When the Moon is in the Sukkah House
By Alex Cicelsky
We celebrate Shabbat every 7 days.
There are full moons at least 12 times a year.
The solar equinox occurs twice in each of earth’s orbits around the sun.
The week-long festival of Sukkot arrives each fall.
This Shabbat, the Fall Equinox, we’ll sit under the moonlight bathed palm branches of our community Sukkah eating fresh organic dates harvested by our children. This apparently synchronistic culmination of religious, social, agricultural, lunar and solar events is no coincidence.
There was no way that I could have comprehended the seasonal agricultural significance of celebrating a harvest of dates, olives, pomegranates and grapes while freezing in the leafy branch topped (and sometime snow dusted), sparse wood frame Sukkah at shul or home in the forested environment of the Northeast USA where I grew up. I’d never seen a live olive tree (I did know that white doves liked to fly around with their branches in their beaks), never eaten a date and figs were stuffing for square cookies. Walled in by trees and buildings I only saw the moon when it was overhead and did not observe the timing of the moon’s monthly progression in relation to the sun. Shabbat was a compulsory (delicious and usually enjoyable) family meal and synagogue event that was tangential to the activities of the world.
I experienced my first Sukkot in Israel, in Jerusalem, while participating in the Reform NFTY-Netzer contingent to the Machon L’Madrichei Hutz L’Aretz – International Institute for Jewish Youth Leaders. I was walking though an alley in the Old City when the familiar “postcard” view appeared before me: the crowd filled plaza, the orange sunset lit Kotel – Western Wall of the Temple Mount topped with the gold Dome of the Rock, precisely as an awesome, huge, gold Full Moon was rising. I was impressed with its beauty and wondered if it was serendipity or a regular, cyclical event that my ancestors had witnessed too.
Living in the Arava desert, first at the fledgling Kibbutz Yahel and then as a founding member of Kibbutz Lotan, I spent many days in open fields watching sun and moon rise and set. In time I worked out for myself how our ancestors had used them as a clock and calendar. “Full” moons always appear on the eastern horizon on the 15th day of the Hebrew month at the same time that the sun sets. The “new” moon’s first crescent appears above the western horizon just after sunset on the second day of the Hebrew month. It makes sense that Sukkot and Pesach Festivals, beginning at sunset, would be naturally lit by full moons. But why are they associated with the Equinoxes in the fall and spring when days and nights are balanced and not on the pivotal Solstices in December and June when darkness or daylight are at their maximum?
A year of observing the sky and clouds, earth and plants, trees and flowers taught me what religious school books and postcards from the Holy Land could not organize in my mind. This week we are harvesting dates – our major source of income and the Biblical source of honey. The Sukkah is covered in date fronds removed from the trees so that we can reach the fruit. We were taught that this is the harvest festival of the summer fruits and here in Israel everyone sees it in action. It’s been a long, dry and hot summer. The ‘nature’ of this region is that the rains from clouds that formed over the Mediterranean sea begin to fall now and will continue to do so until Pesach and the spring equinox. The even distribution of daylight and hours of night become longer, colder nights. Biblical pilgrims carrying their best fruits to Jerusalem celebrated a Sukkot with torches to push away the darkness and water rituals symbolizing the anticipation of a wet winter necessary for growing grains, fruits and vegetables. While Israel’s modern agricultural advances make the land more productive (the ecologist in me has more to say about that) than it was in biblical times, it is still dependent on sunlight and the desperately needed rainwater. The moon marks the days for celebration in our yearly calendar. We need this time in the Sukkah to put it all together and appreciate how fortunate we are.
Alex Cicelsky is a senior lecturer, researcher and designer at Kibbutz Lotan’s Center for Creative Ecology. This article is an excerpt from a class on Agricultural Roots of the Hebrew and Gregorian Calendars, which is part of the accredited Peace, Justice and Environment College Semester Program at Kibbutz Lotan. It will be published as part of the Jewish Calendar Mandala Project this year.