A different kind of festival

September 22, 2021 by Jeremy Rosen
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The ancient festival of Sukkot has three elements to it. There is the Sukah itself, the Arba’ah Minim, the Four Plants, Geshem, the prayers for rain and Simchah, the command to celebrate and be happy, and added later, the rejoicing over the Torah.

Jeremy Rosen

To start with the Sukkah. We value our homes and the security of our little palaces, yet for the festival of Sukkot at this time of the year, we are busy putting up temporary accommodation in which we are expected to eat, sleep, and live for a week just as the weather in the Northern Hemisphere begins to turn cold and wet.

All of this because some three and a half thousand years ago, our forefathers lived in the Sinai Desert, and used temporary huts for shade according to one version. In another version, it symbolizes the protection God extended over us then and continues to do so now. It is an example of the dichotomy between religion as a functional system as well as a spiritual one. This is an example of a religious obligation that emphasizes the home and family as much as the sanctuary.

The Sukkah started life as a simple watchman’s outpost in the fields during harvest time to guard the crops against humans and animals. What was once a rickety shack or hut thrown together with a canopy of branches and leaves, has now been transformed by affluence into a luxurious prefabricated enclosure often with electronically operated retractable roofs that respond to a drop of rain. And as the structures have grown sturdier, so too has the plethora of detailed laws and refinements.

It is not just the Sukkah that has been transformed. We now pay astronomical sums for lemon-like Etrog, a palm branch, willows, and but sweet-smelling myrtle leaves that we shake at home and in our synagogues at pre-determined moments in the day.

Ever since the Babylonian Exile, there was a split between Jews who refused to interpret and modify Torah law to suit different circumstances and those who stuck relentlessly to the literality of the text. First the Samaritans, then the Sadducees, and after them the Karaites. The literalists agreed to build huts for the festival. But they understood the text of the Torah that talks about the Four Plants, to mean that they were supposed to make up the roof, the Schach of the Sukkah, not to be taken separately to be shaken in the Temple or Synagogue. And to this day that is what they do.

Then there is a layer of custom, initiated by the prophets associated with rain on the festival. Simchat Beit HaShoeva, started as a procession around the Well House in the Temple asking for the rains to come. And then expanded into nightly celebrations in Jerusalem. It continues to this day with lively dancing and singing each night in orthodox enclaves during the intermediary days of Sukkot.  The sixth day Hoshana Rabba, the last intermediary day, still focuses on rain. We beat willow branches as if to squeeze out the last drop of precious liquid from them. Nowadays the world at large is so preoccupied with rain, nature, and climate. Yet this has been part of Judaism for eons.

On the last day, there is a separate festival to round it all off. Shmini Atzeret The gathering of the Eighth Day, which in Israel combines with Simchat Torah to celebrate the completion of the annual cycle of reading the Torah. In the Diaspora it is the following day. We sing, we dance, and make merry over our holy text. What a world away from going out to a club or a concert.

It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like. Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims from all over the Jewish diaspora celebrating together for eight days before having to trek back to Afghanistan or Spain. We have always been moving, we Jews. Yet Jerusalem always remained our focal point.

Over the years the festival of Sukkot has gathered new facets, new customs, and significances. Little stays still in Judaism, though many people seem to think otherwise. It is just that change develops in a slow, conservative process of consensus as well as local custom. Change must find its sources within the broad framework of the constitution of Judaism, the Torah in its written and oral forms.

Our customs and laws give us a framework for creating a different life pattern to the dominant cultures and religions we live amongst, surrounded as we are by pressures of work and materialism that can often become overpowering and destructive. They emphasize the importance of self-reflection and self-analysis. They invite us to experience different emotions and different feelings.

Having an alternative narrative offers a contrast. Jewish practice enables us to have the best of both worlds, the secular and the religious and take a step back from society, to think differently.

Like Sukkot itself, our rituals remind us of the changing seasons and times and bring us into contact with touches, smells, and experiences that we normally take for granted. They emphasize the natural world (and our obligations to be caring custodians) as well as the spiritual. They meet our need to put ourselves in situations where we might sense things of a more ethereal nature. Above all, they interlink social morality and responsibility with daily rituals, so that we are constantly reminded of our values and goals.

The fact that some humans are impervious in their abandonment of these traditions or that others refuse to link ritual to the greater values does not detract from their purpose or from the benefits that such a system offers for those who want to take it seriously. Even if many people reduce these laws to utilitarian placebos and lose both the beauty and the greater significance in the process.

It is this loyalty to our traditions that have helped us survive both as a people and a way of life.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.


One Response to “A different kind of festival”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    This is a lovely and important article. Thank you, Rabbi Rosen.

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