A Sukkot feature

September 20, 2018 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple discusses Sukkot.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

HOUSEY-HOUSEY

There once was a game called Housey-Housey. Regardless of the way the game works, Sukkot is a “housey housey” occasion.

It’s about the house we emerge from – and the house we enter.

During the rest of the year we mostly reside in comfortable homes, secure from the rain and the elements. On Sukkot we have frail huts. If the weather is nice everything is fun. If not, the sukkah gets buffeted by the wind and rain and if necessary we have to escape and go back into the house.

Together with all the many rules and regulations about the sukkah there is also a philosophical and ethical aspect.

We are guilty of self-delusion if we think that everyone has a house with firm walls and a dry roof, that everyone has a life of comfort and ease. Most of the world’s population have poor homes or none at all. It’s because of them that we have the festival of Sukkot.

The festival is called in Hebrew “z’man simchatenu”, “our time of joy”. Maybe the phrase is a euphemism because Sukkot makes us experience hardship and deprivation.

After the yom-tov we can go back to our houses; but what about those who are without houses? Our task is to make sure that all human beings have the blessing of a home.

It can’t be a time of joy for us if others are suffering.

THE TWO COMMUNITIES

A Midrashic interpretation of the Four Species which we take on Sukkot says that each of the four represents a human type and only if all types and opinions are held together do we have a community.

A nice thought but some people turn it into a slogan. They say, “That’s unity: all are equal and everyone is entitled to their own point of view – from the most orthodox to the most unorthodox”.

That’s a misunderstanding of the Midrash. There are two types of community, as Rav Soloveitchik says – the community of faith, and the community of fate.

In the community of faith all are believers and accept the authority of the Word of God. Those who deny these elements cannot be members of the faith community.

In the fate community everyone is obligated to the well-being of Jewish peoplehood

THE ETROG SURCHARGE

Compared to the Diaspora, Israel sells etrogim quite cheaply. Historically, the Diaspora found acquiring etrogim one of its biggest challenges.

In the Western Synagogue in London, from 1809 there was a sixpence in the pound (5%) surcharge on seat rentals as Etrog-money. This tax enabled congregants to possess etrogim – not one etrog per member, but four for the whole congregation.

Each etrog cost two guineas – two pounds two shillings – a huge sum in those days.

Anglo-Jewry found a cheaper source of supply within a few years since the town of Penzance budgeted for one guinea per etrog plus transport costs.

Growing your own etrogim was a real challenge if the climate and the season were wrong. Very few people succeeded.

I recall that someone in Portsmouth in England claimed to have produced the fruit in time for Sukkot. In distant Melbourne, Australia, I believe that Dr Samuel Billigheimer and Rabbi Isaac Jacob Super succeeded.

In most countries the festival citron had to be imported. The right to deal in etrogim was a treasured monopoly; some rulers such as the Empress Maria Theresa of Bohemia taxed the Jews for the right to import lulavim and etrogim.

In the late Second Temple era King Alexander Yannai – a Sadducee supporter – contemptuously poured the water libation on the ground and the populace pelted him with their etrogim, leading to a civil (or uncivil) war.

Rabbi Akiva claimed to have a large etrog which he could hardly lift!

A Jewish delegation Jews were on a ship to Rome during Sukkot and they built a sukkah on deck and though they had only one set of Four Species, each rabbi presented it to the other so that everyone could fulfil the mitzvah with their own property.

KOHELET – SCEPTIC & BELIEVER

The end of Sukkot is associated with the Megillah of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes).

The title “Kohelet” derives from a verb which means “to gather an assembly”.

Why Kohelet is the name of a Biblical book is explained in various ways.

Some take it to mean a preacher in a congregation, others a convenor of a congregation for the purpose of hearing instruction, a gatherer of wisdom and even (connecting the work with an Arabic root) a sage old man.

The word is feminine, perhaps as a personification of “wisdom” (“chochmah”, a feminine word).

There was prolonged debate before this book was accepted into the Biblical canon. It was argued that the book contradicted itself, its contents were not Divine but human wisdom, and it had heretical tendencies.

Finally it was accepted into the Bible, though some argue that the stamp of orthodoxy required a pious epilogue such as Chapter 12 verse 13: “The end of the matter, all having been heard: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man”.

As Driver puts it, the theme of the book is that: “Life under all its aspects is dissatisfying and disappointing: the best that can be done with it is to enjoy – not indeed in excess, but in a wise and well-considered moderation, and as a gift intended by God to be enjoyed – such pleasures as it brings with it.”

Yet the book does not offer a systematic or consistent philosophy. LV Snowman said, “The preacher was a pessimist, a sceptic, and a believer all in one”.

Instead of setting out an organised theory of life, Kohelet documented, as it were, his varying reactions to the differing experiences he had undergone.

In Jewish tradition, it was Solomon who wrote Kohelet. Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) was the product of his springtime youth, Mishlei (Proverbs) of his mature adulthood, and Kohelet of his rather cynical old age.

Victor Reichert calls the theory of Solomonic authorship a thin disguise, possibly designed to save the book from exclusion from the Bible.

AJ Grieve suggests that: “As the book most akin to it, Job, discusses a perplexing moral problem in the person of a hero of antiquity, so here Solomon is taken as the type of a wise man who had thoroughly explored all human experience”.

Robert Gordis argues that Solomonic authorship is not a figment of folk imagination, since the creative activity of Wisdom teachers had its first flowering in Solomon’s reign

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

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