On Chag Ha-Sukkot (Feast of Booths/Tabernacles) we are commanded to build a Sukkah (Booth) using as building materials the “4 species” listed in Lev 23:40. Rabbinical tradition teaches that a bundle of these building materials must be ritually waved in the air during the festival.
The Torah commands us to celebrate the Feast of Booths (Chag Ha-Sukkot) for seven days, from the 15th to the 21st of the Seventh Hebrew month. This holiday is also known as the “Feast of Tabernacles”. Work is forbidden on the first day of the seven days. Sukkot is one of three “Pilgrimage Festivals”, which means every Jewish male is required to come to Jerusalem during this seven day period. Most laws in the Torah apply to both males and females, however, the pilgrimage law refers specifically to males. Both males and females are required to dwell in a Sukkah (Booth) for all seven days of the Festival, whether at home or in Jerusalem.
The Torah requires that we build a Sukkah on Chag Ha-Sukkot, but does not say how many walls it must have or describe it beyond saying what materials it must be made out of. This means that a Sukkah does not have to comply to any of the fictitious Rabbinical specifications laid out in the Talmud.
In Levitcus 23:40 the Torah commands that we “take” on the first day of Sukkot “fruit of a splendorous tree [or, a splendorous fruit tree], date branches, the branch of a thick tree and willows of the creek”. To the modern reader, it is not immediately clear what to do with these branches and reeds. The Rabbis claim that one is supposed to make these plants into a bundle which is waved during the prayer service. However, this is not said anywhere in the Tanakh. On the contrary, in the Biblical book of Nehemiah chapter 8 we are told of a national gathering in which the Torah is read to the people and they rediscover what is commanded in it. We are told in verses 14-16:
“And they found written in the Torah that Yehovah commanded through Moses that the Children of Israel dwell in Booths (Sukkot) in the Seventh month. And concerning that which they heard [in the public reading] they passed a voice through all their cities and Jerusalem saying ‘Go out to the mountain and bring olive branches and oil tree branches and myrtle branches and date branches and branches of thick trees to make booths, as it is written.’ And the people went out and they brought and they made for themselves booths, each man on his roof and in their courtyards and in the courtyard of the House of God and in the broad areas of the Water Gate and the broad areas of Ephraim Gate.”
Clearly, according to the book of Nehemiah, the “four species” are to be used as materials for building a Sukkah. Note that according to Neh 8:15 using the “four species” to build a Sukkah is what is required because “it is written”. In other words, when they read Lev 23:40 they understood it to be commanding the taking of the “four species” for the purpose of building Succot. The Karaites have always accepted the interpretation of Nehemiah 8:14-16 over the dubious interpretation of the Rabbis. Notice also that the Etrog (citron) is not mentioned anywhere. Instead, the “splendorous fruit tree” of Lev 23 is represented in Nehemiah 8 by “olive branches and oil tree branches”. “Splendorous fruit tree” is a very appropriate description of the olive tree considering the place of olive oil and the olive tree in ancient Israelite society.
After comparing the two passages in Lev 23 and Neh 8 it becomes clear that there are 4 categories of vegetation which can be used to build a Sukkah:
- Any leafy tree that can give shade (compare Ezekiel 20:28).
- A date palm and presumably any palm tree.
- Any fruit tree (compare Leviticus 23 and Nehemiah 8).
- Arvei Nahal – usually translated as “willows of the creek”. Based on Nehemiah 8 which replaces “Willows of the Creek” with “myrtle branches” it would seem that this refers to various types of trees that grow along the banks of the Wadis (see Isaiah 44:4) of Israel and Babylon (see Psalms 137:2).
The word Sukkah comes from the root S.Kh.Kh. meaning “to cover”, and the main part of the Sukkah is the roof or covering which must be made from one or all of the above materials. The walls can be made of any material available.
The “8th day” of this seven day Festival is a day of rest called in the Torah “Shemini Atzeret”. This holiday is widely known today by the Rabbinic misnomer “Simhat Torah” (“Celebration of the Torah”). The Rabbanites made up this name that refers to their annual reading of the Torah in weekly portions, which ends on Shemini Atzeret. Neither the annual reading of the Torah nor the name Simhat Torah appear in the Bible and these are later Rabbinic corruptions of God’s law. Shemini Atzeret is not part of Sukkot and the laws of Sukkot do not extend to this day (i.e. Pilgrimage, dwelling in a booth). As a day of rest all work is forbidden on Shemini Atzeret.