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Sukkot: More Than Just a "Harvest Thing"

October 19, 2011

In recent conversations about the current holiday of Sukkot, I've heard a common theme: People understand that we build a hut, known as a sukkah, and that we shake four species, known as lulav and etrog, but they want to know why. "I get that it's a harvest thing but..." is a trailing thought I've heard articulated repeatedly. So, before the holiday comes to a close, here's my guide to the less commonly known aspects of Sukkot.

Lulav and Etrog

"And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days." (Leviticus 23:40.) Why these four species? And why does taking them to "rejoice before God" mean "shake 'em!"?

Shake It For Sukkot: The Jewish holiday of Sukkot features the interesting ritual of shaking a lulav and etrog. Wondering what a lulav or etrog is? Wondering what the shaking is all about? Watch this video to find out.

There are a few theories on the origins of this ritual. My favorite, though not the one I'd teach my kids at religious school, is that it's a vestige of the pagan roots of our ancient religion, relating to fertility. It doesn't take much imagination to see the long lulav and the round etrog as representative of the human reproductive process, and that we thrust or shake them, well, I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

Two more PG-rated explanations can be found in the biblical exegetical text known as Midrash. One suggests that the four species (comprised of the palm, myrtle and willow (collectively lulav) and the citron (etrog)) represents parts of the body. The palm is the spine, myrtle is the eyes, willow is the mouth and citron is the heart. Together, this shows that we need to commit our whole body to thanking God. This whole-body approach is echoed in the full version of the Shema, a blessing that is recited during every Jewish prayer worship service. Taken from the Torah, the Shema charges us to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might.

The other explanation from Midrash is that the four species represent four types of Jews, relating them to the properties of the plants. The palm has a taste but no smell, symbolizing those who study Torah but do not possess good deeds. The myrtle has a good smell but not taste, symbolizing those who possess good deeds but do not study Torah. The willow has neither taste nor smell, symbolizing those who lack both Torah and good deeds. And the citron has both a good taste and a good smell, symbolizing those who have both Torah and good deeds. I think this symbolism parallels part of the Passover seder, the story of the four sons or four children. The Passover hagaddah includes a tale of four children, each of whom asks about the Passover story in different ways. There's a wise child, a wicked child, a simple child and a child who does not know how to ask. Just as there are pros and cons to the four types of people symbolized by the four species, there are pros and cons to the ways the children ask their questions — and the way we answer.

Going with the harvest themes of Sukkot, one suggested reason for shaking the lulav and etrog in six directions (east, south, west, north, up and down — representing all directions) is that all four species require a lot of water to grow. By shaking them around, we're basically doing a rain dance! In fact, after Sukkot ends, we start including an additional line in one of the central prayers of Judaism, the silent amidah, in which we ask for rains and winds. In Israel, this line is included in the daily prayers from the end of Sukkot through the end of Passover in the spring. In the rest of the world, it's included December through the end of Passover.

But wait, there's more to the rain dance idea: during the daily prayers during Sukkot, with lulav and etrog in hand, Hallel, a collection of six joyous Psalms, are said. Then on Simchat Torah, the holiday that comes immediately following Sukkot (the "eighth day of Sukkot," if you will), seven circuits, known as hakafot, are taken by the congregation together. It's like a gradual build, a week of low level rain dance followed by a longer and more intense version. I could be wrong in my suggestion, but there was a water ceremony performed during Sukkot, back in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Sukkah

What's a Sukkah? A look at the temporary dwellings or huts built for the Jewish festival of Sukkot. What they are, how to build them and more!

Going back to Leviticus, the Torah instructs us to "dwell in booths seven days," so that every generation will know that the Israelites had to dwell in booths for forty years after the exodus from Egypt (Lev: 23:42-43). During a holiday that is also known as both the Day of Our Rejoicing (Yom Simchateinu) and the Time of Our Rejoicing (Z'man Simchateinu) it's an odd juxtaposition to build, then eat, sleep, and spend time in, temporary huts meant to remind us of life's frailty and transience. I'd like to suggest that, while remembering those forty years of wandering, we're grateful and joyous that we do not have that burden in our lives today.

Tying back into the agricultural harvest festival roots, it is said that the farmers and harvest workers would build huts (sukkot) in their fields. Sleeping out in the fields allowed them to stay closer to their work, saving time instead of having to walk back to their homes at night.

So what does this all mean today? It means we've been offered an opportunity to celebrate a festival that comes with some unique rituals and customs. Consider it an urban camping experience. Consider that the end of Sukkot often does coincide with the first rains of the year in Israel. Consider that the fertility rites could be as much about human reproduction as agricultural bounty. Consider the opportunities for personal and spiritual growth. But most of all, remember to have a good time and be joyous!

Hebrew for "Joy of Torah," a fall holiday that celebrates the completion of the yearlong Torah cycle and the commencement of a new one. Hebrew for "telling," the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Benjamin A. Maron

Benjamin A. Maron was the Director of Content and Educational Resources (formerly, the Managing Editor) here at InterfaithFamily.

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