I love Sukkot for many reasons. First off, I love the fall, and Sukkot ushers in the season of apples, squash, pumpkins, and fleece jackets. Secondly, I love being outside and eating. Thirdly, I love the arba minim (the lulav and etrog) because they are so funky. And lastly, it’s a great celebration in the aftermath of Yom Kippur’s solemnity.
But seriously, the lulav and etrog, the shaking business, the booth in the backyard, what’s not to like? I can imagine how it might look to someone who has had no exposure to Sukkot before to be asked to participate:
Hey. You. Psssst. Come here.
Yes, you there. Don’t be afraid of my large myrtle, palm, and willow branches lashed together, nor of this misshapen lemon with a pug-shaped stem.
Just come into my temporary booth and shake around these branches. Say a blessing. Then you can eat, or even sleep outside to celebrate.
Wait! Where are you going? Come back! Trust me, it’s amazing!
It requires somewhat of a suspension of disbelief to get into it, but when you look at the evidence, it’s actually pretty clear that the Sukkot we celebrate in 5771 is very similar to the way Sukkot was celebrated back when the Book of Leviticus was written down (which for argument’s sake I will approximate at around 500 BCE):
Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Lord to last seven days: a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of the Lord for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. 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 live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:39-43)
While there is some ambiguity about the translation of “leafy trees” (“anaf etz avot”) and the “product of hadar trees” (“p’ri etz hadar”), the instruments of the celebration and the dwelling in booths during Sukkot are undoubtedly practices that go back more than 2500 years. I’m into the unadulterated relics of ancient Judaism that have survived to today- and Sukkot is certainly one of them. Rabbinic literature may debate about the size of a sukkah, or the size of an etrog, or the material of the schach, but the Sukkot equipment is more or less unchanged. When we shake the lulav, we are reenacting an ancient rite of Judaism and becoming the next link in the chain of transmitting this early Jewish practice to our children. That’s cool.
Frankly, it doesn’t concern me that shaking the lulav is basically a way of praying for rain, or that the Sukkah is not just a reminder of the temporary nature of our desert dwellings, but also a practical way of sleeping in the fields during the harvest. The simple fact that Jews have been doing the lulav shake for the better part of three millennia makes it an important part of our Jewish DNA. Hopefully, you will find yourself in a sukkah sometime during Sukkot, and I hope you do shake the lulav (click on that link for a great clip), smell the etrog, and feel more than a little special afterwards.