“You shall take for you on the first day the fruit of a pleasant tree, branches of date palms, a bough of a leafy tree and willows of the brook. You shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (Vayikrah 23:40)

“You shall hold the Festival of Tabernacles seven days, upon your gathering from the threshing floor and from your winepress. You shall rejoice on your festival, you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow who are within your gates. Seven days you shall celebrate to the Lord your God in the place that the Lord will choose, as the Lord your God will bless you in your entire crop, and in all your endeavours, and you shall be completely joyous.” (Devarim 16:13-15)

The festival that is most associated with joy is Sukkot, and with good reason! In a short but powerful chapter on the festival, Rabbi Eliezer Pappo (Bulgaria, 1785-182 in the Peleh Yoetz, “Sukkah”) summarises the three major mitzvoth of the chag and what lessons we can derive from them.

“Sukkah”, writes Rabbi Pappo “is an important and beloved mitzvah that comes from time to time (i.e. annually). Praiseworthy are [the nation of] Israel who are scrupulous to build a beautiful sukkah [and bring into it] beautiful utensils.” He then decries those who have the wherewithal to construct a sukkah but fail to do so, and those who do build a sukkah but do not spend much time in it. “If they were wise, they would understand just how beloved this mitzvah is on a simple…and mystical level.” On a simple level, he writes, the sukkah substitutes for the punishment of exile. If someone sinned and their atonement demands exile, then fulfilling the mitzvah of sukkah will cancel the need for an unpleasant displacement. On a deeper level, the sukkah is “God’s Presence spreading its wings over us, like a mother bird hovering over its chicks.” Moreover, “sparks of the souls of the seven exalted guests [the ushpizin – Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yoseph, Moshe, Aharon and David] dwell therein.” It is for this reason that a sukkah is accorded a similar sanctity to that of a shul and no unbecoming behaviour is permitted under its hallowed roof.  “Certainly one who is cautious to fix his place of dwelling there for all seven days in holiness, purity, awe, fear and great joy as required, will acquire sanctity and much inspiration in his soul, which will endure throughout the year, assisting him to serve his Creator in a wholesome manner.”

The other major mitzvah is the arba minim, the four species or the “lulav and etrog”. The four species are lifted up and waved several times during the service: when one recites the blessing over them; during Hallel and when circling the bimeh during the Hoshanot prayers. “These [customs associated with the four species] are matters that stand at the heights of the world”, writes Rabbi Pappo, “and yet people belittle them.” As he did in reference to the mitzvah of Sukkah, he criticises those who can afford to purchase their own set but fail to do so. There are also those who lift up the four species but fail to wave them, believing that the practice is exclusive to those “who are wise and pious.” However, this is not the case.  Waving the lulav is an important aspect of the mitzvah to the extent that the Talmud (Sukkah 42b) rules, “Once a child knows how to wave the lulav, his father must purchase him a set.” He urges his readers to make enquiries about acquiring a set as early as possible, so that when the time comes, they will not come to shul empty-handed. Although one may certainly fulfill one’s obligation with a communal set, this often comes at the cost of not having a lulav and etrog during Hallel or Hoshanot when there are many others vying for the communal sets. Rabbi Pappo writes that possessing a set of arba minim is a “good omen.” He cites the Midrash (Vayikrah Rabbah 30:4) where we find this analogy: Two litigants entered a courtroom. The people outside were waiting to see who would emerge victorious. When one of the litigants exited with a lance held aloft in his hand, they knew that the judgment had been in his favour. Likewise, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, every Jew stands before Hashem to be judged. On Sukkot, we hold the lulav aloft as if to say that we have been victorious in judgement.

The third mitzvah is the act of rejoicing, itself. This is a mitzvah that applies to all the Pilgrimage Festivals, but on Sukkot it is enhanced, as is clear from the multiple references to rejoicing in the verses above. In the Temple on Sukkot, there was the daily Water Drawing celebration during which scholars and pious people would engage in dancing, juggling and somersaults while the massive crowd looked on. The Talmud (Sukkah 51B) notes, “Whoever did not witness the Water Drawing festivities never saw true joy in their life!” Rabbi Pappo emphasises that the celebrations on Sukkot should be appropriate, as befits the joy associated with the performance of a mitzvah. They should not be wild, drunken and boorish parties that are devoid of spiritual meaning. Moreover, the rejoicing on Sukkot should include the poor and destitute.  They must be invited into the sukkah as our guests. If we fail to do so, writes Rabbi Pappo, then “the ushpizin [the righteous guests mentioned above] will curse the owner of the sukkah” for his miserliness. If one cannot host such guests, one should at least donate money so that they will have food for Yom Tov. Rabbi Pappo raises an interesting point. He writes that Hashem displays affection towards the Jewish people by giving them the festival of Sukkot straight after the High Holy Days “to make them happy and calm them from the anxiety and emotional pain they experienced in the days of repentance.” The penitential period is very emotionally draining and difficult. Sukkot is the ‘reward’ for all of our hard work in Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance. What is even more remarkable is that Hashem commands us to rejoice and then promises us a reward for doing so! Could there be a greater gift than that?

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha:

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