The Biblical Origins of Sukkot
Rava said: What is meant by “How beautiful are thy feet in sandals? (Song of Songs 7:2) How beautiful are the feet of Israel when they go up in pilgrimage.”
Sukkot is a holy day – a “pilgrim holiday” in its origin sense – to be observed not only with heart and soul, but the body as well. The above-mentioned verse sheds light on the original observance of the Shalosh Regalim, the 3 pilgrim holidays of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. Sukkot was one of the three times in the Jewish calendrical cycle that the Israelites strapped on their dusty sandals, filled their bags with offerings, and ascended the hills to offer praise and thanks at the holy Temple.
As typical of our ancient rabbinic scholars, who studied into the night grappling with the esoteric meanings of our biblical texts, here they searched to understand why there would exist a verse in the Hebrew Bible complimenting the look of one’s sandal-clad feet. And not the modern, pedicured feet of today swathed in fine leathers and fancy heels designed by the likes of Jimmy Choo, but rather, feet encrusted with the dust of the desert and the permanent marks of sun etched into one’s skin after a season of farming the land. Those dusty feet then carried the grateful “pilgrims” towards Jerusalem for their annual fall harvest festival.
Appearing on the calendar just two weeks after the New Year celebrations of Rosh HaShanah, and just five days after the Day of Atonement, Sukkot occurs when the fall harvest has reached its birthing point. Grains and fruits all bursting with goodness and demanding to be picked in a timely manner! This is the original reason for building a sukkah in our backyards and synagogue courtyards. The farmers worked long hours throughout the day, which necessitated the building of booths (sukkot) in the field in order to harvest the yield in a timely and efficient way.
Sukkot is mentioned multiple times, and in multiple places, in the Torah. In the Book of Numbers, chapter 29 we learn:
“On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupation. Seven days you shall observe a festival of Adonai…”
What then follows in the Torah is a thorough listing of what “offerings” are required; ranging from various kinds and amounts of animal burnt sacrifices, as well as offerings by fire of pleasing odors, meal offerings, libations, and offerings of well-being. These were required by the Jewish People in order to demonstrate their feelings of gratitude and thanks to God.
In the Book of Deuteronomy the aspect of joy and celebration within community was highlighted.
“The Feast of Booths (Sukkot) also is to be celebrated with the entire community, including all female and male members…Blessings and joy are the primary characteristics of this seven-day festival…”
The covenantal relationship is, once again, reinforced. God will bless all of your crops and your undertakings, which will elevate your celebration and bring you joy. But do not forget the source of that joy; your thanks are to be directed towards God.
Only in the Book of Leviticus, our priestly authored book, are we told about the lulav and the etrog (23:40). Furthermore, we are told of the historic link to our time spent wandering in the wilderness and the commandment to dwell in booths:
“You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 23:42-43)
The holiday of Sukkot that we Reform Jews celebrate today is a combination of all of these mandates. Sukkot provides the modern Jew with many meaningful touch points to bring Torah alive in our lives. Sukkot solidifies the relationships between us, God, and the land of Israel. It is not such a stretch as we dwell in our own sukkot, gazing at the same stars that accompanied our ancestors on their journeys in their dusty, yet beautiful, sandals.