Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Sukkot 5767/ October 7, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



“Your laws are songs for me” (Ps. 119:54)


 Sukkot and the Temple [1]


Dr. Ronen Ahituv


Jordan Valley College


Sukkot differs from the other festivals in the very large number of additional sacrifices (Num. 29:12-34) and the emphasis on rejoicing (Deut. 16:14-15).  The Torah does not give an explicit reason for these two characteristics, but in the Second Temple period it appears that reasons not explicitly stated in the Torah were given. Let us turn for a moment to a seemingly unrelated celebration: In I Kings (8:1-66) the dedication of the First Temple is described as follows:

Then Solomon convoked the elders of Israel – all the heads of the tribes…– before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from the City of David, that is, Zion.

All the men of Israel gathered before King Solomon at the Feast, in the month of Ethanim – that is, the seventh month.   When all the elders of Israel had come, the priests lifted the Ark … Meanwhile, King Solomon and the whole community … were sacrificing sheep and oxen in such abundance that they could not be numbered or counted.

… The king and all Israel with him offered sacrifices before the Lord…  Then the king and all the Israelites dedicated the House of the Lord…   They bade the king good-bye and went to their homes, joyful and glad of heart over all the goodness that the Lord had shown to His servant David and His people Israel.

During the dedication of the Temple, Solomon gathered all the Israelites and offered an especially great number of sacrifices.  Thus the principal function of the Temple as the national center for sacrifice was emphasized.  Another motif given prominence in the account of the Temple’s dedication is the element of rejoicing.  The joy at the dedication of the Temple was general national rejoicing, including the entire public, not just the royal family and the priesthood.  There is a clear sense that the Temple that had been dedicated belonged to everyone and was a national accomplishment in which all participated and for which they all gave thanks to the Lord.

Temple and Rejoicing

These two motifs also appear, as we have seen, on the festival of Tabernacles, celebrated each year.   In view of this, it seems that in the time of the Temple the feast of Tabernacles came to be perceived by the people as a festival re-enacting the festivities the Temple’s dedication.

To what was this great rejoicing due, and how did it find expression?  One of the characteristics of the festivities held by King Solomon was that they exceeded the usual boundaries.  The copper altar, the regular place for sacrifice, was too small to accommodate the vast number of offerings (I Kings 8:64), therefore Solomon consecrated the entire Temple court, and everywhere there sacrifices were offered.  The offerings were made by “the king and all Israel with him,” and not only by the priests, who generally were in charge of offering the sacrifices.   Precisely on the day of the Temple’s dedication, the day on which a specific place – the altar – was consecrated for offering sacrifices, and specific people – the priests – were set aside for performing the worship, precisely on that day these boundaries were exceeded and permission was given for sacrifices to be offered in the entire courtyard and by all the Israelites.  This reinforces the collective experience of involving the entire population in the Temple worship and perhaps is the source of the great rejoicing.

The message embedded in the depiction of the Temple’s dedication is complex:  on one hand, the festivities celebrated sanctification of the site and the sanctity of the institutionalized framework of the religion which henceforth would have its ritual practiced there and nowhere else.  On the other hand, this framework turned out not to be so very absolute, and in certain situations it was in order to extend them in order to involve a larger part of the public.

Extending the Celebration

The idea of extending the area where sacrifices could be offered and involving the public at large in the Temple worship figures prominently in the depictions of Simhat Beit ha-Sho’eva, the water festivities traditionally held during the festival of Tabernacles in the time of the Second Temple.   This is seen in the account appearing in the Tosefta (Sukkah 4.2):

Hassidim and men of action would dance before them with torches and say words of praise.   What would they say?   “Happy is he who has not sinned, and may he who has sinned be forgiven.”  Some of them would say, “Blessed is my youth, that it has not brought shame on my old age” – these were the men of action.   Others would say, “Blessed be my old age, that you may atone for my childhood” – these were those who had repented.  Hillel the Elder would say, “To the place that my heart loves, there my feet lead me.   If you come to my home, I shall come to your home.  If you do not come to my home, I shall not come to your home, for it is written (Ex. 20:21), ‘in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.’”

The Hassidim and men of action took pride in their good deeds or in their returning to the Lord and emphasized the gap separating them from the common fold.   Hillel, in contrast, conveyed a message that brought the people closer to the lofty status of the people in the Temple.

Hillel’s homily

Hillel’s homily concerns associations between the sanctity of the Temple and the private homes of the people.  By invoking a folk saying, he taught the public that whoever took pains and came to the House of the Lord for the festival would be rewarded by the Lord coming to his own private home (reciprocating the visit) and blessing him.  The idea of the Lord’s presence in the Temple was thus extended; the private homes of those who participated in the pilgrimage festival would henceforth become places inspired by the Divine Presence, just like the central Temple in Jerusalem.   This in no way detracted from the importance of the Temple, for extending the places inspired by the Divine Presence depended on an attitude of respect towards the Temple in Jerusalem.

Two rites that involved the public at large were held in the Temple during the festival of Tabernacles:  the rite of the willows and the rite of water libation.   Neither of these rites is mentioned in the Written Torah, and they deviate from the generally accepted rules of religious ritual insofar as they were performed in part even by those who were not priests.

In the “commandment of willows” (Mishnah, Sukkah 4.5) the public participated in collecting branches of willow and surrounding the altar with them.   It was generally forbidden to anyone who was not a priest to enter the area west of the altar, but in the rite of the willows this prohibition was waived and the entire people surrounded the altar.  In the “water libation” a popular procession accompanied the rite of drawing water from the Shiloah spring and bringing it to the Temple.

Priests and the Populace

These two customs, which as we have said do not appear in the Torah, seem to have expressed the popular desire to participate in one way or another in the Temple worship, thus breaking the priests’ monopoly and introducing innovations in the ways of worshipping the Lord.  These innovations were not always well-received.  The Mishnah (Sukkah 4.9) tells us the following tale regarding the water libation:  “They would tell the one pouring the libation:  ‘Raise your hands,’ because once someone poured it on his feet and all the entire people pelted him with their etrogs.”

Both the crowds of spectators watching the rite as well as the shower of etrogs they threw lent expression to active participation and involvement of the populace in the ritual and to the liberties which the people took in regard to the established rites.  Opposition by several of the priests to the rite of water libation only spurred the public on to greater participation.  The great rejoicing during the festival to a large extent was a result of these experiences, leading it to be said (Mishnah, Sukkah 5.1), “Whoever has not seen the rejoicing of water drawing, has never witnessed joyfulness in his life.”

A Sanctuary at Home

The people’s homes being inspired by the Divine Presence also found symbolic expression in the religious customs of the festival of Tabernacles.  The minimum height for a sukkah, according to the Mishnah, is ten handbreadths.  The Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 4b) explains the reason thus:   “Nine for the ark, and one handbreadth for the cover (kapporet) – that gives you ten; and it is written, ‘There I will meet with you, from above the cover.’”   The dimensions of the sukkah are derived from the dimensions of the ark and its cover, since according to the understanding of the amoraim, the sukkah filled the function of the Ark of the Covenant that was in the Temple as a place for the Divine Presence to dwell.   Indeed, in Psalms (76:2-3) the Temple is called a sukkah:   “G-d has made Himself known in Judah, His name is great in Israel; Salem became His abode (Heb., lit. “His sukkah”), Zion, His den.”

Also the customs of waving the lulav are derived from the Temple worship, according to the Talmud (Sukkah 37b):

The two loaves of bread and the two lambs for Atzeret, how were they done?   The two loaves would be placed on the two lambs, and he would put his hand under them, and he would elevate it,   leading it and bringing it, raising it and lowering it, as it is written, ‘that was offered as an elevation offering … and as a gift offering’ (Ex. 29:27).  Rabbi Johanan said:  he would lead it and bring it to Him to whom the four winds belong, raise it and lower it to Him to whom Heaven and Earth belong, …   Rabbah said:   likewise with the lulav.

Rabbah compared the waving of the lulav to the rules for giving the elevation offerings on the Feast of Weeks.  Both with the two loaves and with the lulav, the custom of waving alludes to the Deity’s all-encompassing reign in every corner of the Earth.

Thus, in the eyes of the Talmud, the sukkah commemorates the Temple, and the lulav commemorates the sacrifices.  The sukkah and the Four Kinds are present in each and everyone’s home, and thus they symbolize the presence of the Lord everywhere.  On the festival of Tabernacles, which re-enacts the dedication of the First Temple, we build symbolic temples and offer symbolic sacrifices, as it were, in order to lend expression to the Divine Presence being everywhere, in accordance with the homily of Hillel the Elder.

Considering the significance of each of the three pilgrimage festivals, we see that each of them expresses a different sort of relationship with G-d:   Passover signifies Redemption, the Lord redeeming His people from Egypt; the Feast of Weeks, which has been identified with giving the Torah, signifies Revelation of the Lord to His people, and the festival of Tabernacles, identified with extension of the notion of the Temple, expresses the presence of the Lord as Creator in every corner of the world around us and the blessing He brings us in coming to our humble abode.

[1] Several ideas in this article are taken from Yaakov Genack (Nagen), “Mitzvat Sukkah ba-Halakhah shel Hazal, Bein Bayit le-Mikdash,” Da’at 42 (5759), pp. 137-164.