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Judaism: Sukkot Thoughts: I Don't Understand Our People

Thoughts on the demands of the Sukkot Festival, the Four Species used on the holiday and the processions that take place during the holiday.
Published: Sunday, September 15, 2013 9:58 PM


Jews are strange. They complain it is hard to be Jewish. They ask for Judaism to be made easier. They give themselves dispensations. Yet the two days they observe most are the hardest – Pesach and Yom Kippur. Both make great demands, but both have a firm hold on the Jewish people.

Sukkot, by comparison, is observed by much smaller numbers. How many families build a sukkah? More than previously, but still only a minority. How many buy or at least use the lulav and etrog? A larger minority, but a minority. Yet Sukkot is z’man simchatenu, “our festival of joy”, and is much less demanding on the body and soul than are Pesach and Yom Kippur.

Someone ought to start a campaign on behalf of Sukkot. In the days of the sages it was he-chag, the festival; Yom Kippur was yoma, the day. So why does Sukkot lose out in comparison to Yom Kippur?

Perhaps because people are tired after the Days of Awe. Perhaps because Yom Kippur is familiar territory whilst many have never really experienced Sukkot.

But we need both days. Yom Kippur says it is possible to override the needs of the body for the sake of the soul; Sukkot asserts it is possible to serve the soul through the body.

Yom Kippur preaches service through awe, Sukkot service through joy.

Yom Kippur without Sukkot does not give a full picture.


FACING A CHALLENGE


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Once upon a time I was a youth work professional in Britain. I visited and tried to help Jewish youth clubs up and down the United Kingdom. Among my tasks was to initiate Jewish programming. One year I thought of an inter-club sukkah building competition.

One entry came from a club that had its own premises, but though it erected a fine sukkah its entry did not and could not win because the sukkah was indoors, inside the club building, under the club roof and not under the sky as the halakhah requires.

I was told quite disarmingly that this was in order to save the sukkah from getting wet if it rained or being blown about in strong wind. Ingenious – but unacceptable as a sukkah.

This led me to offer a homily that life is like a sukkah, and human beings have to learn to stand up for themselves and face the buffeting of rain, wind and misfortune.

The reality of life is that you can’t be like Jonah and hide away from challenge.


WIND IN THE WILLOWS


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There are debates as to the exact identity of some of the Four Species which we use on Sukkot, for instance the “bough of a leafy tree”, which Jewish tradition identifies with the hadas or myrtle. Like others of the Four Species, it is said to have benefits for one’s health: a person who drinks tea made from hadas leaves is said to have a greater likelihood of long life.

There is no debate about what is meant by the willows or aravot. In Israel they grow along the streams and are easy to obtain, though in the Diaspora they sometimes need to be imported at considerable cost. The willows have a number of additional properties, including a medicinal use. They are said to be a good way of treating fever.

Some element in the willow leaves can combine with stomach acids to produce aspirin, so not only does the willow tree have a religious and symbolic role, but can be said to be good for you.


PROCESSIONS 

 
Religious processions abound on Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah, Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. They began with the Temple processions around the altar with the Four Species of plants.

Over the centuries the processions – especially on Simchat Torah – varied from a stately, sombre shuffle to an ecstatic movement of spiritual passion. To some extent this echoed the range of countries and cultures where Jews lived. Central Europe was known for orderliness, Eastern Europe for wilder abandon.

Recent decades have seen a greater preference for the Eastern European brand of Judaism, though we make a mistake if we denigrate what Central Europe contributed to Jewish history. Actually – as Milton Himmelfarb points out – it was from German-speaking Jewry that more or less every modern Jewish movement emanated.

Even Hassidism, which has had such a revival in recent decades, though it began in Poland, only gained popularity because a Central European thinker, Martin Buber, transmitted the tales of the Hassidic Masters to the Jewish and general world.