Knowing Why We Sit in the Sukkah
The Festival of Sukkot is exactly six months apart from Passover, the only two holidays in the Torah that are seven days long. (According to Leviticus 23:36 and Numbers 29:35, the seven days of Sukkot end with a celebration on the eighth day.)
Each Festival has its own unique characteristics. The korban pesach (paschal sacrifice), the seder and the matzah on Passover, the Sukkah and the four species on Sukkot. However, whereas the historical reason for celebrating Passover is clearly associated with the Exodus from Egypt, the historical reason for Sukkot is far more nebulous.
Let us examine the verses in the Torah, starting with Exodus:
יד שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים תָּחֹג לִי בַּשָּׁנָה. טו אֶת חַג הַמַּצּוֹת תִּשְׁמֹר שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל מַצּוֹת כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ לְמוֹעֵד חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב כִּי בוֹ יָצָאתָ מִמִּצְרָיִם וְלֹא יֵרָאוּ פָנַי רֵיקָם. טז וְחַג הַקָּצִיר בִּכּוּרֵי מַעֲשֶׂיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּזְרַע בַּשָּׂדֶה וְחַג הָאָסִף בְּצֵאת הַשָּׁנָה בְּאָסְפְּךָ אֶת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ מִן הַשָּׂדֶה.
Three times a year you shall hold a festival for me. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread—eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you—at the set time in the month of Abib, for in it you went forth from Egypt …and the feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field (Exod. 23:14-16).
כב וְחַג שָׁבֻעֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ בִּכּוּרֵי קְצִיר חִטִּים וְחַג הָאָסִיף תְּקוּפַת הַשָּׁנָה.
You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest; and the feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year (Exod. 34:22).
Historical or An Agricultural Festival
Regarding Sukkot, we learn in the Exodus verses only that there is a holiday at the end of the year. Regarding Passover, in contrast, we are told that it is for seven days and that it is a celebration commemorating the exodus from Egypt. Comparing the description of the two holidays, it stands out that the description of the Feast of the Ingathering mentions neither how long the festival is for nor does it give any historical for its celebration. The holidays seems agricultural.
Turning to the book of Numbers, the picture changes somewhat:
יב וּבַחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ וְחַגֹּתֶם חַג לַיהוָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים.
On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at you occupations — seven days you shall observe a festival of the Lord (Num. 29:12).
Here we have an exact date, the 15th of the seventh month (a date that seems to contradict the Exodus dating of the holiday at the end of the year, either in fact or in calendrical conception.) Like many of the holidays in the section—Shabbat and Yom HaBikkurim being the exceptions —the holiday is given no name, and merely referred to as “festival”.
Turning to Deuteronomy, the picture is again slightly different.
יג חַג הַסֻּכֹּת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בְּאָסְפְּךָ מִגָּרְנְךָ וּמִיִּקְבֶךָ
After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days (Deut. 16:13).
Although this festival is given no date other than tying it to the end of the Israelite harvest, we at last find the name Sukkot (Booths). Nevertheless, the explanation for the name “Booths” is not given. From context one would imagine that it was agriculturally related.
Going now to Leviticus, the picture is altogether different.
לט אַךְ בַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאָסְפְּכֶם אֶת תְּבוּאַת הָאָרֶץ תָּחֹגּוּ אֶת חַג יְהוָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן שַׁבָּתוֹן וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי שַׁבָּתוֹן… מא וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג לַיהוָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי תָּחֹגּוּ אֹתוֹ.
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… 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 the Lord your God (Lev. 23:39, 42-43).
Besides giving us a name, a date and tying it into the agricultural cycle, Leviticus is the one and only place in the Torah to explain that Sukkot is a festival where one sits in the sukkah. Furthermore, Leviticus gives us the reason for this: The sukkah is meant to commemorate the wilderness experience when the Israelites lived in booths. 
This explanation seems rather surprising since nowhere in the narrative sections of the Torah is there mention of the Israelites living in booths during their wilderness travels. In fact, whenever Israelite dwellings in the wilderness are described, they are generally pictured as having dwelt in tents not booths (see: Exod. 18:7; Num. 16:26-27, 24:5-6; Ps. 106:25).
Booths or Clouds
The ambiguous nature of this historical assertion is reflected in Rabbinic tradition, which records a debate about the nature of the booths (b Sukkah 11b; Sifra Emor 17).
ר׳ אליעזר אומר: "סוכות ממש היו." ר’ עקיבא אומר: "סוכות ענני הכבוד היו. "בהוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים" – מלמד שאף הסוכה זכר ליציאת מצרים.
Rabbi Eleazer says: “Actual (literal) booths.” Rabbi Akiva says: “These “booths” were the clouds of glory in which the Israelites were enveloped.” “When I brought them out of the Land of Egypt” – This teaches the even the sukkah is in order to remember the Exodus from Egypt.
Although debates are a common feature of rabbinic literature, in this case the debate seems problematic. The Torah clearly states that we are commanded to dwell in Sukkot “in order that we know” that God had us dwell in sukkot in the wilderness. And yet, how can we know this when the Sages themselves don’t know what these “sukkot” even are —whether they are booths or clouds?
A historical critical approach to the enigma of the sukkah suggests that despite the strong statement in the Torah requiring us to remember that Israel dwelt in booths during the desert period, why we sit in a sukkah on Sukkot is really a question with more than one answer. In fact, a closer examination of Leviticus highlights a tension within the verses between the two themes of the holiday: thanksgiving to God for the bounty of the harvest in verse 39 and the commandment to sit in the sukkah and its association with the exodus verse 42.
Recognizing the historical development of the two aspects of the holiday we can appreciate that Sukkot is the uniquely Jewish version of thanksgiving, a ritual that gives voice the universal feeling of gratitude for one’s material success in this world while doing so in a flavor unique to the people of Israel and their mnemohistorical past.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 16, 2013
September 29, 2020
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series