The fertility of Succot

We city-dwellers carry out the rituals in a mechanical manner and give them metaphysical interpretations.

October 8, 2006 03:42
The fertility of Succot

succah 88. (photo credit: )


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The celebration of Succot has to be the most enjoyable of the three pilgrimage festivals. The Torah commands this by emphasizing the concept of simha (joy), one has to be "altogether joyful" when celebrating this festival (Deut. 16:15). As Succot comes in the autumn, it can certainly be considered as a joyous harvest festival. It is the time when the harvest is in, when the countryman can relax, sit in his garden booth and admire the crops stored in his granary and fruit basket. He has donated his first-fruits to the priests and the Temple, and the remainder is his, for him and his family to live on until the new crop is gathered in before next autumn. Thus it is a time of satisfaction and rejoicing, but the canny farmer will know that he has now to prepare for the next season, to see to it that next year's crop will succeed as well as the present one, or if that was not too good, to seek an improvement in the coming year. How is he to do that? His main concern will be for the fertility of the soil and for the right weather. The rains have not yet started but he needs them very soon and then to continue on and off till Pessah, the next pilgrimage festival that comes in the spring. During that time he has to clear the ground, to plow and to sow, to prune and to plant. But it is not all in his hands. FERTILITY OF the soil and the right kind of weather are not functions of his hard work; he needs to have the hand of God working for him. It is all very well to fulfill the commandments, but will that ensure fertility and good rains as God has promised? The farmer cannot be sure and so he will seek to do what he can to secure the future, and the symbols of Succot will come to his aid. He is to sit in his booth, to take his meals there and to sleep there. Why? To remind him that the Children of Israel, when they came up out of Egypt, lived in succot (booths, Lev. 23:43). But did they? The Torah says quite clearly elsewhere that they lived in tents and not booths made of palm branches. Thus one of the rabbis of the Talmud, R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanus, says (Succa 11B) the booths refer indirectly to the "clouds of glory" that protected the Israelites throughout the Wilderness. At the end of the desert episode these divine clouds disappeared, so how can they now help our farmer on his piece of land in Israel? The succa, however, has other overtones. On the one hand it can be a small temporary hut that gives shade, as it did to Jonah after the debacle of Nineveh (Jonah 4:5); while on the other hand, it represents the everlasting dynasty of the Royal House of David which, as predicted by the prophet Amos (9:11), will once again rule over Israel. The succa is a structure that is both humble and majestic, both temporary and permanent, and one can safely say that it represents the fragile Jewish home, whether it be modest or not. THE SECOND ritual that the farmer is urged to perform is to take four plants (Lev. 23:40), the lulav (palm) group consisting of the palm branch, the myrtle and the willow, together with the etrog (citrus) fruit, and wave them to the four points of the compass, as well as upwards and downwards, before the Lord. Clearly they are a precursor of the fine fruits that the farmer hopes to gather in the coming year, and they are all signs of the future fertility of his land. But how will all this help the poor man in the coming year? In order for the farmer to practice these rites, he must first have confidence in their effectiveness. Today we city-dwellers carry out the rituals in a mechanical manner and give them all sorts of metaphysical interpretations, but to the Israelite farmer they were meant as practical expressions of a religion that would lead to results, and they had to give him results if he was going to repeat them year after year. To make these rituals believable to the farmer, one can show that they were rooted in earlier symbolism, much of it lost on us today. One basic idea was the power of the tree for fertility, and the notion of the tree permeates the idea of Succot. It is present in three of the plants of the lulav group held in the hand, and in the tree cuttings that are used for the s'chach (roof covering) of the succa itself. The power of the tree is such that two cherubim (angels) and a flaming sword had to be set by God to stop the way to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. Abraham sat under an ancient oak tree when God appeared to him, and He appeared to Moses from an arboreal bush. In ancient Mesopotamia, the power of the Emperor Ashurnasirpal II is shown in his role as Master of the Sacred Tree, for which he is being anointed by a genie with a citron-shaped cone dipped in liquid, as depicted at biblical Kalah (Nimrud), in the ninth century BCE. The Jewish attitude to the magical tree is ambivalent. The Torah forbids an Asherah tree to be planted next to a local altar (Deut. 16:21; it seems to have been a kind of live totem pole) and it was condemned as a sign of idol worship. On the other hand the Book of Proverbs (3:18) tells us that Wisdom "is a Tree of Life to those that cling to her." The Rabbis take Wisdom to mean the Torah itself, and the quotation graces the front of many synagogue arks. Whichever way we consider such a tree, we see it as having special powers of fruitfulness and endurance, powers appreciated by and necessary to the farmer. AS FOR the succa itself, as we have seen, it is not really a representation of the dwellings in the Wilderness, which were tents, but rather it is symbolic of the Jewish home, perhaps in a temporary form. It is the woman who rules the home, as expressed in the talmudic term for wife as debaitha, "she of the house," just like the English word "housewife." When it comes down to the Israelite farmer, the succa represents his wife, and she was of course the important element in the fertility of the family, and indeed of the land as well. A barren wife, so often depicted as a figure of misery in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), was considered to be casting a blight on the fertility of the farm and flocks of her husband. That is why she always had to entreat God for a child, to save her and her husband's prosperity. For the good of the next year's harvest, it was essential that the wife reproduce successfully and thus guarantee a good crop in the coming year. Succot was the time for this endeavour and it was expressed in visual and symbolic form. There can be no clearer visual symbolism than the shaking of the lulav (the palm branch and its associated fruits) in the succa. When you see the lulav group, the rigid lance-like palm branch surrounded by the two bushy branches and the cone-shaped etrog, who can doubt that it represents the male organ, and to see it waved vigorously in six directions within the succa womb, that really is the ultimate fertility symbol of Succot. The writer is Fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.

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