Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sukkos, From Whence?

The Torah (Lev. 23:43) tells us that the reason we live in sukkos (booths) over the holiday is so that future generations will know that God housed us in sukkos when He took us out of Egypt. However, it is interesting to note that the Torah repeatedly refers to the homes in the desert as "tents" rather than booths (e.g. Deut. 5:27, 16:7).

This point, which was brought to my attention by R. Yehuda Henkin (cited below), might explain what prompted R. Eliezer (Sukkah 11b) to make the otherwise audacious statement that by "sukkos", the Torah meant the "clouds of glory" that surrounded the Jewish people in the desert. Perhaps he moved away from the plain meaning of "sukkos" because there is no evidence that the Jews lived in sukkos in the desert. But according to R. Akiva, who maintained the plain meaning, we are still left wondering: What sukkos?

Click here to read moreOne possible resolution to this discrepancy is that offered by the Rokei'ach (no. 219). He suggests that the Jews lived in sukkos while attacking enemies and conquering the land of Israel (e.g. 2 Sam. 11:11). When they were engaged in war they specifically needed divine protection (and until they were fully settled in Israel it was still called the period of the Exodus from Egypt).

He adds that this also explains the engimatic statement in Nehemiah 8:17: "And all the congregation of those who came back out of the captivity made sukkos and lived in the sukkos, for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so." Is it really plausible that in the days of King David and King Solomon they didn't observe this mitzvah? The commentators offer numerous suggestions but the Rokei'ach explains based on the above: When the Jews were conquering the land, they did not yet have permanent homes and courtyards in which to make sukkos. Therefore, many people had to join together in communal sukkos. Similarly, in the time of Ezra they had not yet rebuilt many homes and courtyards so people had to eat together in communal sukkos, which had not been done since the time of Joshua's conquering of the land.

However, R. Yehuda Henkin (Bnei Banim, vol. 2. Chibah Yeseirah to Lev. 23:43; New Interpretations on the Parsha, pp. 182-183) points out that the command to live in sukkos and the explanation for it were given at the beginning of the stay in the desert while the conquering of the land began in the fortieth. How could they be commanded to remember something that would not happen for another (approximately) forty years?

Instead, R. Henkin suggests that the Jews lived in sukkos during the week they received the Torah. Normally in the desert they lived in tents but for that one week they left their homes and lived in sukkos. That is why the Torah (Deut. 5:27) had to tell them, after the giving of the Torah, to return to their tents. According to the opinion that the Torah was given on the seventh of the month of Sivan, it turns out that the Jews lived in the sukkos for exactly one week. This can explain why we do the same for a seven-day holiday every year (and why we celebrate Simchas Torah right afterwards).

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