Devote half the festival to eating and drinking and the other half of it to the house of study' " (Pesahim 68b)
Building and dwelling in a sukkah, refraining from work on the first and last days of the holiday, offering sacrifices in ancient days but participating in prayer in our day, blessing the lulav and etrog and rejoicing over the harvest constitute our observance of Sukkot.
Questions and/or activities for families:
With Older Children (10+)
- How do you feel after completing a hard job or task? Have you ever celebrated completing a difficult task? If you have, share how you celebrated.
- The Israelites were commanded to celebrate this harvest. Why do you think the people needed a commandment to tell them to rejoice? Why do you think our tradition has preserved these commandments? Why do you think we still need to be commanded to celebrate our holidays?
- How do you interpret both resting and rejoicing on the holiday of Sukkot?
- Following Rabbi Eliezer's advice how would you celebrate the holiday? What if you followed the teaching of Rabbi Joshua? Basing your decision on one of these rabbis, share how you would organize the celebration of Sukkot?
- Don Isaac Abravanel also taught that if one were satisfied with one's portion, meaning one's life, then one would gain joy and happiness. How do our attitudes affect how we think and feel during the year?
With Younger Children (6-9)
- Rabbi Eliezer taught that we should eat and drink or sit and study on our holidays. Rabbi Joshua said that we should spend half our time eating and drinking and the other half on study. Do you think one rabbi's advice is wiser than the other's? Why? Explain.
- If you were asked to plan a Sukkot celebration what would it include and why?
- Sukkot celebrates the harvest. Draw pictures of your favorite fruits and vegetables and hang them in either your sukkah, the sukkah of a friend or relative or in the temple sukkah.
- You may not be a farmer, but think about all the things you have done in the past year. Think of it as a personal harvesting of all the things that you have accomplished. What gave you joy? Ask your fellow sukkah dwellers to respond to the following sentence: "This year I felt joy when _________ ." Continue around the circle of participants filling in the blank until you have all run out of ideas.
- Imagine that you are in the sukkah late at night. Create a picture of the night sky that you can see through the schach - the roof covering of the sukkah made of leaves, branches and/or cornstalks.
Sukkot Day 1, Leviticus 23:33‒44
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 930‒931; Revised Edition, pp. 827‒828
The Torah, A Women's Commentary, pp. 736‒737