Theodor H. Gaster here continues his series in COMMENTARY on the ancient and contemporary meanings of the great Jewish festivals of the holiday year. “What Does the Seder Celebrate?” (March 1951) and “The First Fruits and the Giving of the Law” (May 1952) dealt with Passover and Shavuoth.
Of the three seasonal festivals which punctuate the Jewish year, the Feast of Succoth (or Booths) has suffered most from the conditions of modern life and, for all the tenacity of its observance, possesses for the modern Jew the least contemporary relevance.
The first reason for this is purely practical. Traditionally, the principal feature of the festival is the erection of a succah, or trellis-roofed booth, in the precincts of one’s own home. This was intended not only to commemorate the fact that the ancient Israelites dwelt in booths during their sojourn in the wilderness but also to provide their living descendants with a means of sharing in that experience. In most modern cities this is obviously impossible, and the conventional substitute is a communal succah set up in the courtyard of the synagogue. But this involves not only a curtailment of the traditional rite but also an attenuation of its significance. In the first place, the element of personal labor and construction disappears altogether; the succah is put up by paid employees or professional contractors. Second, although the matrons of the congregation may indeed foregather, a few days before the festival, to deck the structure with fruits and flowers, these do not, as a rule, represent offerings from their own gardens or orchards, but are simply bought for cash at the local grocer and florist Last, a perfunctory visit to the succah after the synagogue service is obviously no substitute for actually living and sleeping in it: what should be a reproduction of ancestral hardship becomes mere attendance at a social function; and the succah itself is reduced to an artistic showpiece. Small wonder, then, that the festival loses its personal immediacy.
The other reason for Succoth’s decline is ideological. Passover and the Feast of Weeks, though geared to particular events in the past, epitomize and focus elements of Judaism which continue in the present—namely, the progressive mission and adventure of Israel, its persistent struggle for freedom, and its special Covenant with God. In this continuous adventure, in this struggle and in this Covenant, every Jew in every generation is personally involved, so that observance of these festivals is a direct personal experience, part and parcel of his own individual life, and not a mere act of pious remembering. Succoth, on the other hand, seems (apart from its seasonal significance) to be moored and anchored to a single specific event, to the particular situation of a particular group at a particular moment of time. At a distance of more than three thousand years and miles, the modem Jew finds it difficult to recognize in the historical incident of his forefathers’ sojourn in booths anything in the nature of a continuing experience which he can personally repeat. Once again, therefore, the festival degenerates into a mere memorial.
Viewed in the proper light, however, Succoth can possess a continuing significance no whit inferior, and in fact complementary to, that of the other seasonal festivals. For if Passover and the Feast of Weeks exemplify, in the stories of the Exodus and the Covenant, the trials, achievements, and obligations, first of Israel and then of mankind in general, the transcendental theme of Succoth is the persistent hope and confidence without which all such trials are insupportable, all such achievements impossible, and all such obligations unacceptable. The essential point about it is, indeed, that, alike in its seasonal and in its historical aspect, what Succoth celebrates is not an achievement but a prospect, not something finally accomplished but something which has been but begun and the consummation of which still lies in the future. On the seasonal plane, Succoth marks the ingathering of the harvest and the beginning of the rains; but the harvest is consumed only in the ensuing months, while when the festival actually takes place, none but the first token drops of rain have yet fallen. Similarly, on the historical plane, the festival commemorates not the actual entry of the Israelites into the Promised Land but the fact that, in the certain hope of it, they wandered in a wilderness for forty years, protected only by the shelter of fragile booths.
Thus interpreted, Succoth is pertinent not only to every generation but also to every individual. For every individual can at once recognize in it an experience which is repeated in his own life; every individual knows that the only sure sustainment of labor is hope, and that the Promised Land is reached only after years of wandering. It is curious indeed that the ancient rabbis should, by and large, have missed this essential point, insisting rather that the booths symbolize the frailty of human existence. This, however, seems to put the emphasis in the wrong place, for what is really important is not the frailty of the booths but the toughness of the men who dwelt in them. In another sense, too, the symbol of the booth is peculiarly appropriate; for the essence of a booth is that it is not a closed hut but a structure exposed to all the elements; and it is also significant that it must permit a view of the stars.
A subsidiary but by no means unimportant theme of the festival is what may be called the Merit of the Fathers (Hebrew: zechuth aboth) . Tradition asserts that when a Jew sits in the succah, the patriarchs of Israel sit with him as his guests, while in the daily prayers for salvation and prosperity—the so-called hoshanoth or Hosannas—and likewise in the petitions for rain which are recited in the synagogue on the eighth day, these benefits are invoked in the name of such ancestral worthies as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, Phineas and David. It has been well said that the doctrine of the Merit of the Fathers is a Jewish counterpart to the Christian concept of Original Sin, implying that the fall of man through the sin of Adam may be redeemed by his rise through the virtue of the patriarchs. In a larger sense, however, far more is involved than a belief in the redemptive properties of particular lives and careers—a mere intercession of the saints. What is implied is that the present is informed and conditioned not only by those who actually live in it but also by those who have gone before, that no generation is independent, and that what we reap is, in large measure, the fruit of what our fathers have sown. The message itself may be obvious enough, but the festival of Succoth has the power to drive it home, from year to year, with peculiarly dramatic force. For, on the seasonal plane, the fruits which are gathered on this occasion are plucked from trees planted, in many cases, in the distant past; while, on the historical plane, Israel’s eventual entry into the Promised Land was made possible only by the trial and ordeal of that earlier generation which lodged in booths and itself died in the wilderness.
Like Passover and the Feast of Weeks, Succoth originated in an agricultural festival current in the Holy Land from time immemorial. But the historical interpretation to which Israel later subjected it was no mere forced imposition or contrived distortion; rather was it an exceedingly delicate and subtle transmutation. The seasonal and historical aspects of the festival were harmonized with each other and made to run parallel, so that the same basic truth might be expressed concurrently on two planes. The best illustration of this is afforded by the development of the succah and the lulab, the two main features of the celebration.
There are several theories about the real origin of the succah. Some of them, however, may be dismissed at once as improbable or even fantastic. Thus, according to one view, the succah goes back to the temporary shacks set up by pilgrims when they came to the district sanctuary for the celebration of the festival. This, however, loses sight of the fact that such pilgrims likewise came on Passover and the Feast of Weeks; hence there would have been no reason why the booths should have come to be associated so specifically with the autumn festival or why the name “Feast of Booths” should have been reserved exclusively for it. Besides, the prophet Hosea tells us expressly (12:10) that the pilgrims dwelt in tents.
An alternative view starts from the fact that a common feature of seasonal festivals in the ancient Near East was the celebration of a “sacred marriage” between the god of fertility and his consort, impersonated respectively by the local king and a female servant of the temple. This rite, it is asserted, was also known in Canaan, and the succah was originally the leafy bower in which the nuptials were consummated. But to this theory, too, there is a fatal objection: the rite in question took place in the sanctuary; hence the succah could at best have become a part of the temple, not something set up in private homes.
Far more plausible than these exotic flights of imagination is the simple, straightforward view that the booths were at first nothing but the temporary trellis-roofed cabins in which the harvesters and vintners lodged during the time of the ingathering.
Such cabins are still in use in modern Palestine, and it is in this sense that the word succah is usually employed in the Bible.
Whatever its origin may have been, however, it is certain that the succah was connected primarily with the seasonal and agricultural side of the festival. For Israel, however, this purely utilitarian structure had at the same time to bear a historical significance, and it was therefore interpreted as a memorial of the booths in which its ancestors had dwelt during their sojourn in the wilderness. The purely artificial character of this explanation is, of course, immediately apparent: people who wander through the desert live in tents, not booths, wood and green leaves being unavailable except at rare and intermittent oases. This, however, is not particularly important. The “myth” which is woven around a traditional institution is usually more indebted to fancy than to fact, and its validity lies not in its historical accuracy or authenticity but in the transcendental truth which it focuses and conveys. In this case, the truth was that the annual experience of the harvesters and vintners, toiling to bring in the food supply of the coming months, was simply a seasonal counterpart to that of the ancient Israelites who lodged in booths in the wilderness and endured trial and privation in order to make sure that their children or their children’s children might reach the Promised Land. But this was not the only way in which the purely utilitarian booth was invested with historical significance. In sundry passages of the Bible, the word succah— or, more precisely, its masculine equivalent, sok —serves, by poetic metaphor, to denote the temple of God in Jerusalem. This at once suggested that the seasonal booth might be regarded also as a symbol of that holy habitation. The idea finds repeated expression in the liturgy of the festival. Typical, for example, is a medieval hymn chanted during the morning service of the first day, in which a sustained contrast is drawn between the heavenly and earthly tabernacle. The poem is full of recondite allusions and quaint conceits, but its general spirit may perhaps be conveyed by the following partial and paraphrastic rendering:1
Where flaming angels walk in pride,
Where ministers of light abide,
Where cavalries of heaven ride,
Where souls have rest at eventide,
There, ‘mid the sapphire and the gold,
God’s tabernacle rose of old.
Yet here, as in a mead aflower,
Here, as in a bridal bower,
Here, where songs of praise and power
Wreathe Him, every day and hour,
Here, in an earthly booth as well
His glory did not spurn to dwell.
In the same way, in a poem recited on the eve of the second day, the ruined Temple is likened to a booth fallen to pieces:
Thy tabernacle which is fallen down Rebuild,
O Lord, and raise it once again
Alternatively, the succah is given a continuing historical meaning by being identified with the protective providence of God, spread like a pavilion over His chosen people. Says the same poem, in reference to the exodus from Egypt:
Thy cloud enfolded them, as if that they
Were shelter’d in a booth; redeem’d and free,
They saw Thy glory as a canopy
Spread o’er them as they marched upon their way.
Jewish tradition insists that the lesson of every seasonal festival be learned afresh by each generation not by mere formal precept but by a faithful reproduction of the original experience. The actual character of the succah is therefore prescribed in detail; no mere token substitute will do. It must not be lower than five feet, nor higher than thirty; and it must contain at least three sides. It may not be roofed with matting or burlap, but only with lightly strewn leaves or straw; it must be exposed to the elements and to a view of the stars. Moreover, since the toil of erecting it is part and parcel of the experience, it must be set up afresh from year to year; no permanent structure will serve.
A similar development characterizes the lulab. All that the Biblical commandment ordains is that “ye shall take you, on the first day [of the feast], the fruit of a goodly tree, palm-branches, foliage of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before Jehovah your God seven days” (Lev. 23:4O).2 What is envisaged is evidently no more than the carrying of a gay bunch, such as is borne by revelers at harvest festivals in many parts of the world. The most obvious example is, of course, the European Maypole, in spring, for although this was later conventionalized as á single beribboned post set up on the village green, it was originally a green bough carried by each of the revelers in token of nature’s revival. In Cornwall, for example, doors and porches used to be decked on May morn with boughs of sycamore and hawthorn; while in Sweden and in parts of Alsace boys and girls used to march round the villages carrying festive bunches. Nor are such usages unattested in ancient times. At the beginning of spring, it was customary in ancient Greece for children to make the rounds of the houses—in the manner of modern carol singers—bearing a leafy bough and chanting an appropriate ditty; while the carrying of wands (thyrsoi) wreathed with fresh leaves and topped with pine cones was a prominent feature of the winter festival of Dionysus. Moreover, on a Cretan seal dating from the 2nd millennium B.C.E., suppliants of a female deity are portrayed bearing flowering wands; while the prophet Ezekiel, satirizing the pagan “abominations” performed in Jerusalem during high summer, observes significantly (7:10): “The rod has blossomed— arrogance has flowered.”
In Jewish tradition, however, the festive bunch has perforce to be invested with a historical as well as seasonal significance. This is accomplished in a highly ingenious manner. As a memorial of the circuits which the priests used to make around the altar on the Feast of Booths, a special feature of the traditional morning services is that congregants parade around the synagogue in solemn procession, each carrying a lulab in his right hand.3 The ceremony is accompanied by the chanting of hoshanoth— that is, of poetic litanies punctuated by the refrain Hosanna (O save us!). These recitals are now associated specifically with incidents in the lives and careers of the patriarchs and of other ancestral worthies.
On the first day, God is invoked to remember all those incidents which had involved the number one, e.g. the fact that Abraham had been the one true believer in his generation; that Isaac had been delivered from sacrifice by the substitution of “one ram caught in a thicket” (Gen. 22:13); that Moses had transmitted to Israel the one true Law. On the second day, reference is made to Abraham’s journey to Mount Moriah in the company of two servants (Gen. 22:3); to Isaac’s having been the ancestor of two great nations; to Jacob’s having acquired the parental blessing by dressing two kids for his aged father (Gen. 27:9); and to Moses’ having brought down from Sinai two tables of stone. On the third day, the litany alludes to the three angels Abraham entertained (Gen. 18:2); to Isaac’s having gone to Mount Moriah on the third day (Gen. 22:4); to Moses’ having formed a triad with Aaron and Miriam; and to his having divided the people into the threefold division of priests, Levites, and Israelites.
Dexterously, and sometimes even tortuously, the same scheme is carried through for the remaining days of the festival. On the seventh day, for example, when seven circuits are made, not only do these commemorate the seven worthies, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, Phineas and David, but they also serve to call to mind the first seven days of the world; the seven lambs set apart by Abraham in his covenant with Abimelech (Gen. 21: 28-30); the seven wells of Beersheba dug by the servants of Isaac (Gen. 26:33); the seven years of famine endured by Jacob; and the seven-day festivals ordained by Moses.
Thus, although in itself it is not so readily capable of historicization as is the succah, the lulab is none the less securely wedded to the historical interpretation of the festival.
When the Jewish religion came to be detached from its Palestinian matrix and setting, the seasonal character of the festivals tended largely to suffer eclipse. In the case of Succoth, this involved the abrogation of two particularly interesting ceremonies, neither of which is actually prescribed in the Bible but both of which were popularly observed in the days of the Second Temple and are fully described in the Mishnah. These ceremonies went back to that more primitive phase of the festival in which the ritual had a distinctly functional character and was designed to achieve the annual regeneration of nature by means of concerted and coordinated human effort.
The first was the Ceremony of Pouring Water. Every day, we are told, a golden flagon was filled from the pool of Siloam and carried to the Temple in gay procession. Delivered to the officiating priest, it was then poured into a silver container the spout of which was trained upon the altar.
It is generally agreed that this ceremony was originally a piece of sympathetic magic designed to promote rainfall, and that it hangs together with the fact that the autumnal festival presaged the advent of the rainy season; as the Mishnah puts it, “On the Feast of Booths mankind is judged in respect of water.” Similar rites are abundantly attested in other parts of the world. Lucian of Samosata, for instance, writing in the 3rd century C.E., records an analogous practice performed twice yearly in the pagan temple at Hierapolis, Syria; while at Ispahan, in Iran, there is (or was) an annual ceremony of rain-making which consisted in pouring water on the ground; and in many parts of modern Palestine, rogations for rain, accompanied by similar aspersions and by torchlight processions, are a common folk usage in early spring. Interesting also is a more remote parallel from the Mara tribe of North Australia: in time of drought, the local magician besprinkles himself with water and scatters drops of it on the earth; this, it is believed, will induce rainfall.
All that now remains of the ancient rite is the custom of offering special prayers for rain on the eighth day of the festival. These prayers, however, have been thoroughly integrated with the historical aspect of the celebration. The rain is besought in the name of such ancestral heroes as Abraham, Isaac, and Moses, and God is invoked to remember all those moments of their careers in which water played a part. The following lines from a medieval poem embodied in the Ashkenazic liturgy illustrate the pattern:
Remember him whose heart outflowed to
Like water unto whom Thy blessing came
That he should thrive and flourish like a tree
Beside a stream; whom Thou didst save from
And water, that his offspring might abide
Like seed which grows the running brooks
Remember him whose birth was heralded
By angels, when his father washed their
With water,4 who his blood would fain have
Like water;5 whom his servitors did greet
tales of water found where none
Had e’er been sighted in the days of yore.6
Remember him who from the river deep
Was drawn; of whom the seven maidens
“Water he drew for us and gave our sheep
To drink” §7 who through the arid desert led
Thy people and, himself for this accurs’d,
Struck water from the rock to slake their
Nevertheless, the continuing significance of the ceremony is not overlooked, for the poem concludes:
Remember them for whom Thou didst
The sea, and sweet the bitter waters
Whose children’s children, beaten and
Pour out their blood like water for Thy
Turn Thou to us, O Lord, and make us
For lo, great waters swirl about our soul!
The other “functional” ceremony which has now fallen into disuse is that anciently known as the Rejoicing at the Beth Ha-Shoebah.9 On the evening of the first day, says the Mishnah, men repaired to the precincts of the Temple and lit huge candlesticks in the Court of the Women, the blaze being visible from every courtyard in Jerusalem. “Men of piety and good works” danced in front of them, waving burning torches, while a throng of Levites, standing on the fifteen steps which divided the Court of the Women from that of the Israelites, furnished accompanying music. At the Nicanor Gate stood priests, holding trumpets. At cockcrow, they ascended the steps and sounded a series of prolonged and quavering blasts. When they reached the gate which leads out to the east, they turned their faces westward, in the direction of the Temple building, and cried: “Our forefathers, when they were in this place, turned their backs on the Temple of the Lord and their faces toward [the rising sun in] the east [cf. Ezek. 8:16]; but we—our eyes are turned toward the Lord.”
This, too, was originally a magical rite, its purpose being to rekindle the decadent sun at the time of the autumnal equinox and to hail it when it rose at dawn. Such a ceremony is likewise recorded by Lucian, and a Christianized survival of it may be recognized in the Festival of the Cross (Maskal) still observed by the Ethiopian Church on September 26. Elsewhere, however, it is usually combined with the idea of burning up all evil and noxious influence at the start of the year. Thus, at Fez and among the Berber-speaking tribes of Morocco, it is customary to light bonfires on the rooftops on the festival of ‘Ashura, the Mohammedan New Year, and for children and unmarried men to leap over the flames the while they cry: “We have shaken out over thee, O bonfire, the fleas and lice and sickness both physical and moral!” The same custom obtains also in Tunis. Analogously, too, an ancient Babylonian text which described the ceremonies of the New Year festival refers to the custom of tossing firebrands in the air; while Ovid tells us that the Romans leaped over fires at the beginning of the year. To this day, bonfires are a standard feature of Halloween ceremonies in most parts of Europe, and Halloween was, of course, the eve of the ancient New Year.
No trace of this ceremony remains in the modem Jewish liturgy. On the other hand, there is one ancient “functional” rite which has indeed survived, though so different a meaning is now read into it that its original purport can no longer be recognized. This is the custom of “beating hoshanoth”—that is, of taking extra twigs of willow and beating off their leaves upon the lectern during the recital of the Hosanna litanies on the seventh day. The conventional explanation of this practice is that it symbolizes the frailty of human lives, which fade and fall “thick as autumnal leaves which strew the brooks in Vallombrosa.” The truth is, however, that it harks back to a primitive and fairly universal belief that the willow is a symbol of fertility and to the consequent custom of beating people with branches of that tree in order to induce potency and increase. Throughout Europe, for example, “Easter smacks,” administered in this fashion, are a characteristic feature of the great spring festival. Thus, in Croatia, those who attend church on this occasion “beat health” into one another with rods of willow, while in several parts of Germany and Austria the same practice obtains on St. Stephen’s Day (December 26) or on Holy Innocents’ Day (December 28); and in Russia it is (or was) common on Palm Sunday. In ancient Greek ritual, human scapegoats were beaten, at the major seasonal festival, with squills of willow or agnus castus in order, at one and the same time, to beat out sterility and beat in fecundity. Nor, indeed, was this beating always confined to human beings; the poet Theocritus informs us that in times of drought the youths of Arcadia used to smite the statue of the god Pan.
Thus, as in all festivals everywhere, so too in that of Succoth, the past and present “blend and blur”; and those who live in a modem age need not suppose that a primitive mode of expression necessarily implies a primitive concept. As the Bible puts it, the festivals are “for all generations.” What the Sabbath Hymn of Glory says of God Himself may be said with equal truth of His people and its traditional institutions:
In many shapes do men Thine image frame;
Through all their visions Thou art yet the
1 All verse renderings in this article are by the author.
2 The name lulab (from a verbal root meaning “to blossom”) is post-Biblical. So, too, is the identification of the fruit with the Palestinian citron (ethrog) and of the “foliage of leafy trees” with the broad-leafed myrtle.
3 The procession is omitted on the Sabbath, because it is not lawful to carry the lulab on that day.
4 Compare Gen. 18:1-4.
5 I.e., when he was destined for sacrifice on Mount Moriah (Gen. 22).
6 Compare Gen. 26:19-22, 32.
7 I.e., the seven daughters of Ruel (or Jethro); compare Ex. 2:16-18.
8 Compare Ex. 15:22-25.
9 The meaning of this term is disputed. By normal Hebrew usage, it should denote “the place of the drawing of water,” but since there is nothing in the ceremony which involves the drawing of water, it has been supposed that it is a corruption of some similar term which referred to the kindling of firebrands. However, if we assume that the ceremony was originally preserved in small towns and villages up and down the country, the name would be readily explicable from the fact that “the place of the drawing of water” usually served as the local piazza or place of concourse.