Daily Israel Report

Judaism: All About Sukkot

The Sukkah, the Simchat Bet HaSho'evah, the Four Species Hoshana Rabba--what are they all about? Nature, Ego, Tolerance, Tikkun Olam and the Messiah. Read on.
Published: Tuesday, October 11, 2011 12:21 PM


A Taste of Nature

The sukkah is a boon to city dwellers. So many of our streets are concrete jungles, so many houses are brick building-blocks, so many flats are anonymous pigeon-holes.

Having a sukkah makes sure that once in a while we encounter a bit of fresh air and greenery. Even if it’s only for eight days we can get a taste of nature.

Nonetheless, in the cramped conditions of urban living we don’t all have our own sukkah, so we try to make do by being invited to someone else’s or spend time in the synagogue sukkah.

Up until recent times city dwelling was rather rare. The Bible makes a special point of Cain building a city (Gen. 4:17) and it appears that the only Biblical city with real status was Jerusalem, though in modern terms ancient Jerusalem was not much more than a village.

For centuries – in Europe and elsewhere – most people lived outside the cities: up till about 200 years ago no more than one person in 50 lived in a city.

So it’s only quite recently that the sukkah was desperately needed as a fleeting contact with nature, though its religious status was always axiomatic.

But a principle was established in the Bible that even if one did live in a city it had to be surrounded by green areas: we learn this from Rashi’s interpretation of the laws governing the cities of refuge, and from a Talmudic teaching that cities must have gardens.

We see from these provisions that built-up areas must have adequate open space, not just because it’s good for people’s spirits (Saul Bellow wrote, “There haven’t been civilisations without cities, but what about cities without civilisations?”) but because it leaves a healthy environment for the generation of the future.

Egotism
At the festival of water-drawing, Simchat Bet HaSho’evah, one of the Sukkot celebrations in ancient days, Hillel is reported as saying, Im ani kan hakkol kan – "If I am here, everyone is here!” (Sukk. 53a).

Isn’t it strange to hear such an egotistical statement from a man whom we believe to be humble and modest?

If you take the statement in isolation, it links up with his saying in Pir’kei Avot, Im ein ani li mi li – "If I am not for myself, who is for me?” (Avot 1:14). The implication seems to be, “I can’t always worry about other people: I have enough to do to worry about myself”.

However, it is possible that the Ani he is talking about is not himself but God. There are times when Ani refers to the Almighty, so what Hillel might be saying is, “If Ani is here, what more can one want?”

 The water-drawing was a physical event involving physical people and physical things like water jugs and buckets. But such was the exhilaration of the moment that it was a foretaste of the Chassidic ecstasy in the presence of God, when no-one and nothing else really existed.

Without God, the event would fall flat because it would become pedestrian and humdrum.

The Long and the Short and the Tall
Arba-minim-Leopold-Pilichowski-1894-150x150.jpg
Leopold Pilichowski's depiction of the four species on Sukkot
“Bless ‘em all, bless ‘em all, the long and the short and the tall” – a song that everyone in wartime England sang with great pride in the defenders of the Mother Country and its Empire.

I wouldn’t have wanted to spoil it for the much-tried people of England, but their song had a Jewish precedent dating back to the Bible.

Jews recited a b’rachah and sang praises of the Creator who ordained a Sukkot assemblage of plants (the lulav, the etrog, the hadassim and the aravot) which in their own way were the long, the short and the tall.

The midrashic sages invested the moment with a beautiful lesson about human unity.

If the shorties were shunned there would be no community. If the tall were ethnically cleansed there would also be no community. None of this modern tendency to downgrade, dehumanise or delegitimise other people or other groups in society.

So what if someone is taller than me? If you have a problem with tall people, the rabbinic teachers used to say, go and complain to God who made them that way. If you have a problem with short people or you use phrases like the “small man syndrome”, take it up with God. 

Hoshana Rabba - What is it About?

It’s the unknown quantity of the Jewish calendar as far as most Jews are concerned. It brings no massive crowds to the synagogue and indeed hardly anybody has ever even heard of it. It always falls on a weekday and no-one has time to savour its ceremonial and liturgical poetry. It is a solemn day with almost a Yom Kippur spirit and yet it is part of the joyous festival of Sukkot.

This is Hoshana Rabba, the seventh day of Sukkot. You know it is Sukkot because we sit in the sukkah, there is Hallel with lulav and etrog, and there is a circuit of the synagogue with worshippers holding lulav and etrog in their hands.

But many of the prayers are solemn, the melodies recall Yom Kippur, and it is seen as a day for repentance.

The name Hoshana Rabba is not Biblical; Num. 29:32 refers simply to “the 7th day”. Hoshana Rabba means either “the great Hoshana“; hoshana is a prayer for salvation, based on two words, hosha na, “please save”.

The term hoshana is also applied to the bundles of willow twigs which are beaten until the leaves fall off; an early name for the festival was yom sh’vi’i shel aravah – “the 7th day of the willow”.

The link with willows is suggested by the prayers for rain said on Sukkot. Willows need adequate water, and according to the Mishnah this is the time of year when the Almighty decides whether the coming year will have enough rain.

There is a belief that God told Abraham that if his descendants are not forgiven on Rosh HaShanah, they will be forgiven on Yom Kippur; if they are not forgiven on Yom Kippur they will be forgiven on Hoshana Rabba.

This makes the 7th day of Sukkot our final chance of forgiveness during the month of Tishri. The Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 4:8) commenting on Isa. 58:2 (“They seek Me day by day”), says there are two days when people seek God – Rosh HaShanah and Hoshana Rabba.

A more nationalistic Midrash says that the people of Israel and the nations of the world both claim that their own principles are superior, but when on Hoshana Rabbah the cantor holds the Torah scroll aloft and the congregation surround him, the angels joyously proclaim, “The Children of Israel have prevailed! The Children of Israel have prevailed!”

There was a folk belief that on Hoshana Rabbah there is no shadow to the head of a person who is going to die during that year, and hence some people used to check their shadow that night to see whether it is still normal size.

A more rationalistic belief is that Hoshana Rabbah is the messianic dimension of Sukkot. There is even a tradition that on this day we can actually hear the messianic footsteps.

Thus when we put aside the lulav and etrog and take up the willow twigs and beat them, we echo the words, kol m’vasser v’omer – “A voice brings tidings and proclaims”. The tidings are those of the Song of Songs 2:8, Kol dodi hineh zeh ba, “The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes!”

Making Hoshana Rabba a solemn day of forgiveness was therefore the rabbis’ way of teaching us that the tikkun olam, the “mending of the world” that is part of messianism, has to begin with a personal act of spiritual mending.