Sukkot: Feast of Booths

pri_etz_hadarOn 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:

  1. Any leafy tree that can give shade (compare Ezekiel 20:28).
  2. A date palm and presumably any palm tree.
  3. Any fruit tree (compare Leviticus 23 and Nehemiah 8).
  4. 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.


Shemini Atzeret

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.

11 thoughts on “Sukkot: Feast of Booths

    • I’m guessing that the point was / is to use a variety of natural trees that were / are readily available in the surrounding area.
      Do your own investigating & reading. Ask Yehowah for guidance for yourself.
      For me & mine, we haven’t always had access to palm branches either. One year, we picked up a tiny palm tree at the grocery store, to represent that bit of the instruction, and it died of frost in our Sukkah. We get as close as we can with what we have, and guard the Instruction to the best of our ability.
      “But Yehowah said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but Yehowah looks at the heart.” –I Samuel 16:7

      I’m guessing that, if you don’t have palms or myrtles or olives or citrons in your neighborhood, the Almighty would be less offended by a pine hut than by giving up.

  1. My fist sukkot I went out to the wooded area near my home, I took a camera, some water and snacks, a cutting tool and had a lovely walk in the garden with the Father. I have many beatiful photos. I cuts some boughs, and also drug home some fallen tree branches, they had begun to turn fall colors,, I had some cat tails and some long grasses. I hung the tree branches from inside my condo; and made a bouquet out of the cut items; tied a big blue bow around the end. When my husband and children arrived, we made stars, planets, moon and sun out of card board, colored paper and covered stars with aluminim foil and we ate on the floor in the front room dinning room under the branches and stary ceiling. It was great. We read the blessings and we all sensed His presence with us unto the day. In Israel; is the very best time to go is for Sukkot, is such a splendid sense of joy in the air, great outdoor music from every street, the whole city is splendid.

  2. We went and bought a little palm plant. We keep the dried branches tucked away for the next year. It is the only tree we wouldn’t have access to otherwise so we save it. We don’t have palm trees here in our deep snow area, so that was our solution.

  3. This raises an interesting question. The Torah does not say what to do with the four species. Ezra/Nehemiah clearly interpreted the commandment to require that we “build” the sukkah with these items.

    So, is the interpretation of Ezra/Nehemiah binding? Are there limits to what we can learn from the Nakh with respect to interpretation of the Torah?

  4. Nehemia, Chag Sukkot Samaech! Your instructions and insights sure do give those of us just recently come out of Babylon or Egypt an excellent foundation. This and Torah Pearls! We use your newsletters and teaching links for our study and discussion during Sabbath. WE LOVE your “high tech” mode of transportation for the Iron Dome Tour! Your humor is such a blessing, it sure gives us a giggle! Bless you and Shalom

  5. This poses a bit of a problem in our area, as the leaves are already fallen from the bushy plants that we had hoped to use. The commandments for Sukkot were written for the much more balmy Mediterranean area, not here! What should we use?

  6. So tell me again what the Hebrew word atzeret means.Does it have several different meanings?Is it just a rest day? Do you have to meet as an assembly?

  7. Thank you for clarifying Shemini Atzeret; this is much needed for folks to be able to distinguish between rabbinical trappings vs. reality of the Torah.

Leave a Reply