Borderline Views: Succot celebrations in the Jewish state

There is nothing more special in Israel than the festival period.

Interior of a succa 370 (photo credit: Interior of a succa )
Interior of a succa 370
(photo credit: Interior of a succa )
There is nothing more special in Israel than the festival period. You don’t necessarily have to be a believer to take in and enjoy the color, the sounds and the foods which permeate the country in the period leading up to the major festivals, especially Succot and Passover. And whether you spend the festival period in the synagogue and sitting in the succa, or on family hikes and trips – on overcrowded roads – to national parks or the beach, it is a special period. To visit the Arba Minim (four species) markets prior to the commencement of the festival, to see everyone build their own succa in their backyard, squeezed into a narrow balcony, or in the parking areas of the apartment blocks, oblivious to the inconvenience – is a cultural experience second to none.
I have never understood the mass exodus of those who are not interested in Jewish religious culture or heritage, their annual escape from the country during this period.
Nor does it make any sense that thousands of Jewish youths who have come to Israel for a year’s study in the overseas students programs at the country’s universities use this period to visit neighboring countries such as Greece, Turkey or (until recently) Egypt, instead of taking the opportunity to find out what is going on here in Israel in what may prove to be the only time in their lives when they are here during these special seasons.
It is much easier to understand the mass influx of Diaspora- based Jews who, despite the exorbitant prices, fill up the returning planes to spend this period in Israel.
Increasingly in recent years, people who have invested in vacation apartments in Jerusalem and Netanya flock in to take up residence, while the hotels throughout the country are full to bursting with both local and foreign visitors.
In addition to experiencing the diverse cultural and religious experience of Israel celebrating its festivals, it also brings in important tourist dollars to the country’s economy.
IN RECENT years the whole of Succot (and Passover) has become, for many, a week-long holiday period during which all government and public offices (including universities) are closed. This was not always the case, and it was much more common in the past for people to work during the intermediate period of the holidays, at least for half a day.
But in our world of leisure, these periods have become transformed into periods of enforced vacation. Street festivals, concerts and a variety of happenings, for religious and secular alike, take place throughout the country. And in this country of constant pressures – economic, security and social – it is not so terrible to escape reality for a few days, and to enjoy the general atmosphere of what is unique about living in a state where 80 percent of the population celebrate – albeit in diverse forms – the same festivals.
In the Diaspora this year, religious Jews will be celebrating three days of the festival, both at the beginning and end of Succot, because of the halachic tradition.
Although there is no logical or halachic reason why this custom should continue today, when our calendar is fixed and definite and we no longer have any doubts as to the exact date of the festival, it seems an appropriate form of self-imposed punishment for those who opt to remain in the Diaspora rather than totally fulfill their religious obligations by coming to live in Israel.
The extra day of religious festival, with all its observances and restrictions, is something that many of us grew up with in the Diaspora. And if there is one thing we are all in agreement over, it is that there is absolutely no way we would ever return to a situation of the extra day – a good enough reason to remain in Israel, as though we needed any convincing.
It always amuses me to see some of the religious visitors to Israel during this period, especially in Jerusalem, observe all the religious restrictions of the extra day in a “holier than thou” manner, even when they have opted to spend the festival period here. There is no logic whatsoever to this custom, even if, as their rabbis tell them, they should observe the customs according to their permanent place of residence – namely the Diaspora – regardless of where they are during the festival period.
Increasingly, religious Jews coming to Israel for the festival period no longer listen to their rabbis on this point, and there are some modern Orthodox communities in the Diaspora which are also beginning to question the need for the second day.
While the Orthodox rabbinate rants and raves against the innovations and changed customs of the Reform and Conservative communities, it is in the danger of losing the support and following of its own congregants if, as has increasingly become the case, it is unable to adapt Halacha to changing realities of the modern world. Customs, even rigidly Orthodox customs, should be adapted accordingly, to take account of changing times and technologies.
This does not require a change in the basic precepts, but it does require a greater historical and social perspective on how and why certain customs came into being in the first place, and how some of these underwent change as a process of halachic evolution over centuries.
So whether your succah meets the precise measurements and standards, and regardless of whether your lulav and etrog have passed the rigid scrutiny of the magnifying glass, and whether you worry about observing one or two days of Yom Tov, go out and enjoy the occasion along with hundreds of thousands of Israelis for whom the festival week is precisely what it is meant to be – a period of enjoyment and celebration.
The question of what it means for the state to be defined as “Jewish” (Justice Minister Tzipi Livni recently set up a judicial committee to make recommendations) is totally meaningless when we experience the week-long celebration of the festival period as the natural order of things, not as something which has to be embarrassingly and apologetically explained to our neighbors.
The very fact that our national holidays and rest periods are the Jewish festivals and Shabbat rather than Sunday, and that the country closes down on Yom Kippur, is the most important indication of what it means for the state to define its national culture as Jewish – much more significant than any legal or constitutional document. It is the default, rather than deviant, position.
This is what the essence of Israel is all about, and whatever diverse opinions we may hold concerning politics, democracy, peace and security, or even religion and levels of religious observance, it is the festival periods which remind us what is special and unique about this country.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.