Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Sukkot 5769/ October 14, 2008

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,



Why Do We Sit in Sukkot?

Menahem ben-Yashar

Institute for the Study of the Hebrew Bible, Bar Ilan University

Ashkelon College


Since the beginning of systematic philosophical inquiry into the Jewish value system, i.e., since the time of Rabbi Saadiah Gaon (882-942 C.E.), the reasons for the commandments have been a subject of study.  Saadiah, and others following him, divided the commandments into “rational” ones, i.e., those whose reason is clear to us, and commandments of “obedience,” referring to those whose reason is beyond our grasp and which we must perform simply out of obedience to the One who commanded them.   Not knowing the reason for a commandment can be interpreted two ways:  subjectively, meaning that there is a reason, except that due to our intellectual limitations we have not yet been able to understand it; or objectively, meaning that also on the part of the Creator who commanded the act there is no specific reason, and the objective of such commandments is none other than to accustom us to obedience or to bring us merit for performing them. [1]

For certain commandments the Torah actually tells us the reason, such as the blue cord in the tzitzit, which the Torah says is so that we “look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge” (Num. 15:39).  But do we really know how that cord of blue reminds us of the commandments and keeps us from transgressing?

Similarly for the commandment of dwelling in a sukkah for seven days, which is explained, “in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:43).  Not only is it unclear what exactly we are to remember and why, but also even the Sages did not agree as to the essence of the booth in which the Israelites dwelled when they left Egypt.   Ostensibly, these were actual sukkot, i.e., palm covered structures that desert dwellers make to provide themselves shelter and shade, like the structure that the prophet Jonah made himself so he could sit in its shade (Jonah 4:5); such is the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer in Sifra (Emor 17:11).

Sukkot as Booths

This seemingly straightforward (peshat) interpretation presents two difficulties, one linguistic and the other substantive.   The linguistic problem is that the text says, “I made the Israelite people live in booths”; if these were palm shelters, then the Lord did not make them for the Israelites to dwell in (as a different translation of the verse would imply), rather they themselves erected these shelters and lived in them.  To this we add the substantive issue:  it is natural for people to make themselves shelters for shade, so what need was there for a holiday on which to specifically remember and mention these booths?  

The midrash presents another view as to what these sukkot were. Rabbi Akiva was of the opinion that the sukkot of our festival commemorate the clouds of the Divine Presence, in which the Lord enveloped the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt in order to protect them from enemies and from the hardships of the wilderness. [2]   It would seem that giving sukkot the meaning of clouds could be done only in the realm of midrash, and therefore could not be taken as the plain sense of the text.   However, in order to justify this interpretation as the plain sense, Nahmanides (on Lev. 23:43) relies on verses from Isaiah (4:5-6):

The Lord will create over the whole shrine and meeting place of Mount Zion cloud by day and smoke with a glow of flaming fire by night.  Indeed, over all the glory shall hang a canopy, which shall serve as a pavilion (sukkah) for shade from heat by day and as a shelter for protection against drenching rain.

Sukkot as Clouds

The sukkah providing shade and shelter is surely equivalent to a cloud by day, and perhaps also to the glow of flaming fire by night, and they serve as a canopy.  Thus we see that this prophecy identifies the sukkah with the clouds of glory that shelter Israel.   Moreover, Isaiah's prophecy about clouds by day and the glow of flaming fire by night is based on the precedents of cloud and fire which led the way in the desert, as well as the cloud of the Lord that rested over the Tabernacle. This follows the motif set forth by the Sages that the final Redemption will resemble the first Redemption. [3]   If in the prophecy of the future these clouds are called a sukkah¸ then Rabbi Akiva's  interpretation of sukkot as clouds can be applied to the verse, “I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”

Clouds are referred to as sukkot also in David’s poetry: “He made darkness His screen (sukkah); dark thunderheads, dense clouds of the sky were his pavilion round about Him” (Ps. 18:12// II Sam. 22:12), [4] and in Lamentations (3:44) the verb s-kh-kh is used in connection with clouds:  “You have screened (sakkota) Yourself off with a cloud.”  One could claim that all these expressions – in Isaiah, Lamentations, and in David’s poetry (Psalms and II Samuel) – belong to the style of biblical poetry which uses the metaphor of clouds as a sukkah. However, how can we explain such a poetic metaphor in Leviticus, which usually employs dry legal language? 

This question can be parried both in terms of the use of language and the subject matter:  in terms of language, the commandment of sukkah is not stated in dry legal terms, rather as elevated prose with a three-fold repetition of the key word, sukkah, and a faint hint of meter: [5]   “You shall live in booths seven days /   all citizens in Israel shall live in booths / in order that future generations may know / that I made the Israelite people live in booths / when I brought them out of the land of Egypt / I the Lord your G-d.”

In terms of subject matter, if the Torah indeed had in mind commemorating the clouds of Glory in the wilderness, how could this be expressed?  After all, we cannot be commanded to dwell in the clouds.  Based on the metaphor of cloud as sukkah, a literary metaphor which apparently had folk origins, the Torah commands us to dwell in booths and thereby to remember the clouds of Glory.  The verb hoshavti (made live) makes it clear that the text is referring to shelters that the Holy One, blessed be He, built, i.e., clouds.  In as early a text as the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Akiva confirms this view that the reference is to the clouds of Glory:  

Rabbi Akiva says, sukkot are none other than the clouds of Glory, for it is written (Isaiah 4:5-6): ‘The Lord will create over the whole shrine and meeting place of Mount Zion cloud by day and smoke with a glow of flaming fire by night.  Indeed, over all the glory shall hang a canopy.’  I know this only for the past [for the verse says hoshavti, 'I have made live'].  So how do we know it will also apply to the future [i.e. to the end of days]?   From the words, ‘which shall serve (tihyeh) as a pavilion (sukkah) for shade from heat by day, etc.’” [6]

The halakhic codifier and author of the Tur, Jacob ben Asher (son of the Rosh), explains the commandment of sukkah:

The sukkot that Scripture says the Israelites were made to dwell in were the clouds of Glory with which [the Lord] surrounded them to protect them from the blazing sun and heat, and as an example of this, we were commanded to make sukkot so that we remember His wondrous and awesome deeds. [7]

Fire and Clouds

The Torah tells us only of two types of clouds accompanying the Israelites in the wilderness:  the pillar fire and of cloud that went before the Israelites to show them the way and to protect them, and the cloud of Glory that hung as a screen over the Tent of Meeting, having descended upon it from Mount Sinai. [8]   The Sages extended the number of clouds to seven:  one from each of the four winds as well as from above and below, plus the one that went before them. [9]   We can not tell whether the expression hoshavti (=I made dwell) is to account for this interpretation, according to which in the wilderness the Israelites were surrounded by cloud cover (=sukkah) on all sides.  Apparently, in interpreting the verses on sukkah in Leviticus, Nahmanides did not rely on this homily about seven clouds, for he mentions only the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire by night.

From the general view of Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (not cited here), it follows that the function of the sukkah is not only to recall the clouds of glory themselves, but to see them as a paradigm of all the Lord’s acts of kindness and wonders that He performed for the Israelites in the wilderness, and in turn thereby also to recall the exodus from Egypt as a token and evidence of the Lord’s control and providence in the world.

Sukkot are mentioned in the Torah not only with regard to the festival, but also in another two contexts:   once as the place where the patriarch Jacob stayed upon his return from Haran, for he actually built sukkot there (Gen. 33:17), and once as the first station of the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt:  “The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth” (Ex. 12:37).  The interpretation of this verse in the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael connects these three places where sukkot are mentioned:

To Succoth – to the place where they actually put up booths, as it is said:  “And Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built him a house and made booths for his cattle” (Gen. 33:17) – these are the words of Rabbi Eliezer.   But other sages say:   Succoth is merely the name of a place, for it is said:  “And they journeyed from Succoth, and pitched in Etham” (Num. 33:7).  Just as Etham is the name of a place, so also is Succoth.   Rabbi Akiva says:   Succoth here means only clouds of glory, as it is said:  “And the Lord will create over the whole habitation of Mount Zion, and over her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night; or over all the glory shall be a canopy.  And there shall be a pavilion for a shadow in the daytime” (Isa. 4:5-6). [10]

Sukkot and Succoth

This interpretation draws a connection between the festival of Sukkot, celebrated in memory of the booths built in the wilderness, with the place name Succoth, where the Israelites began their journey through the wilderness, as if to say:  if the festival of Sukkot is supposed to call to mind actual booths, then we should note that the first construction of such booths began at the first station of the Israelites, and indeed this is the reason the place was named Succoth, just as the place where the patriarch Jacob pitched his tent was named Succoth after the booths that he made for his cattle.   It remains an open question whether the midrash intended to say that the festival of Sukkot should be celebrated by the Israelites expressly and solely in commemoration of the booths that were at their first station in the wilderness, which interpretation would give more weight to the Torah’s words, “for … in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”  If so, we would conclude that the Sukkot of the festival are intended to remind us specifically of the exodus, and not of the entire journey through the wilderness.   Or does the midrash mean to say that the process of dwelling in booths in the wilderness began at a certain place, called Succoth, and continued for forty years of wandering?

This midrash leaves another open question:   In his remarks about the clouds of glory, was Rabbi Akiva referring only to the reason for the commandment of making sukkot for the festival, or was he also referring to the verse in Exodus, “and they journeyed from Succoth,” meaning that they were enveloped by the clouds of glory since their first station in the wilderness, and therefore the Israelites called this place Succoth.  This meaning would follow from the use of language in this homily, as presented in the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael: [11]

Rabbi Eliezer says:  Sukkot – the clouds of glory came and settled over Rameses.   To what may this be compared?   To a bridegroom who brings a carriage to the entrance of his bride’s home, so that she may come to him forthwith.

According to this homily, the appearance of the clouds of glory at the very beginning of the exodus from Egypt expresses the Lord’s devotion to the Israelites, wishing to spare them any discomfort along the way.  It also expresses the Lord’s eagerness, as it were, hastening to bring His people to Mount Sinai and the Land of Israel, like a bridegroom who hastens to bring his bride to his home.

Why Recall the Booths?

Given the view that the sukkot that we make for the festival are supposed to recall the actual booths that the Israelites made in the wilderness – a view taken by exegetes such as Ibn Ezra, [12] Rashbam, Abarbanel, and later commentators such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman – the question still remains why we must recall these booths of the wilderness?  What are we to learn from this recollection?  According to Nahmanides, who cites the view that these were “actually booths” as his alternative interpretation, this is to remind us that even in the harsh conditions of the wilderness the Lord cared for his people and made it possible for them to live reasonably well.

Rashbam gives the memory of actual sukkot an educational purpose:  When the Israelites come to the land of Israel and dwell in proper houses, full of bounty, and have fields and vineyards, there is a fear they might boast, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” (Deut. 8:17).  By remembering their life in the wilderness, how they dwelled in humble booths and were dependent on the Lord for sustaining them by miracles, they would learn that now, too, in the land of Canaan, it is the Lord who gives them the might and talent to do well, and it is He who sustains them by bringing dew and rain.  The Lord’s direct and miraculous providence over the Israelites in the wilderness provides a tangible lesson of the Lord’s providence through nature in a settled land.

This idea is stated explicitly in the Torah, in Parashat Ekev (Deut. 8:1-18), as Rashbam reminds us in his commentary on the verse at hand.   Later exegetes have espoused variations on Rashbam’s approach, including Abarbanel, Hirsch, Hoffman and others.   Hoffman also includes the commandment of “four kinds” (lulav) in this idea, as if to say:   Indeed, we know to give thanks to the Creator for the wealth of vegetation in the Land of Israel, as we come before Him with four plants that represent this flora.

A surprising explanation of the commandment of sukkah appears in the halakhic handbook, Hayyei Adam: [13]   Sukkot are in commemoration of the booths of the army, that is, of the tents of the hosts of the Israelites, [14] when they were fighting to conquer the eastern side of the Jordan River from Sihon and Og.  That is, the sukkot are in commemoration and thanksgiving for the beginning of the conquest of the land of Israel, accomplished yet in Moses’ lifetime.  This ostensibly presents a problem of biblical chronology, for this conquest, described in Numbers, chapter 21, took place after the commandment of sukkah was given, in Leviticus 23; but this presents no difficulty to G-d, who foresees all, from beginning to end.  Recall that also the commandment of eating matzah on the seven days of the festival of Passover (Ex. 12:15-20) was given to the Israelites prior to their hasty exodus from Egypt, which event provides the reason for the commandment (Ex. 12:39, Deut. 16:3).

Still one wonders whether the Israelites indeed dwelled in sukkot in the wilderness.   After all, we read about their living in tents, [15] as is the way of desert nomads, whose form of habitation enables them to fold up their tents before each journey and erect them anew when they set camp.   Perhaps this is the clue to understanding the issue:  in the wake of the sin of the spies, it was decreed that the Israelites “roam the wilderness for forty years” (Num. 14:33), and lest we have the impression that during those thirty-eight years of punishment our ancestors were roaming the desert with hardly a rest, the Torah tells us:  “I made the Israelites live in booths.”  They did not wander in the way of desert nomads, rather they remained encamped in a single place for an extended period, and there they built themselves booths, semi-permanent dwellings in which to reside for long periods, as it is said:  “after you had remained at Kadesh all that long time” (Deut. 1:46), indicating that although our ancestors were sentenced to living many years in the desert as a punishment for their grave sin, nevertheless the Lord treated them mercifully.


[1] See E. E. Urbach, Hazal – Pirkei Emunot ve-De’ot, Jerusalem 1976, pp. 321-347. I. Heineman, Ta’amei ha-Mitzvot be-Sifrut Yisrael, Jerusalem 2006, pp. 22-30, 49-52.

[2] The baraita   in the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 11b, as well as the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (see below) reverse the views of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva.

[3] Eccles. Rabbah 1.28; Numbers Rabbah 11.3.

[4] In Samuel:  “He made pavilions (sukkot) of darkness about Him; dripping clouds, huge thunderheads.”

[5] For examples of passages of elevated prose see Genesis 2:1-3, and Exodus 14:30-31.

[6] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Parashat Bo, Tractate de-Pis’ha 14; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai on Exodus 12:36.

[7] Tur, Orah Hayyim, 625.

[8] Exodus 13:21-22, 40:33-38.

[9] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Va-yehi be-shalah, proem; Sifre Numbers 63.  Views that there were thirteen, four, and even two clouds are cited there, the latter being according to the plain sense of scripture.  Also see Tosefta Sotah 4.2.

[10] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate De-Pis’ha 14 (Lauterbach ed., vol. 1, p. 108).

[11] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 12:37.  According to this interpretation, Succoth is to be identified with Rameses.

[12] Ibn Ezra even contrasts the sukkot of the desert with the clouds of glory:  the latter protected the Israelites from the summer sun, but for shelter from the cold of winter they built sukkot.

[13] Rabbi Abraham Danzig, Hayyei Adam, p. 146a.

[14] II Sam. 11:11, I Kings 2:12, 16.

[15] Ex. 16:16, Num. 16:27, Deut. 5:27.