The First Sukkah?
Ezra and Nehemiah
Firsts are exciting. It turns out that this maxim applies to the biblical description of the first celebration of Sukkot with actual sukkot (booths). The Book of Ezra-Nehemiah describes a public Torah reading where Ezra the scribe reads the Torah before the assembled Judean people. The reading begins on the first of the seventh month (Rosh Hashanah). On the second day, the leaders of the community learn with Ezra and discover the passage about Sukkot in Leviticus is read. It elicits a surprising reaction.
יג וּבַיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי נֶאֶסְפוּ רָאשֵׁי הָאָבוֹת לְכָל הָעָם הַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַלְוִיִּם אֶל עֶזְרָא הַסֹּפֵר וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל אֶל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה.
13 On the second day, the heads of the clans of all the people and the priests and Levites gathered to Ezra the scribe to study the words of the Teaching.
יד וַיִּמְצְאוּ כָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יֵשְׁבוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּסֻּכּוֹת בֶּחָג בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי. טו וַאֲשֶׁר יַשְׁמִיעוּ וְיַעֲבִירוּ קוֹל בְּכָל עָרֵיהֶם וּבִירוּשָׁלִַם לֵאמֹר צְאוּ הָהָר וְהָבִיאוּ עֲלֵי זַיִת וַעֲלֵי עֵץ שֶׁמֶן וַעֲלֵי הֲדַס וַעֲלֵי תְמָרִים וַעֲלֵי עֵץ עָבֹת לַעֲשֹׂת סֻכֹּת כַּכָּתוּב.
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.”
טז וַיֵּצְאוּ הָעָם וַיָּבִיאוּ וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם סֻכּוֹת אִישׁ עַל גַּגּוֹ וּבְחַצְרֹתֵיהֶם וּבְחַצְרוֹת בֵּית הָאֱלֹהִים וּבִרְחוֹב שַׁעַר הַמַּיִם וּבִרְחוֹב שַׁעַר אֶפְרָיִם. יז וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כָל הַקָּהָל הַשָּׁבִים מִן הַשְּׁבִי סֻכּוֹת וַיֵּשְׁבוּ בַסֻּכּוֹת כִּי לֹא עָשׂוּ מִימֵי יֵשׁוּעַ בִּן נוּן כֵּן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד הַיּוֹם הַהוּא וַתְּהִי שִׂמְחָה גְּדוֹלָה מְאֹד.
16 So the people went out and brought them, and made themselves booths on their roofs, in their courtyards, in the courtyards of the House of God, in the square of the Water Gate and in the square of the Ephraim Gate. 17 The whole community that returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths—the Israelites had not done so from the days of Joshua son of Nun to that day—and there was very great rejoicing.
יח וַיִּקְרָא בְּסֵפֶר תּוֹרַת הָאֱלֹהִים יוֹם בְּיוֹם מִן הַיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן עַד הַיּוֹם הָאַחֲרוֹן וַיַּעֲשׂוּ חָג שִׁבְעַת יָמִים וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי עֲצֶרֶת כַּמִּשְׁפָּט.
18 He read from the scroll of the Teaching of God each day, from the first to the last day. They celebrated the festival seven days, and there was a solemn gathering on the eighth, as prescribed.
“This chapter,” Jeffrey Rubenstein writes, “is one of the most inscrutable in the Bible and raises numerous difficulties that have yet to receive satisfactory explanations.” The text raises many fascinating difficulties. Yet here we want to focus on just one.
The passage makes clear that as late as the 5th century BCE, the people of Judea had yet to learn of the mitzvah of building a sukkah and dwelling in it. When they hear that such is the will of God as revealed by Moses, the people immediately go out into the hills and gather the elements required in the Torah.
Our text states that this was the first time since Israel’s conquest of its Promised Land that they celebrated the festival by building sukkot. If the text is correct, this would mean that never in the time of the Judges, or the time of David and Solomon, not even during the time of Josiah did Israel/Judah ever observe the commandment.
What are we to make of the statement that “the Israel had not done so since the days of Joshua son of Nun”? Neither the Book of Joshua nor any other biblical text reports that Joshua and his generation built Sukkot. The statement likely derives from an assumption that there is no way that Joshua, the great student of Moses himself, would have allowed Sukkot to be celebrated in any manner less punctilious than by following all of Moses’ commandments to the letter. Which means that Joshua would have celebrated exactly as described in the passage cited above.
In other words, there is no biblical evidence that anyone in Israel or Judah celebrated the festival by building sukkot until this period—a century and half into the period of the Second Temple!
How does one account for the total neglect of this mitzvah? After all, even advocates of the multiple authorship of the Torah model generally assume that the holiday of Sukkot was celebrated during First Temple times! A possible answer lies in the heart of the one biblical passage that might refer to the building of booths. The passage comes at the end of the treatment of the holiday of Sukkot found in Leviticus 23, which can easily be divided into four basic sections.
A. Verses 33-36 describe the holiday of Sukkot and its offerings much the way the earlier holidays were described in Leviticus 23.
לג וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. לד דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר בַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי הַזֶּה חַג הַסֻּכּוֹת שִׁבְעַת יָמִים לַיהֹוָה. לה בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ. לו שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תַּקְרִיבוּ אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה עֲצֶרֶת הִוא כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ.
33 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 34 Say to the Israelite people: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to the Lord, [to last] seven days. 35 The first day shall be a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations; 36 seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to the Lord; it is a solemn gathering: you shall not work at your occupations.
B. Verses 37-38 sound like the ending of the discussion of the holidays as described in this chapter.
לז אֵלֶּה מוֹעֲדֵי יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר תִּקְרְאוּ אֹתָם מִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶשׁ לְהַקְרִיב אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה עֹלָה וּמִנְחָה זֶבַח וּנְסָכִים דְּבַר יוֹם בְּיוֹמוֹ. לח מִלְּבַד שַׁבְּתֹת יְּהוָה וּמִלְּבַד מַתְּנוֹתֵיכֶם וּמִלְּבַד כָּל נִדְרֵיכֶם וּמִלְּבַד כָּל נִדְבוֹתֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר תִּתְּנוּ לַיהוָה
37 Those are the set times of the Lord that you shall celebrate as sacred occasions, bringing offerings by fire to the Lord—burnt offerings, meal offerings, sacrifices, and libations, on each day what is proper to it—38 apart from the sabbaths of the Lord, and apart from your gifts and from all your votive offerings and from all your freewill offerings that you give to the Lord.
C. Verses 39-41 return to the holiday of Sukkot, adding the requirement to take certain tree products and rejoice before the Lord.
לט אַךְ בַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאָסְפְּכֶם אֶת תְּבוּאַת הָאָרֶץ תָּחֹגּוּ אֶת חַג יְהוָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן שַׁבָּתוֹן וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי שַׁבָּתוֹן. מ וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים. מא וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג לַיהוָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי תָּחֹגּוּ אֹתוֹ.
39 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 the Lord [to last] seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. 40 On the first day you shall take the product ofhadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. 41 You shall observe it as a festival of the Lord for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages.
D. Continuing on the theme of Sukkot, this section commands Israel to dwell in booths for seven days.
מב בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת. מג לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. מד וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶת מֹעֲדֵי יְהוָה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
42 You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, 43 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 the Lord your God.
Looking at the verses carefully, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that addenda have been added to a preexisting chapter that ended in verse 38.
In fact, academic Bible scholars have long understood sections C and D to be add-ons to chapter 23. In other words, the biblical description of the holidays found in this chapter may date from First Temple or early Second Temple times, nevertheless, verses 39-43 may have been added later in the Second Temple period. The latter section (vv. 42-43) would have been added around the time of the second wave of the repatriation of Judea by the exiles described in Ezra 7-10.
R. David Tzvi Hoffmann attempts to refute the academic claims by explaining why this chapter has an addendum (Commentary on Leviticus, vol. 2, p. 196 [Hebrew edition]).
ברם הטעם שהפסוקים לט-מד ניתנו בצורת השלמה הוא פשוט. חוקי תורת הכהנים וספר הקדושה הם חוקי מדבר במובן המדויק של המלה, כלומר: לא בלבד שניתנו בתקופת המדבר אלא גם מכוונים לתקופה ההיא…
However the reason that verses 39-43 come as an addendum is simple. The laws of the Priestly Book (=P) and the Holiness Book (=H) are wilderness laws in the exact sense of the term. Meaning, not only were [the laws] given during the wilderness period but they were intended for that period…
והנה דווקא חג הסוכות הוא מועד שלו הוקדשו מצוות מיוחדות שלא ניתנו להגשמה במדבר, בפרט החגיגות של שמחה ליד המקדש, כשאוחזים את אגודת הלולב ביד לאות תודה על ברכת ה’ באסיפת התבואה, והישיבה בסוכות לזכר החסות שקיבלו מה’ במסע במדבר. לחלק זה של חגיגת ימי סוכות היה מן הצורך לייחד השלמה לעצמה…
Specifically, the festival of Sukkot in particular is a holiday whose many unique mitzvot cannot be practiced in the wilderness. Specifically, the joyous celebrations that were to take place around the Temple, when [Israel] would take hold of the lulav and other species as a sign of thanksgiving for the blessing God gave to the gathering of the harvest; also, dwelling in Sukkot in memory of the care they received from God in their wilderness travels. This part of the Sukkot celebrations had to be given a separate addendum…
Rabbi Hoffmann makes an important observation about the dissonance between what could have been celebrated in the desert, where there was no harvest, and what was certainly celebrated in the Land of Israel. Nevertheless, his position is hard to accept as the simple (peshat) explanation of the addendum. If the Torah wished to distinguish between wilderness laws and post-conquest laws, it could have made this clear by referencing “when you enter the land” as it does in many other places, including in this very chapter (vv. 9-10).
Instead, the straightforward explanation of these addenda is that they were added at different stages of Israel’s/Judah’s history. Significantly, recognizing that this piece was added later is the best way to explain the evidence in Nehemiah: The Judeans had never heard of Sukkah building and the Israelites never built Sukkot because this practice had not yet been canonized.
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