What is the true symbolism of the succa? The Talmud (B.T. Succa 11b) cites a difference of opinion between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer as to whether the succa commemorates the actual huts in which the Israelites dwelt in the desert, or the "clouds of glory" which encompassed us as a sign of divine protection. Leviticus chapter 23 catalogs all the holy days of the Hebrew calendar, beginning with the Sabbath and concluding with Succot. The 33rd verse begins a description of Succot: "â€¦. The 15th day of the seventh month shall be the festival of Succot, 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 the festival of the Eighth Day of Assembly (Shmini Atzeret), and then seemingly concludes the entire calendar sequence with the words, "These are the special appointed times of the Lordâ€¦." (23:37).
But just as we thought the description of the festivals was complete, the narrative inexplicably reverts to Succot. This time, however, the Bible stresses the connection to the Land of Israel, and the agricultural cycle: "But on the 15th day of the seventh month, when you harvest the grain of the land, you shall celebrate a festival to the Lord for seven days (Succot), with the first day being a day of rest and the eighth day being a day of rest" (33:39).
Another curious feature of this second account is that having repeated the command to observe Succot in the context of the farmers' work, the Bible now introduces other crucial themes of the festival, including the command to take up four species of plant indigenous to Israel (citron, palm frond, myrtle branch and willow), and rejoice on our holy days, wrapping up its description with a repetition of the command to dwell in booths, this time stressing the historical aspects of the festival, "You shall dwell in booths for seven daysâ€¦ 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" (23:10-43).
It seems that the Bible is making a clear distinction between the significance of Succot before the Israelites entered the Land and the nature of the festival once we were living in Israel. Outside Israel, the thatched-roof, hut-like booths symbolized our temporary dwellings while we wandered across the desert and, by extension, throughout our long exile. Once we entered the country, "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 succa assumed a heightened significance. As we made our homes in the Land of Israel, 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 divine ambassadors and witnesses to the world.
When we are living in the Diaspora, the succa can only teach us to be grateful to the Lord who preserved us under difficult and dangerous conditions; whereas living in Israel, we 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 the protective grace of His loving wings.
This essential difference in the significance of the succa prior to our inhabiting the Land of Israel and afterwards may likewise be seen when we returned to the Land after our Babylonian exile. Ezra exhorted us to dwell in booths during the Festival of the Seventh Month, and to make our booths with "olive leaves and olive branches, with myrtles, psalms and willows" (Nehemiah 8:14). In the Land of Israel, the succa is adorned and uplifted by the local vegetation, the special fragrance of which symbolizes God's shelter and fulfillment of the Divine covenant. Seen in this light, as the Vilna Gaon noted, Succot 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, God commanded the building of the Sanctuary; the Israelites collected materials for the next two days, and on the 15th of Tishrei, the work of building the Sanctuary began, 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. "Then the Holy One Blessed be He 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 succa, clouds of divine glory, symbolize the Sanctuary and the Holy Temple, which - from its place in Jerusalem - will eventually bring the entire world to peace and redemption.
"May the Merciful One restore the fallen succa of David, speedily and in our time."
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.