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Tanakh, Book of Leviticus, Chapter 23, verses 39–43

Verse from Leviticus commanding celebration of Sukkot

Unknown.
originally written around 450 BCE; translated in 1985
Book

Unknown. Leviticus 23:39–43, New Jewish Publication Society of America Tanakh (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, translated 1985); originally written around 450 BCE.

Sukkot (which means “the Huts” in ancient Hebrew) was originally another harvest celebration in the fall at the very end of the harvest season. All of the ancient Hebrew land (and the Fertile Crescent) is in the Mediterranean climate zone, just like most of western California. In the Mediterranean zone, the climate is dry and hot in summer and rainy but fairly warm in winter. Rain only falls in the winter and early spring, and droughts are common. Agriculture is totally dependent on good rainfall. Besides wheat and barley, the Hebrews grew figs, legumes (peas and beans), grapes, and olives — crops that also grow well in California. Four special plants are very important to this holiday: date palm, myrtle, willow, and citron. The booths were also supposed to remind the Jews of the shelters they had lived in while they wandered in the desert for 40 years. Why were they wandering without a homeland? In what Jewish month is Sukkot? Is the origin of Sukkot connected to the environment, the history of the Hebrews, or interactions with other people?

 

Vocabulary

Mark: a command meaning “Do this!”

the yield of your land: the harvest

the product of hadar trees: fruits called citron, which are like large lumpy lemons

boughs: branches; other translations put “myrtle branches” here

booths: tiny huts with three walls and a roof; in Hebrew, sukkah (sukkot is the plural)

 

Ancient Customs: Just like Shavuot, Sukkot was originally a harvest festival. Perhaps the huts were first built because it was convenient for farmers to stay in the fields during the busy harvest time. Sukkot was the longest and most joyful festival because it was celebrated after all the crops had been harvested, and the ancient Hebrews then had a secure food supply for the year. Later, as the priests and political leaders were developing the religion, they gave a religious meaning to the holiday by connecting the booths to the shelters the Hebrews had used as wanderers. That gave them another reason to be grateful to God, who ended their wandering by giving them a homeland where they still lived. As on Passover and Shavuot, the Israelites made a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem and offered some of their crops to be sacrificed. 


Modern Customs: Since 70 CE when the Second Temple was destroyed, most Jews have not lived in the land of Israel/Canaan/Judea/Palestine. Most Jews today are not farmers. But the modern customs of Sukkot preserve the agricultural meaning of the holiday. An important element of the holiday rituals are the four species of plants native to the land of Israel palm, myrtle, willow, and citron. People tie the four species together and wave them in a special ceremony each day of the Sukkot holiday except the Sabbath. In preparation for the holiday, a family builds a special booth called a sukkah (sukkot is the plural) that is decorated with artwork and hanging of the four species. Observant Jews to this day build little huts outdoors just for this holiday to remember their ancestors. Then they eat all their meals inside of the sukkah!

Sukkot, also called the Festival of Tabernacles and the Festival of Ingathering, is the third of the major biblically mandated festivals that required a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple during the Temple period (that is, before 70 CE). Most likely, it started as an agricultural feast, somewhat similar to the American Thanksgiving. With the development of the religious agenda, Sukkot — as with the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Passover) and Shavuot — was given a special Jewish meaning. The special booths or huts that Jews were commanded to build were supposed to remind the people of the huts the Israelites lived in during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus.

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….
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 the
LORD your God seven days….
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.