Why Isn't Sukkot in the Spring?
Explanations for Holidays: Agricultural and Historical
The Torah explains Jewish festivals in both agricultural and historical terms.
Pesach / Matzot – Deuteronomy 16:1 teaches that Pesach takes place בחודש האביב “in the month of Aviv,” meaning at the time “of new ears of grain, [which] refers to the fact that this month begins when immature ears of grain have begun to grow on the stalks.” From the agricultural perspective, Pesach and the festival of Matzot are in the season of the first harvesting of the earliest grain, when “the sickle is first put to the standing grain”  (מֵהָחֵל חֶרְמֵשׁ בַּקָּמָה)in the land of Israel, generally in late March or April. But the Torah repeatedly emphasizes that Pesach and Matzot commemorate the exodus from Egypt—a historical connection.
Shavuot – In the Torah, Shavuot is given only an agricultural explanation: it is a celebration of the [wheat] harvest,  חג הקציר, in late May or June. The rabbis added a historical explanation: Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Decalogue to Israel at Mount Sinai. They find support for this in their understanding of the chronology in Exodus 19.
Sukkot –Sukkot is the holiday of “ingathering,” at the end of summer/the beginning of fall, when fruit is hurriedly harvested before the rainy season begins in the land of Israel—an agricultural festival. But the Torah also explains that the holiday commemorates the time when the Israelites lived in sukkot¸ huts, in the wilderness after they left Egypt.
Do the Explanations Match Up?
The Torah’s historical explanation for Pesach and Matzot as commemorations of the exodus works out nicely–it refers to the same time of year as the agricultural explanation. Similarly, the rabbis’ historical explanation for Shavuot as being about the Sinai revelation that took place in Sivan (Exod 19:1) coincides with the season of the wheat harvest. But the Torah’s historical explanation for Sukkot has no apparent connection to the early fall month of Tishrei.
The Mishnah, Talmud and other old rabbinic texts do not address this issue. Perhaps the rabbis felt that the clear connection of the holiday to the months of September/October for agricultural reasons sufficed. But as the years passed, and the agricultural cycles of the land of Israel became distant from the rabbis’ consciousness, the historical explanations of the holidays became dominant. Nehama Leibowitz is perhaps reflecting this emphasis when she writes:
It is quite true that the three scriptural pilgrim festivals commemorate the opening and closing of the agricultural cycle. …But how enormously has the Torah enriched the significance of these dates by charging them with historical meaning, by turning them into reminders of the great miracles that happened to our ancestors, by making them recall not our link with nature but with super-nature, the Lord of nature. The Torah utilized these festivals to divert our attention from the world of nature and bind us . . . to Him who transcends nature, namely, God.”
Once Jews started to see the historical explanations as the essence of the holidays, they wondered: if Jews sit in a sukkah to commemorate the dwellings of their ancestors who left Egypt, and if those ancestors left Egypt in the spring, why does the Torah instruct us to sit in a sukkah in the early fall?
Ramban’s Dual Solution
Ramban (1194-1270) has two answers, depending on what one thinks the word sukkah in the verse means. Jewish tradition records two interpretations of the sukkah (Sifra, “Emor” 12):
רבי אליעזר אומר סוכות ממש היו, רבי עקיבא אומר בסוכות ענני כבוד היו.
Rabbi Eliezer says: “This means sukkot [huts] literally.” Rabbi Akiva says: “‘In sukkot’ means in [divine] clouds of glory.”
Spreading Out the Commemoration (Clouds)
Ramban first turns to the clouds explanation, which was advocated by Rashi (1040-1105) in his commentary on the Torah (ad loc.)
כי בסוכות הושבתי: ענני כבוד.
“I made the Israelites live in sukkot” – clouds of glory.
Ramban agrees with Rashi, quoting him and adding “And to me this is also the correct peshat[plain meaning of the verse] interpretation” (והוא הנכון בעיני על דרך הפשט). He then uses this comment as a springboard to a discussion of why, according to this understanding, Jews sit in a sukkah in the early fall:
והנה צוה בתחילת ימות החמה בזכרון יציאת מצרים בחדשו ובמועדו. וצוה בזכרון הנס הקיים הנעשה להם כל ימי עמידתם במדבר בתחלת ימות הגשמים.
Thus, He commanded that at the beginning of the summer season we are to remember the exodus from Egypt by [calling] that month [the first of the months], and by observing its festival [of Passover]. And He further commanded the remembrance at the beginning of the rainy season of the continuous miracle which was done for them throughout their stay in the wilderness.
In other words, Pesach commemorates an event that happened once, in the spring – God’s one-time miraculous intervention that freed us from Egypt; accordingly, we observe Pesach in the spring. Sukkot commemorates God’s ongoing miraculous care of the Jews in the wilderness. As such it could be commemorated at any time of year. Presumably, Ramban thinks we observe Sukkot six months after Pesach in order to spread our remembrances over both major seasons.
Only Necessary in the Cold Season (Huts)
Ramban continues with a different approach, based on the other position that sukkot in the verse means physical huts:
ועל דעת האומר סכות ממש עשו להם, החלו לעשותן בתחילת החרף מפני הקור כמנהג המחנות, ולכן צוה בהן בזמן הזה.
And according to the opinion of the Sage who says that they made themselves huts in the literal sense, [the Israelites in the wilderness] began to make sukkot [only] at the beginning of the winter, on account of the cold, as is customary in camps, and therefore, He commanded [that we also make] them at that time.
Ramban posits that the Israelites were able to sleep under the stars for the first six months after leaving Egypt. Only when it started to get cold did they need to build sukkot. Our commemoration reflects that timing.
Not to Look Like Recreational Huts (Rabbi Jacob ben Asher)
Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (c. 1269 – c. 1343), commonly known as Ba’al ha-Turim or “the Tur,” offered a different solution to this problem (OH 625), almost the opposite of what is suggested by Ramban:
והסוכות שאומר הכתוב שהושיבנו בהם הם ענני כבודו שהקיפן בהם לבל יכה בהם שרב ושמש ודוגמא לזה צונו לעשות סוכות כדי שנזכור נפלאותיו ונוראותיו
The sukkot that Scripture says God made us live in are the clouds of glory with which He surrounded them so that “hot wind and sun should not strike them.” In order to replicate this, He commanded us to make sukkot so that we remember His miraculous and awesome actions.
ואע”פ שיצאנו ממצרים בחדש ניסן לא צונו לעשות סוכה באותו הזמן לפי שהוא ימות הקיץ ודרך כל אדם לעשות סוכה לצל ולא היתה ניכרת עשייתנו בהם שהם במצות הבורא יתברך
Even though we left Egypt in the month of Nisan, God did not command us to make sukkot in that season since Nisan [comes at the beginning of] the warm months, when everyone makes a hut for shade. If we made sukkot then, it would not be obvious that we were building them in order to fulfil the will of God.
ולכן צוה אותנו שנעשה בחדש השביעי שהוא זמן הגשמים ודרך כל אדם לצאת מסוכתו ולישב בביתו ואנחנו יוצאין מן הבית לישב בסוכה בזה יראה לכל שמצות המלך היא עלינו לעשותה
That is why God commanded us to make sukkot in the seventh month, which is the rainy season, when most people would be leaving their hut and moving into their homes. But we [Jews do the opposite; at this time of year we] leave our homes and dwell in a sukkah in order to show everyone that we are fulfilling a royal [i.e. divine] commandment.
The Tur reflects here an assumption of some Jewish thinkers that a mitzvah should be something Jews do that makes them stand out as different from the gentiles. If this mitzvah is to be religiously significant, we should do it at a time of year when it would be unusual.
His comment about weather conditions is dubious when applied to the land of Israel. Rain is rare in Israel on Sukkot and the weather is generally quite warm, a pleasant time to sit in a sukkah. If anything, the sukkah is too hot in September/October in Israel, not too cold. The weather conditions in Germany where the Tur was born and spent his early years, may underlie his comment.
Even before Ramban and the Tur, Rashbam (c. 1180 – c. 1160) addressed the question of why the Torah commands dwelling in sukkot in the fall (Lev 23:43). His comment on this problem is uncharacteristically lengthy and repetitious.
Unlike the other interpretations we have seen, Rashbam begins by saying that “The peshat [the plain meaning of the verse] follows the opinion expressed in Tractate Sukkah that the word סוכה (“hut”) here should be understood literally” (פשוטו כדברי האומרים במסכת סוכה סוכה ממש). He continues:
וזה טעמו של דבר. חג הסוכות תעשה לך באוספך מגרנך ומיקבך באוספך את תבואת הארץ ובתיכם מלאים כל טוב דגן ותירוש ויצהר, למען תזכרו כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל במדבר ארבעים שנה בלא יישוב ובלא נחלה
This is the idea behind the text (Deut. 16:13): “You shall hold the Feast of Booths … after the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat.” [In other words,] when you gather the produce of your land and your houses are full of all good things, grain, wine and oil, [that is the appropriate time for you to celebrate Sukkot,] so that you will remember that “I made the Israelites live in booths” for forty years in the wilderness, without any settlements and without owning any land.
ומתוך כך תתנו הודאה למי שנתן לכם נחלה ובתיכם מלאים כל טוב, ואל תאמרו בלבבכם כחי ועוצם ידי עשה לי את החיל הזה.
As a result of [contemplating] this, you will give thanks to the One who allows you to own your land and your houses which are filled with all good things. And do not “say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me’.”
Rashbam here is paraphrasing or alluding to verses (Deut 8:17, 32:15) which express a theme found throughout Deuteronomy, that Israelites must be wary of their success, or else it will lead to abandoning God. Instead, they should remember that their success comes directly from God. As such, Rashbam continues by quoting one of these passages:
וכסדר הזה נמצא בפרשת עקב תשמעון וזכרת את כל הדרך אשר הוליכך י”י אלהיך זה ארבעים שנה וגו’ ויאכילך את המן וגו’. ולמה אני מצוה לך לעשות זאת? כי י”י אלהיך מביאך אל ארץ טובה [וגו’] ואכלת ושבעת [וגו’] ורם לבבך ושכחת את י”י וגו’ ואמרת בלבבך כחי ועצם ידי עשה לי את החיל הזה וזכרת את י”י אלהיך כי הוא הנותן לך כח לעשות חיל.
This same progression [of thoughts] may be found in the verses (Deut. 8:2–18) in the Torah portion, ‘Eqev tishme‘un: “Remember the long way that the LORD your God made you travel [in the wilderness] for forty years … giving you manna to eat ….” And why am I commanding you [to remember] that? “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land … [and,] when you have eaten your full, [perhaps] your heart will grow haughty and you will forget the LORD … and you will say to yourself, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ [Rather] remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to get wealth.”
Thus, Rashbam reads the reminder about huts in the wilderness not as a positive memory but as a humbling reminder of what it was like to live with nothing:
ולכך יוצאים מבתים מלאים כל טוב בזמן אסיפה ויושבין בסוכות לזכרון שלא היה להם נחלה במדבר ולא בתים לשבת. ומפני הטעם הזה קבע הק’ את חג הסוכות בזמן אסיפת גורן ויקב, לבלתי רום לבבם על בתיהם מלאים כל טוב פן יאמרו ידינו עשו לנו את החיל הזה:
That is why at harvest time they [= the Jews] are to leave [their] houses that are full of all good things and live in huts, so that they will remember that in the wilderness they had no land [which they owned] and no houses in which to live. It is for that reason that God set the holiday of Sukkot at the time of the harvest of the threshing floor and the vat, so that their hearts will not grow haughty about their houses that are full of all good things, lest they say “Our own hands have won this wealth for us.”
Rashbam finds a creative way to combine the agricultural and historical explanations of the holiday. The harvest holiday of Sukkot comes at the time of year when ancient Israelite farmers would have been in their best financial position, with houses full of produce. Jews accordingly move into a sukkah on this holiday as a corrective, Rashbam suggests. They must, especially then, remember their humble origins so they do not become overconfident.
Why Is the אזרח “Citizen” Emphasized?
Rashbam’s reading here connects to another point he makes about a unique aspect of the description of Sukkot in Leviticus 23:42, where the Torah commands:
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.
The words אזרח and גר are consistently paired in the Torah. For example:
ויקרא יט:לד כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
Lev 19:34 The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The verse requiring Israelites to dwell in the sukkah is the only passage in the Torah in which the word אזרח appears without גר. Why would the Torah obligate an אזרח, a citizen, but not a גר only for this one law, sitting in a sukkah?
Historical-critical scholars, who understand that the גר of the Torah is a non-Israelite resident, could perhaps claim that non-Israelite strangers living in Israel are only obligated to avoid violating prohibitions such as work on Shabbat, eating/drinking on Yom Kippur, or consuming leaven on the Matzot festival. In contrast, they would not be obligated to perform a positive mitzvah like living in a sukkah on Sukkot.
Does a Convert (Ger) not Sit in a Sukkah?
However, according to the commentators within the rabbinic tradition who interpret גר as convert, what could be the logic of saying that an אזרח, a Jew from birth, has to live in a sukkah, without mentioning the convert? None of the rabbinic commentators would dream of exempting a convert from the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah. So what do they then do with the verse?
Following earlier midrashic traditions, Rashi eliminates this problem as follows:
האזרח – זה אזרח: בישראל – לרבות את הגרים:
“Citizen” – this means a citizen. “In Israel” [this redundant word teaches us that] converts (גרים) are included [in the requirement to live in a sukkah].
His explanation is far from the plain meaning of the phrase. Unsurprisingly, his younger contemporary, Rabbi Yosef Qara (1065-1135), has a different explanation:
כל האזרח בישר[אל] וגו’ – אפי[לו] אזרחיים שיש להם בתים, ישבו בסוכות – ויצאו מביתם, כל שכן גרים שאין להם בית וחלק בארץ.
“All of the citizens in Israel, etc.” – even those who have their own houses, “shall live in booths,” and they shall leave their houses. This is all the more so true for strangers who have no houses or ownership on the land.
This is also the explanation preferred by Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson:
"כל האזרח" אפילו אותם שיש להם בתים "ישבו בסוכות".
“All of the citizens [in Israel]” – even those who have their own houses, “shall live in booths.”
This point is expanded upon by Rashbam’s younger contemporary, Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor:
אפילו האזרחים מיושבים בישראל, שיש להם בתים ופלטין גדולים, ישבו בסכות.
Even the citizens who are settled and who own homes or [even] large palaces should dwell in a sukkah.
Although this explanation originates with Qara, Rashbam is almost certainly connecting this reading with his unique understanding of Sukkot as a corrective. Consequently, in Rashbam’s understanding, the Torah stresses that the אזרח, the citizen, who is presumably more privileged and therefore more subject to the self-satisfaction that comes with land ownership and wealth, is obligated to live in a sukkah. Since the wealthy אזרח might consider himself too important to be living in a hut, the Torah emphasizes specifically his need to be there.
Remembering Our Humble Origins
Rashbam’s novel understanding of the ritual, that connects Sukkot’s historical and agricultural rationales and solves the problem of the word אזרח, leaves us with an inspiring message: financial success should not lead Jews to abandon the Torah. We must always remember our humble origins and realize that our successes are attributable to God.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 21, 2018
June 20, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
Essays on Related Topics: