The Symbolism of Succot

Succot is the most prayer- and mitzvah-laden holiday on the Jewish calendar. It is also full of the symbolism that makes Jewish life so rich.

Yishai Fleisher,

Judaism לבן ריק
לבן ריק
Arutz 7
Succot is the most prayer- and mitzvah-laden holiday on the Jewish calendar. It is also full of the symbolism that makes Jewish life so rich.

A Succah, a booth of sorts, must have at least three walls, but its most striking feature is the skhakh.

Skhakh, or the roof of the Succah, must be made of plant material like tree bark, bamboo, reeds or palm branches. The skhakh must come from the earth, yet be detached from the earth. The skhakh is not meant to be a very useful roof - you must be able to see sky through it. It is this unusual thing called skhakh that make the Succah unique and filled with symbolism.

Life Cycle And The Succah

The Womb: The Succah, with its peaceful inner-sanctum and its semi-permeable skhakh, resembles the womb. Inside its safety, the Jew is protected from the slings and arrows of persecution, and manages to reproduce spiritually and physically generation after generation.

The Chupah: The wedding canopy is the Succah of Peace which descends upon a bride and groom on their wedding day. So too, the Succah is the canopy of the marriage of the Jewish people and HaShem. The holiday of Succot is the wedding that follows the cleansing period of Yom Kippur.

The Grave: the skhakh above our heads, made of earth-grown plants, also symbolizes the earth itself. We are buried under the earth, and yet, we are still alive. The message of Succot is the cycle of life: we are born, we marry, we die and we continue on through the next generation, and through our faith in t'chiyat hameitim, the resurrection of the dead.

Yechezkel 37:

1. The hand of HaShem was upon me, and He brought me out in the Spirit of HaShem, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones.
2. And He caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.
3. And He said unto me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" And I answered, "O Lord, Thou knowest."
4. Again, He said unto me, "Prophesy over these bones, and say unto them, 'O ye dry bones, hear the word of HaShem.
5. Thus saith the Lord unto these bones: "Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live.
6. "And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am HaShem."'"
7. So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and, behold, an earthquake; and the bones came together, bone to its bone.
8. And I beheld, and, lo, there were sinews upon them, and flesh came up, and skin covered them above; but there was no breath in them.
9. Then said He unto me, "Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, 'Thus saith the Lord: "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live."'"
10. So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.
11. Then He said unto me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: 'behold,' they say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.'
12. "Therefore prophesy, and say unto them, 'Thus saith the Lord: "Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, O my people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel.
13. "And ye shall know that I am Hashem, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, O my people."'"

It is because of this life-cycle focus of Succot that we read Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, which laments exactly this very cycle:

4. One generation goeth, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth for ever.
5. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to its place where it ariseth.
6. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it turneth about continually in its course, and the wind returneth again to its circuits.
7. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again.
8. All things are full of weariness; man cannot utter [it]: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9. That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. (Chapter 1)

It is also for this reason that we invite the Ushpizin, the holy guests, Avraham, Yitchak, Yaakov, Aaron, Moshe, Yoseph and David into our Succah. Tzaddikim pass away, but they never die. They are bound up in the great cycle of life and they join us again and again, every Succot.

The Seed: Looking up from our Succah we see the skhakh, but now instead of being buried, we are planted. "A person is like the tree of the field." (Deuteronomy 20:19) We are a seed planted beneath the soil, and rain is coming soon. G-d is giving us the gift of life, the chance to make the most of this world - to reach out of the skhakh and into the world beyond.

The Bird Nest: Seeing Jews prepare for Succot is like seeing birds prepare their nests. Everyone is fluttering around looking for material for their nests. Indeed, we are but chicks, and it is HaShem who, "Like an eagle arousing its nest hovering over its young; He spreads his wings, he takes it, he carries it on his wings." (Devarim 32:11)

In Jewish History

Yaakov: Jacob is the forefather associated with Succot. Immediately after Jacob's successful duel with his brother Esau, it is written "And Jacob journeyed to Succot, and built him a house, and made booths for his cattle: therefore, the name of the place is called Succot." (Bereishit 33:17) Jacob originally ran to Haran to escape his brother's wrath; coming to Succot signaled the end of his personal exile and his return to the Land of Israel.

The Succah's characteristic is of an impermanent, mobile structure. Jacob's characteristic too is always to be mobile - always on the go: "How fair are your tents, O Jacob." (Bamidbar 24:5) Settling down is not for him; he goes from place to place in the Land of Israel and in the world - his is always a spiritual journey.

Bereishit 28 reads:

20. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear,
21. and I return to my father's house in safety, then the LORD will be my God.
22. and this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God's house"

Yaakov asks for three things: food , clothing, and protection on the journey. But what is missing? A request for permanent housing, of course! Yet, this construction of permanent housing Jacob reserves for He Who needs no housing - for the Lord Himself. This is Succot; we, the Jewish people, will live in impermanent dwellings all our generations, so that our journey could lead to us to the construction of His permanent dwelling.

Mishkan/Mikdash - The Tabernacle and the Temple: the Succah resembles the Mishkan in that it, too, was an impermanent structure, and sadly, our Holy Temple in Jerusalem was impermanent as well; it was destroyed twice because of our sins. "In that day I will raise up the fallen Succah of David, and wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old." (Amos 9:11) The "fallen Succah of David" is a term of endearment for the Temple - may it be rebuilt in our lives.

The Clouds of Glory: Our rabbis tell us that the Succah represents the clouds of glory that escorted the Jewish people in the desert. The clouds kept our cloths clean, and kept danger away from us. These clouds were also a form of womb, raising a new Jew to enter the Land of Israel. They also directed us - Shemot 40:

36 And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward, throughout all their journeys.
37 But if the cloud was not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up.
38 For the cloud of HaShem was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.

Aron Hakodesh - the Holy Ark: The wings of the cherubs above the ark acted like the skhakh of the Succah, protecting the holy contents within. It is written, "And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, screening [sokhekhim] the ark-cover with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the ark-cover shall the faces of the cherubim be." (Shemot 25; 20) In the Succah, we are the holy objects G-d protects with his wings, we are the carriers of the living Torah.

HaShem sends His canopy to us to nurture us, to marry us, to protects us. No wonder this holiday is called "z'man simchateinu" - the time of our happiness. The sliver of sky that we see reminds us of G-d's nearness: "My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Behold, he is standing behind our wall, He is looking through the windows, He is peering through the lattice." (Song of Songs 2:9)

May we merit the words of the Sabbath prayer:

"Safeguard our going and coming, for life and for peace from now to eternity, and spread over us the Succah of Your peace. Blessed are you HaShem, Who spreads the Succah of peace upon us, and upon all of His people Israel and upon Jerusalem."