The Origins of Sukkot
Festival of Asif – The Autumn New Year
The earliest biblical reference to an autumn holiday celebrating the final gathering of produce from the fields appears in Exodus’ Covenant Collection (E):
שמות כג:טז …וְחַג הָאָסִף בְּצֵאת הַשָּׁנָה בְּאָסְפְּךָ אֶת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ מִן הַשָּׂדֶה.
Exod 23:16 …And the feast of Ingathering upon the culmination of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field.
The verse implies that Asif (Ingathering) was celebrated at the end of the harvest and also functioned as a New Year. We are not told the calendrical date, how long it lasted, or even a season for this holiday, and it is thus possible that Asif may have had no set date and that the end of the harvest determined the end of the year.
The Agricultural Festival of Sukkot (Deuteronomy)
Deuteronomy refers to the holiday not as Asif (Ingathering), but as Sukkot (Booths), and adds that it lasts seven days:
דברים טז:יג חַג הַסֻּכֹּת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בְּאָסְפְּךָ מִגָּרְנְךָ וּמִיִּקְבֶךָ.
Deut 16:13 After the gathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days.
Like the verse in Exodus, the text here includes no exact date, nor does it say that the festival comes at the end of the year. Nevertheless, this is strongly implied in a later passage in Deuteronomy, which describes when the public reading of the Torah (i.e., Deuteronomy) should be held:
דברים לא:י …מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת.
Deut 31:10 …At the end of seven years, at the time of the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths.
Here again, Sukkot occurs upon the culmination of a year.
Canaanite Autumn Calendar
An autumn new year was ubiquitous in the Levant and seems to have been used by the Canaanites, as can be seen in what scholars call “the Gezer Calendar,” discovered in 1908 at Tel Gezer by R.A.S. Macalister, and dated to the 10th century (roughly the time of David according to biblical chronology):
ירח עצד פשת
ירח קצר שערם
ירח קצר וכל
The (2) months of ingathering
The (2) months of planting
The (2) months of rain
The month of cutting flax
The month of harvesting barley
The month of harvesting and measuring (wheat/grain)
The (2) months of pruning
The month of summer (fruit)
Scholars debate the meaning of this text, but one current interpretation is that the text is a seasonal calendar, listing not months but periods of time connected to the planting and harvest cycle. It begins with the ingathering of fruit, which has the exact same name as the ingathering holiday in Exodus 23. It ends with the month of summer fruit, often a reference to figs. The term may also be related to the Hebrew word קץ, which means “end” (both terms appear to derive from the root ק.צ.צ, meaning "cut off").
Ugaritic New Year’s
Another culture that used the autumn calendar and even held a large new year celebration in the autumn was the coastal kingdom of Ugarit. Two tablets found in the excavation of this city (RS 1.003, RS 18.056) describe an autumnal New Year’s festival that spans more than a month:
On the month of Rashu-Yeni (ראשית היין; equivalent to Elul, the month preceding Tishrei, when Rosh Hashanah is celebrated), on the day of the New Moon (ym.ḥdt; יום חודש), cut a bunch of grapes for Ilu (=El) as a peace offering (shelamim)…
The tablet goes on to describe the preparations made by the king on the 14th of the month. Then, on the 15th, a seven-day celebration begins, typified by many sacrifices:
A cow for the Ilahuma,
For Tukamuna-wa-Šu[nama an ewe]
An ewe for Rašap as a burnt-offering,
And as a peace offering: [two] e[wes] for Ilahu,
A bull and a ram for the Ilahuma
A cow for the Ilahuma
For Balu a bull…
The list goes on, with various forms of sacrifices to be brought for six days. Then,
On the seventh day, when the sun rises, the day will be free (of cultic obligations); when the sun sets, the king will be free (of cultic obligations).
Dwellings for the Gods made of Branches on the First of the Autumn Month
The new year festival culminates in the next month:
On the day of the new moon of (the following month, equivalent to Tishrei)… the king will offer a sacrifice… on the roof where there will be dwellings of branches (mtbt ͗zmr; מושבות זמר), four on one side four on the other, a ram as burnt offering, a bull and a ram as peace offering, to be repeated seven times. According to what is in his heart, the king will speak.
The connection to the practice on Sukkot of gathering branches and building booths, familiar from Leviticus 23, is unmistakable. In his introduction to this text, the Ugaritic scholar, Dennis Pardee, writes:
The reference to the “day of the new moon”… marks this as a text outlining a two-month festival, or at least, the festival of the last month of the year with a transitional festival to the new year. The new-year festival, similarly to that of the Hebrew Bible, appears to be a harvest festival, as may be surmised from the mention of “dwellings” for the gods made of “cut branches.”
The connection between the practice in Ugarit and that described in the Torah was noted by another Ugaritic scholar, Johannes C. De Moor, in his discussion of the text in Deuteronomy:
It was now called ḥag hassukkōt, a name which for the first time points to the fact that like the people of Ugarit, the Israelites used booths of branches during the festival.
It is significant that the bulk of the Ugaritic new year is celebrated at the end of the year and culminates in the new year, exactly as described in Exod 23 about Asif, which is celebrated “as the year ends.”
Brief Excursus: Connecting Ugarit and Israelites
The ancient city of Ugarit, located in modern day coastal Syria, was destroyed in the 12th century B.C.E. Nevertheless, Ugaritic culture shares many commonalities with Israel. Considering the difference in time, such a connection is always difficult to explain, especially when the first text to make a clear connection between Judean and Ugaritic practice—in this case Leviticus—seems to be exilic or later.
Nevertheless, reminiscences of Ugaritic law and lore are sometimes only found in late texts. Rituals tend to be conservative, and may very well have been preserved by the local population in Canaan, and the same may be true about the practice of making dwellings out of branches on the autumn new year.
Harvest Huts or Temple Huts
Deuteronomy sees the holiday of Sukkot as a Temple holiday:
דברים טז:טו שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תָּחֹג לַי-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ-הוָה כִּי יְבָרֶכְךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל תְּבוּאָתְךָ וּבְכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ וְהָיִיתָ אַךְ שָׂמֵחַ.
Deut 16:15 You shall hold a festival for YHWH your God seven days, in the place that YHWH will choose; for YHWH your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.
If booths (sukkot is plural) were built, it would have likely been for YHWH and his entourage (or for the priests?) at the Temple, likely on the roof in keeping with the Levantine practice found in Ugarit.
But if Deuteronomy did imagine huts for YHWH and his entourage on the Temple roof as part of the holiday, how and when did the practice change to Israelites/Judeans building huts for themselves to dwell in outside the Temple precinct?
Leviticus: Taking Branches and Building Booths
The command to take branches and the command to dwell in booths are found in Leviticus 23 in two separate glosses, one after the other. The Holiness festival calendar originally ended in vv. 37-38. In the first gloss (vv. 39-41), we find a commandment to take branches:
ויקרא כג:מ וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים….
Lev 23:40 On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before YHWH your God seven days….
What the branches were to be taken for, whether to build booths for YHWH or some other ritual function, is unclear, but we do see that this ritual was meant to take place in the Temple. Thus, this fits with the ancient conception we saw in Deuteronomy of a Temple ritual.
After the conclusion of this gloss in v. 41, Leviticus continues with an additional gloss:
ויקרא כג:מב בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת.
Lev 23:42 You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths.
According to this verse, booths should be built by individuals for their own purposes, and ostensibly, wherever they happen to be. Although we do not know when this redaction was added, a story in the book of Nehemiah, which describes the Judeans learning about this mitzvah for the first time, offers a terminus ad quem.
Nehemiah: The Judeans Don’t Know About Building Booths
In Nehemiah 8, after a public Torah reading ceremony conducted by Ezra on the first of the seventh month, the leaders of the people gather together with Ezra the next day for a more intimate Torah study:
נחמיה ח:יג וּבַיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי נֶאֶסְפוּ רָאשֵׁי הָאָבוֹת לְכָל הָעָם הַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַלְוִיִּם אֶל עֶזְרָא הַסֹּפֵר וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל אֶל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה. ח:יד וַיִּמְצְאוּ כָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יֵשְׁבוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּסֻּכּוֹת בֶּחָג בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי. ח: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.
Neh 8:13 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. 8:14 They found written in the Teaching that YHWH had commanded Moses that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month, 8:15 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.”
ח:טז וַיֵּצְאוּ הָעָם וַיָּבִיאוּ וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם סֻכּוֹת אִישׁ עַל גַּגּוֹ וּבְחַצְרֹתֵיהֶם וּבְחַצְרוֹת בֵּית הָאֱלֹהִים וּבִרְחוֹב שַׁעַר הַמַּיִם וּבִרְחוֹב שַׁעַר אֶפְרָיִם. ח:יזוַיַּעֲשׂוּ 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.
8:16 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. 8:17The 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.
By the time of the account in Nehemiah, some version of what we have noted above as two glosses to Leviticus 23 had become established in the Torah. ;Ezra understands these two verses as part of the same practice, and thus people gather the special branches and build sukkot for the first time ever.
Not Just a Midrashic Innovation
The reaction of the people recorded in Nehemiah, combined with the fact that nowhere in the Torah except in this late gloss is there a command to build sukkot, might imply that the practice of dwelling in sukkot derives from a late (inner-biblical) “midrash,” interpreting the name: “Why is it called Sukkot? Because we are supposed to dwell in sukkot.” However, as noted above, Deuteronomy’s instruction to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot in Jerusalem, and the parallel practice in Ugarit of building dwellings out of branches on the temple roof, implies that the name really does derive from booths, but that these booths were built on the roof of the Temple and were meant for YHWH and his entourage.
An Exilic Development Transported Back to Judea
Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom suggests that the shift from Deuteronomy’s temple practice to Lev 23:42’s building of sukkot everywhere occurred during the exile. The Jews in Babylon, finding themselves without a temple, discontinued the practice of building sukkot for YHWH on the holiday. Instead, he argues, the practice of each family building their own sukkah began, and it was during this period that Lev 23:42 was added to the Holiness calendar. When Babylonian Jews like Ezra moved back to Judea, they took the revised text and the new practice with them.
Nevertheless, we can see elements of continuity with the ancient practice. In fact, it is striking that in Nehemiah, the Judeans build their huts, among other places specifically on “roofs.” This may be a vestige of the old Canaanite custom reflected in the texts from Ugarit and likely practiced in the Jerusalem Temple. The verse about sukkot in Leviticus and the consequent practice in Nehemiah based on this verse are exilic revisions of this much earlier practice, unrecorded but assumed in Deuteronomy, of building a temporary dwelling at the Temple for YHWH and his entourage during the festival.
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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