Israelite-Samaritan Sukkot: A Fruity Sukkah Made from the Four Species
You shall dwell in booths for seven days. Every citizen in Yishraael (=Israel) shall dwell in booths. That your generation may know that I had the Sons of Yishraael dwell in booths when I brought them out from the land of Missrem (=Egypt). I am Shehmaa, your Eloowwem (=God). – (Lev 23:42-43)
The Samaritan Sukkah
The Samaritan sukkah is quite different from the rabbinic sukkah both in its symbolism and in its construction.
Symbolism of the Sukkah
The mitzvah of building a Sukkah derives from Lev. 23:42-43, but the symbolism goes beyond just the booths in the wilderness. For rabbinic Jews, the sukkah is meant to symbolize either the dwellings in the wilderness or the clouds of glory. In Samaritan tradition, thesukkot are meant to remind us of the Garden of Eden. The symbolism of Eden is expressed by covering the Samaritan sukkah with luscious fruit.
The Four Species: Shake Them or Build with Them
A close examination of the Torah text explains why our sukkot look the way they do.
And on the first day you shall take for yourselves a beautiful fruit tree, palm branches, and branches of a leafy tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Shehmaa your Eloowwem for seven days (Lev 33:40).
Take these four things and do what with them? The interpretation among Rabbinic Jews is that they are meant to be held and is further expressed by the rabbinic practice of shaking thelulav and etrog. The Samaritan understanding, on the other hand, is that these species should be taken and used to build the sukkah.
Evidence from elsewhere in the Jewish Tanach (the Samaritan Bible includes only the Torah) suggests that Jews once interpreted the verse in Leviticus the same way. The Book of Nehemiah describes a public Torah reading in which the listeners learn about the mitzvah of building a sukkah for the first time:
14 They found written in the Teaching that the Lord had commanded Moses that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month, 15 and that they must announce and proclaim throughout all their towns and Jerusalem as follows, “Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms and [other] leafy trees to make booths, as it is written” (Nehemiah 8:14-15; NJPS).
Samaritans and Jews understand the identity of the four species differently, as illustrated in this chart:
|Biblical Verse||Jewish Interpretation||Samaritan Interpretation|
|פרי עץ הדר||Citron (אתרוג/etrog)||Any nice fruit|
|כפ(ו)ת תמרים||A closed palm frond (לולב/lulav)||Palm fronds|
|ענפי (ענף) עץ עבות||Myrtle (הדס/hadas)||Branches from any green tree|
|ערבי נחל||Willows (ערבות/aravot)||Usually, lilac chaste trees(שיח אברהם)|
Other than the requirement to use palm fronds and the custom to use lilac chaste trees, the choice of greenery and fruit is wide open. The fruits (פרי עץ הדר) hang from the bottom of thesukkah’s frame (see addendum for details); the average weight of the fruit on a Samaritansukkah is about 350 kg (750-800 pounds). Above the fruits we place open palm branches (כפות תמרים), and on top of that dense boughs of thick-leafed trees (ענפי עץ עבות). Alongside these, we place the lilac chaste trees (or some alternative), brought from the banks of Israeli streams and wadis (ערבי נחל). Thus, all the species are joined together to build the sukkah, as the Torah commands.
Inside or Outside the House
Jews build their sukkot outside whereas we build ours inside the house; neither preference is stated explicitly in the biblical text. This custom developed out of necessity; it was a halachic decision made by one of the High Priests over 1500 years ago. For millennia, local authorities persecuted the Samaritan community. For reasons of safety, the High Priest decided that it would be best not to call attention to ourselves by building our beautiful—and expensive—sukkot outside for all to see. Furthermore, our non-Samaritan neighbors would sometimes be tempted to steal some of the luscious fruits hanging outside, effectively ruining the look of the sukkah and spoiling the mitzvah.
The choice to build the sukkah inside does point to an important halachic difference between Jewish halacha and Samaritan halacha. According to Rabbinic Jewish halacha, having asukkah underneath a roof is invalid. The Samaritans do not believe that it matters where the sukkah is built.
A Chasidic-Style Samaritan Tale for Sukkot
There is a legend about Abraham Tsedaka (my great-grandfather on my mother’s side), who was a well-known Samaritan holy man. On Sukkot of the year 1912, some Chassidic Jews from Jerusalem came to visit him. During their conversation, they asked him: “Doesn’t thesukkah being inside ruin the kedushah (holiness) of the sukkah?” Abraham Tsedaka answered that it did not and said that he could prove it.
He began to recite the Shema and sing the psalm of the Sukkot holiday and the sukkah began to shake (quite a frightening experience under all that fruit!) The moment he finished the psalm, the sukkah stopped shaking. The Chassidic Jews thanked their host and left thesukkah stunned, and Abraham Tsedaka offered a prayer of thanks to God for granting him the opportunity to demonstrate the holiness of the Samaritan sukkot.
In the Sukkah or Near the Sukkah
Another difference between Samaritan and Jewish practice has to do with where we sit when we use the sukkah. Jews sit inside (or in our terms directly underneath) the sukkah. In fact, Jews believe that they do not fulfill the mitzvah if they aren’t underneath theסכך. Samaritans do not sit underneath the sukkah, however, but right near it; the seats are set up around the frame of the sukkah. There is an obvious reason for this. If you sit underneath a Samaritan sukkah, you are in danger of being hit by fallen fruit. Considering the size of some of the fruits we hang (including pomelos and eggplants), this is a real danger.
Just the Roof
One final difference between the structure of the Jewish sukkah and the Samaritan sukkah is that Jews build their sukkot with walls (a minimum of 2½, but usually 3 or 4) and consider them to be part of the sukkah whereas Samaritans are concerned only with the roof.
The Harvest Festival (חג האסיף) is the third pilgrimage of the year to the holy sites on Mt. Gerizim, and we recite special prayers on each day of the holiday.
Following the morning pilgrimage, which happens on the first day of the festival, we descend from Mount Gerizim to our sukkot, and eat our meals near the sukkah. Men and women participate together in this feast. On the first and eighth day of the holiday (Samaritans consider Shemini Atzeret to be part of Sukkot), as well as on the Shabbat of Sukkot—calledShabbat Gan Eden (the Sabbath of the Garden of Eden)—the meals are served cold, since it is forbidden to do labor on these days, and within Samaritan tradition, that includes making a fire.
During these meals, joy reaches its peak. The clear ale, produced right before the holiday at home, is diluted in the waters of the mountain springs until they turn white as milk and are decanted into throats filled with the cheerful Sukkot songs. A large variety of salads, peeled almonds soaked in water, oven-baked broad beans and assorted baked goods add to the joy. Some of the traditional baked goods are baklawa, ballurieh, maamul, kuzmaat, ’aidi, andmkammar. We also drink khshaff, made from the juice of apricots, almonds, and pomegranate.
The Shemini Atzeret Service
On Shemini Atzeret—the eighth day of Sukkot—the service begins after midnight at the synagogues and continues for 9 hours. We start at this time since, according to Samaritan lore, immediately after midnight the gates of heaven are opened and angels come down to earth the gather the prayers of Israel.
One important ritual that we do during this service involves the Torah scrolls. The kohanim (priests) carry the Torah scrolls around to all the worshipers and we each, in turn, touch the scroll cases.
After this comes the ritual of ברכה (blessing). The kohen stands before the congregation and waves the Torah. As he does so, we bless the Almighty and cover our faces from forehead to chin with the open palms of our right hands (called הסתרת פנים, hiding the face). In doing so, we act as Moses did when he saw the Almighty in the Burning Bush (Exod 3:6).
After the Holiday
As the days of the Harvest Festival pass, the smell of ripening fruit becomes increasingly pungent. The fruit may be enticing but it is forbidden to eat them during the holiday. They are considered holy and may not be used or even touched throughout the holiday. (In rabbinic parlance, the fruit is מוקצה.) If a fruit falls off the sukkah on the holiday, it is placed in a box for safe-keeping until after the holiday.
After the holiday is over, when the sukkot are taken down, we must deal with half a ton of fruit! We are required to make use of the fruit ourselves; selling the fruit would be a grave sin. In order not to be wasteful, the days after Sukkot are filled with the production of fruit juice and the eating of fruit. There is one dish in particular that has significance for the coming holidays. We take the skins of the etrogim (especially the giant Yemenite ones) and the pomelos that hung on the sukkot—these fruits have very thick skins—and make them into a special marmalade(אתרוג מסוכר). The jam is extremely tasty and is eaten during all of our holidays.
The Burning of the Dry Leaves: Commemorating the Recapture of the Sacred Mountain
We then gather the dry leaves from the sukkah (ענפים יבשים וכפות תמרים יבשות) and burn them in bonfires. The burning of the dry leaves is not only a practical matter, or even just for fun, but it has symbolic significance as well.
Just as the Jews experienced the loss of their sacred Temple in Jerusalem, at several points in our history, we lost access to our sacred space on Mount Gerizim. The bonfires are a ritual designed to commemorate the recapture of the sacred mountain from the hands of the Byzantine Greeks almost two thousand years ago (see story below). In this sense, it might be fair to think of the night after Shemini Atzeret as a kind of Samaritan Hanukkah, except with bonfires instead of candles.
Recapturing Mount Gerizim: Baba Rabbah and the Brass Bird
The custom of the bonfires is associated with one of the most revered figures in Samaritan history is Baba Rabbah (lit. “The Great Father”), who was a high priest circa 3rd-4th century C.E; many miracle stories and legends surround his life.
It is said that during the time of Baba Rabbah, in order to ensure that no Samaritans would alight upon Mount Gerizim, the local Byzantine authorities placed a magical bronze bird on the mountain that would warn the garrison of an approaching Samaritan by calling out “Hebrew! Hebrew!” if any were to set foot on the mountain.
In an attempt to undo this spell, Baba Rabbah sent his nephew Levi to Constantinople as a young Christian to infiltrate the church hierarchy. Levi became such a successful student that he was promoted to bishop. Using his exalted position, he asked if he could make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and his request was granted.
Levi went to the Holy Land and spent the night at the monastery on Mount Gerizim. Upon his arrival, the bronze bird began to screech, “Hebrew! Hebrew!” The guards ran out to search but found nobody but the visiting bishop. After listening to the screeching for hours, Levi suggested to the monks and the soldiers that the bird had apparently outlived its usefulness, since it seemed to be screeching about nothing. There was a general agreement to this conclusion, and the bird was smashed.
That night, while the monks and soldiers were asleep, Levi snuck out of the monastery and returned to his village of Awarta (about 8 km southeast of Nablus), and told his uncle what happened. Baba Rabbah gathered the young Samaritan men and attacked the Byzantine garrison while they were sleeping and reconquered the mountain for the Samaritans. To get the message around quickly, the men lit bonfires on the tops of the mountains. All this occurred the night after Shemini Atzeret. This is why—according to this legend—we light bonfires on this night, in commemoration of the heroic act of Levi and Baba Rabbah, and the retaking of Mount Gerizim, the holy mountain of the Samaritans.
Conclusion and Invitation
The Harvest Festival is the most joyous of all the Torah’s pilgrimage holidays for Samaritans. I have tried to give the readers a taste for it in this piece, but really the only way to get a feeling for Samaritan Sukkot it to experience it.
For years, Samaritans have kept an “open sukkah” policy on this holiday on the non-festival days (i.e., not on day 1, day 8, or Shabbat), and outsiders often take the opportunity to come by, sit underneath the sukkah, and experience the joy of the Harvest Festival for themselves. For those who will be in Israel during the holidays, I hope you will join me for a cup of ale and a piece of cake near the sukkah.
How to Build a Samaritan Sukkah
Everyone tries to build the most beautiful sukkah possible and the combination of the four species creates a splendid spectacle. Sukkah building is a family affair, with a lot of child participation. While we build the sukkah, we sing a special Samaritan sukkah-building song, written in the 14th century. Construction of the sukkah begins on the night after Yom Kippur, after we have broken our fast, of course.
For those who are curious to know how our sukkot are built, here is how it is done:
First, we build a metal frame (most Samaritans already have one and reuse it each year.) Generally, the frame is anywhere between 2-4 square meters; some are even bigger. Many Samaritans attach this frame to the ceiling of the living room with hanging chains; others place the frame on four strong poles. Whatever method one uses, the construction needs to be very sturdy, since the average weight of the fruit on a Samaritan sukkah is about 350 kg (750-800 pounds), depending on the size of the frame.
Upon this frame, we place a wire mesh. Some people tie reinforced metal wiring on the mesh, in circular, elliptical or square patterns. This allows the sukkah builders to hang the fruit in a variety of geometrical shapes. The mesh is then attached to the frame with strong plastic brackets.
Once this skeletal frame is completed, the fruits are hung. Before they can be hung, however, someone must attach a brass wire to each of the hundreds of fruit, so they can be attached to the wire mesh. This is done earlier in the day by the girls of the house, whose delicate touch will not (usually) damage the fruit. The children then line up to take the fruit with the wires out of the boxes in which they are stored and pass them up to the teenagers and young adults, who hang the fruit from the mesh or the reinforced wires.
The exact formation of where each fruit will hang, generally divided by species and color, is decided in advance, so that an exact pattern is produced. Although any fruits may be used, some of the most common choices are citrons, pomelos, pomegranates, lemons, quinces, grapefruits, oranges, red and green peppers, eggplants, apples, and peaches.
Above the fruits, on the top of the frame, are open palm branches, alternately spread out right side up and upside down; above them, dense boughs of thick-leafed trees are placed close together to form a thatched roof. Alongside are placed the lilac chaste trees (or some alternative), brought from the banks of Israeli streams and rivers. With that, all the species are joined together, and the sukkah is in accordance with the Torah’s commands. In addition, many Samaritans also hang colored paper and colored electric lights underneath the fruit to further decorate the sukkah, but this is not a requirement.
After we finish building our sukkah, we enjoy visiting other people’s sukkot and comparing. Whenever we enter someone else’s sukkah for a visit, we sing the same sukkah-building song. Sometimes we debate who has the nicer sukkah, but all in good fun.
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October 6, 2014
June 28, 2020
Benyamim Tsedaka is the founder and head of the A.B-Institute of Samaritan Studies. He is the editor of A.B. – The Samaritan News Magazine, A Founder of the Society of Samaritan Studies in Paris 1985, the conductor of the Choir of Ancient Israelite Music, and the chairperson of the Samaritan Medal Foundation. Tsedaka has published over 100 articles, essays, and posts on Samaritan Studies. He recently published the firstEnglish translation of the Samaritan Pentateuch.
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