And now it’s time for Sukkot

October 13, 2016 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple explains Sukkot…

“THE” FESTIVAL

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbinic works place Sukkot on a pedestal. They don’t call it “a” but “the” festival – “he-chag”, adopting a phrase from I Kings 8:2.

One reason is that whilst the Torah commands us to rejoice (Deut. 16:15) it was not until the extreme joy of Sukkot in Second Temple times that there arose a saying that whoever has never seen the Sukkot celebrations has never experienced real joy.

Perhaps the supreme joy of Sukkot derives from the fact that it falls just after the holiness of Yom Kippur, and the Kotzker Rebbe used to say, “Joyfulness is the outcome of holiness”.

Another possibility is that this festival stresses universal peace, in contrast to Pesach, which stands for freedom, and Shavu’ot, the symbol of moral law.

In time to come, the redemption of the whole of mankind will be symbolised by every nation and individual assembling under the sukkah of peace. This ultimate aspiration gives Sukkot a unique purpose and flavor.

From the psychological point of view, the sukkah represents the frailty of life but also the certainty of God’s protection, which is the greatest lesson of faith.

SUKKOT HOSPITALITY

Each night of Sukkot we symbolically invite an ancient ancestor to sit in the sukkah with us.

The Aramaic phrase for the guests is “Ushpizin”, deriving from the same root as the word “hospitality”.

There is a Talmudic discussion (Sukkah 27b) about the status of a sukkah guest. Is it my sukkah in which the guest is sitting, or is he or she regarded as a partner so that in some sense it is his or her sukkah at that moment?

Rabbi Eliezer says, “Just as a person does not fulfil his obligation on the first day of the festival by using someone else’s lulav and etrog but must have his own (Lev. 23:40), so too one must have a sukkah of his own”.

The sages disagree and say that a sukkah belongs to all Jews and therefore whoever eats in my sukkah is regarded as being in his own sukkah, though a stolen sukkah is not permissible.

The moral is that not only should one look for a Biblical ancestor but any guest who sits and eats in your sukkah is regarded as at home there, and so if you give hospitality during the festival you are giving added joy to both yourself and the other person.

ETROG COMPOTE

None of the “arba’ah minim”, the four species of plants used on Sukkot, is named in the Torah, except for the aravah, the willow.

The lulav is called “branches of palm trees”, the hadas (myrtle) is identified as “boughs of thick trees”, and the etrog is termed “fruit of a goodly tree”.

The rabbis worked out what trees the Torah had in mind, and Maimonides sees the age-old use of the etrog as evidence for the unbroken oral tradition in Jewish law.

The etrog is still expensive, especially outside of Israel. But even in Israel, etrogim are far from two-a-penny. The care that goes into purchasing the etrog is a colourful feature of Israeli life at this season.

In olden days, the etrog was a major symbol of Judaism; in Second Temple times it was used on coins and burial places and in symbols ass a symbol rivaling the menorah.

It even became a weapon of war; on one occasion, the priest-king Alexander Yannai scandalised the congregation by pouring the water of libation not on the altar but on the ground, and the people pelted him with their etrogim!

In folklore, a person who dreamed of an etrog was thought to be precious to God. A pregnant woman who bit into the pitom of an etrog was sure of an easy birth.

All this is quaint, but it shows how much store we set on symbols in Judaism. A way of life without symbols lacks poetry, colour and inspiration.

Fortunately, today’s Jewish world has rediscovered symbolism as a powerful means of religious and ethnic expression.

GETTING THE HEBREW RIGHT

Idiomatic language often takes no account of grammar.

An example is the Four Species on Sukkot, colloquially called “Arba Minim” even though correct grammar would require “Arba’ah Minim”.

Another example is “Arba Kanfot” (the fringed garment of four corners). Technically it should be “Arba K’nafot” (in Anglo-Jewish slang it used to be called “Tzitzakanfos”, a confused melee of several Biblical words).

Plurals are often mixed up, e.g. (in Ashkenazi Hebrew), “Shabbosim” for “Shabbatot” and “Talleisim” for “Tallitot” or “Taliot”.

Masculine and feminine are mixed up when referring to a deceased female as “Alav HaShalom”, “On him be peace” (in Ashkenazi Hebrew, “Olov HaSholom”) when it should be “Aleha HaShalom” or “Oleho HaSholom”.

And of course there is the renaming of every deceased person as “Oliver” (from the Ashkenazi phrase “Olov HaSholom”).

Many English speakers cannot say a “ch” (as in Loch) so the burial society (“Chevra Kadisha”) becomes “Shevra Kadisha” and Chanukah becomes “Konica” like the camera…

DO IT YOURSELF

An essential requirement in constructing the sukkah is “ta’aseh v’lo min he’asuy” – you must make it yourself and not merely utilise what is already there.

Thus if a sukkah made last year still has its s’chach, its roof-covering of greenery, intact and usable, it sounds wonderful but it is not a kosher sukkah.

Only if one makes the effort to replace or at least re-arrange the s’chach will it be kosher. One must inject personal effort into the mitzvah.

There is a wider significance, a higher symbolism in this law.

Like last year’s s’chach, the Jewish heritage is something derived from the past, an inheritance from our ancestors.

It is good to be proud of the past, but that can never be enough. Jewish survival depends on “ta’aseh v’lo min he’asuy”, on personally involving oneself in Jewish life and strengthening and enhancing the tradition.

Remain content with memories of the past, and you imperil everything. “Ta’aseh”, live as a Jew, making your own effort, and Sukkot will be “chag same’ach” and Judaism “ach same’ach”, safe, joyful and forward-looking.

Rabbi Raymond 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.

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