The 70 bulls of Sukkot

Do the 70 bulls symbolize punishment or protection?

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Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

he 70 Bulls of Sukkot

During the seven days of Sukkot, when there is a Beit Ha-Mikdash (Holy Temple), a total of 70 bulls are offered as korbonos (sacrifices). (Bamidbar/Numbers 29:13-32) Rashi (on v. 18 ibid.), invoking the Midrash, explains that these bulls are offered in descending number over the course of Sukkot in order to signify the future diminution and downfall of the 70 nations of the world. Rashi adds, based on the Gemara (Sukkah 55b), that during the time of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the Sukkot korbonot of 70 bulls would serve to protect these nations.          

These two concepts – that the 70 bulls of Sukkot represent the diminution and downfall of the 70 nations, and that the 70 bulls also protect the 70 nations – appear to be quite contradictory. Do the 70 bulls symbolize punishment or protection? How can they symbolize both? Furthermore, what does the downfall or protection of the 70 nations have to do with Sukkot?

We experience Sukkot as the Yom Tov (Festival) of nature. We sit in outdoor huts, roofed with foliage; we wave the Arba’ah Minim (Four Species), portraying various components of the world of flora; we are enveloped by these mitzvot of nature at the climax of nature’s annual cycle.

Nature can be beheld in two ways. One way is to accept and evaluate nature at face value; this is the approach of Naturalism, which presumes nature to be the sum factor of disparate sets of calculations and random objects. Another way is that of Avraham Avinu (Abraham, our Father), who, as the Rambam (Maimonides) describes, realized that nature is the incredible handiwork of a Singular Creator, and that nature is how the Creator is revealed to us on a regular basis. The wondrous and ultra-complex mechanisms of nature, which scientists cannot replicate; the purposefully planned and harmonized functions and cycles of nature, which attest to grand purpose and stunning intelligence; the unparalleled and resplendent beauty of nature, which inspires and bedazzles mankind to no end – these are the fingerprints of nature’s Master Creator. Avrohom Avinu realized this truth and acted upon it in his quest to draw close to God, while others remained oblivious.

Sukkot is the time when we confront nature through its mitzvos and we proceed go to beyond it, being invited into the realm of the Shechinah(Divine Presence), as God tells us that once we perceive Him through nature, we can go much further and enter the inner sanctums to be in His Presence. This is why the sukkah symbolizes the Beit Ha-Mikdash in our liturgy, for on Sukkot, we are invited to go deep and closer and to experience Hashem more intimately. This is likewise why the Simchat BeitHa-Sho’eivah in the Beit Ha-Mikdash is referred to as the occasion when the Divine Presence would be drawn forth (“sho’avin”), as we go beyond the natural and unrevealed realm of holiness to encounter the revealed Shechinah.

Based on this, we can better understand the Gemara (Sukkah 37b) which describes waving the Arba’ah Minim in all four directions and up and down as testament to “Him to Whom the four winds belong… and Him to Whom are the heavens and the earth", or as a supplication “to prevent bad winds and… to prevent bad precipitation”. The idea is that on Sukkot, we peer more profoundly into and beyond nature and relate through nature to its Master, viewing nature as a manifestation of His involvement and immanence. We are welcomed behind the veil of nature, where we meet its Master Controller.

This concept resolves the apparent paradox of the 70 bulls of Sukkos symbolizing both punishment as well as protection for the 70 nations. Unless one pursues the path of Avraham Avinu, the norm is to take nature at face value. This position is wrong and invites rebuke. However, by sacrificing the 70 bulls in the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the protection of Shechinah is brought into the world, for the Beit Ha-Mikdash serves to connect the natural universe to the Divine and to assure that Hashem’s Presence is felt in the natural order. The special protection granted to the world when the Shechinah is part of it is inclusive of the 70 nations.

Sukkos is the period when we draw near to God and affirm that beyond the physical reality lies a spiritual reality, such that nature is the entrance and curtain of this spiritual reality. This is the message of Avraham Avinu, and it is the message of all Jews for eternity.