Shabbat candles: 6:33 p.m.
Torah reading: Exodus 33:12-34:26; Numbers 29:17-25
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18-39:16
Havdalah: 7:30 p.m.
What is the true symbolism of the sukkah? The Talmud [B.T. Sukkah 11b] cites a difference of opinion between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer as to whether the sukkah commemorates the huts in which the Israelites dwelt in the desert, or the “clouds of glory” which encompassed us in the desert as a sign of Divine protection.
Leviticus 23 catalogs the holy days of the calendar, beginning with Shabbat and concluding with Sukkot: “The 15th day of the seventh month shall be the Festival of Tabernacles (the booths), seven days for the Lord; the first day shall be a holy convocation, when you may not perform creative work...”
The text goes on to mention Shmini Atzeret (the Eighth Day of Assembly, technically a separate holy day at the end of Sukkot) and seemingly concludes the entire calendar sequence with the words: “These are the special appointed times of the Lord” [Lev. 23:34-36].
But just as we thought the description of the festivals was complete, the narrative inexplicably reverts to Sukkot. This time, however, the Torah stresses not the booths but the connection to the Land of Israel and the agricultural cycle: “But on the 15th day of the seventh month, when you harvest the fruits (grain) of the land, you shall celebrate a festival to the Lord for seven days (Sukkot), with the first day being a day of rest and the eighth day being a day of rest” [Lev. 23:39].
Having placed Sukkot in the context of the farmers’ work, the Torah now introduces the command to take up the Four Species, plants indigenous to Israel, comprising the etrog (citron) and lulav (palm frond, myrtle branch and willow), reiterating “you shall rejoice” and a repetition of the command to dwell in a sukkah, this time stressing the historical aspects of the festival, “so that your generations shall know that I caused the Israelites to live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” [Lev. 23:42-43].
It seems that the Bible is making a clear distinction between the significance of Sukkot before the Israelites entered the Land and the nature of the festival once we were living in Israel. Why is that?
Outside Israel, the sukkah symbolizes our temporary dwellings while wandering across the desert and, by extension, throughout our long exile. Once we enter the Land of Israel, “when they harvested the grain of the land,” we could celebrate the harvest with special blessings and rituals involving the Four Species, vegetation unavailable in the desert.
In the Promised Land, the entire experience of the sukkah assumes a heightened significance. Now, the shabby, makeshift desert huts came to represent the sheltering wings of the Divine Presence, the clouds of glory with which God protected us so that we’d be able to fulfill our mission as His ambassadors.
When we are living in the diaspora, the sukkah teaches us to be grateful to the Lord who preserves us under difficult and dangerous conditions; in Israel, we further understand that as the people of God’s covenant, no matter how flimsy the walls of our temporary homes may seem, we constantly live under His protective grace.
This difference in the significance of the sukkah prior to our inhabiting the Land of Israel and afterwards could be seen when we returned to the Land after our Babylonian exile. Then, Ezra exhorted us to observe Sukkot, dwelling a sukkah created with “olive branches, pine branches, myrtle branches, palms and willows” [Nehemiah 8:15]. In the Land of Israel, the sukkah is adorned and uplifted by the local vegetation, the special fragrance symbolizing God’s shelter and fulfillment of the covenant. Seen in this light, as the Vilna Gaon noted, Sukkot is the festival which celebrates our entry into the Land.
God’s revelation and gift took place on the 10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur. The following day, He commanded the building of the Sanctuary. The Israelites collected materials, with the actual construction commencing on Tishrei 15, a day marking the restoration of the relationship between God and the Jews.
This is noted by the Ramban, who explains that this is why the Book of Exodus is indeed the Book of Redemption. Rabban writes, God “returned and rested His Divine Presence among them and they returned to the exalted level of the patriarchs, which was the secret of God, with Clouds of Glory upon their tents, and they were considered to be redeemed. And so the Book of Exodus ends with the completion of the Sanctuary and with the Glory of God filling it always.”
Hence the sukkah, clouds of Divine glory, symbolizing the Sanctuary and the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which will eventually bring the entire world to peace and redemption: “May the Merciful One restore the fallen sukkah of David, speedily and in our time.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.