The roots of Succot

A succa was only a provisional retreat. A great festival was usually held upon the tenant’s return to his ancestral home, just as it became a religious festival today. Life in the succa has also changed; today it is a source of joy for the whole family.

Four Species Succot 370 (photo credit: Havakuk Levison/Reuters)
Four Species Succot 370
(photo credit: Havakuk Levison/Reuters)
According to Leviticus 23:33- 34, the Lord told Moshe: “Speak to the Children of Israel, saying, the fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the feast of booths for seven days of the Lord... you shall dwell in booths seven days, all that are born in Israel shall dwell in booths: that your generations may know that I made the Children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
The Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Succot tells us all that we should know how to build and live in a succa in order to observe this commandment properly. Succot was observed in great detail during the times of the Second Temple as a major agricultural festival. Josephus recalls how the king of Israel, Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE), was pelted with citrons when on the eve of the festival he was going to offer a sacrifice in the Second Temple.
The reason for such treatment was that the people suspected that his grandmother was once a captive, a possible but unproven calumny, but one that rendered the king “unworthy of the dignity of sacrificing.” The enraged Alexander slew about 6,000 people who were earnest in their belief.
The Mishna tells us how to observe the commandment, but fails to tell us why Israeli men (women, children and slaves are excused) have to build a succa and live in it for seven days.
Perhaps the fathers of the Mishna did not feel the need to answer a question which was directly answered in Leviticus: namely that the people of Israel were ordered to spend seven days in a succa to remember our glorious flight from Egypt and relive the experiences of the 40 years of wandering in Sinai.
I am not concerned in this article with the matter of the succa’s place in our beliefs, and this custom the rabbis of Israel will explain much better than I. What I would like to ask is whether the command and explanation given in the Book of Leviticus preclude the possibility that there was a Succot observance before the Exodus? I think the matter deserves some consideration.
My question is whether the sole purpose of a succa, essentially a primitive and temporary dwelling, (the Mishna takes care that it remain a primitive and temporary abode) set up on the eve of a rainy period, is to remind Israel that they were brought out from the land of slavery, namely Egypt and to give glory to the Almighty? Or is it possible that the commandment given to Moshe at Sinai had only changed the character of an old festival or cultic observance? Is this possible that thousands of years ago the primitive, wandering Hebrew tribes, which according to the letters of Amarna angered and frightened the princes of Canaan, had already known and implemented the succa custom, and this long before the wandering, seminomadic Israelites had even moved from Canaan to Egypt? The entire issue deserves to be considered against a wider, more universal background. The building and living in a succa for seven days was not a simple matter. A wanderer had to prepare a succa, possibly pack all his belongings, and leave his tent in order to live in another accommodation, even for a few days only. Or perhaps only men would leave, while women and children would stay? Anyhow, it must have been an unusual, major undertaking. But why would men have to leave their natural homes? What would be the purpose, if such a custom was observed well before the Exodus and became a yearly cultic occasion? It is in order to answer such questions that one must find first whether there was such a precedent among other ancient nations, people or tribes. Israel is known to have accepted and cultivated other nations’ customs, such as circumcision, which was an indication of high social standing among the Egyptians.
Or the question of iron: Among the Jews no iron was used in the building of the Temple of Jerusalem or in the making of an altar. But also many Greek temples refrained from using iron. The old public bridge in Rome (Pons Sublicius), which was considered sacred, was built without the use of iron or even bronze. It was expressly forbidden by Roman law that the Temple of Jupiter be built with iron.
King Tsie-tson of China died because nobody dared to open his tumor with an iron lancet. Iron was a new invention and rightly scared people – in wars more blood was spilt by iron weapons than ever before.
Such taboos and customs were once universal. It is also certain that many Jewish customs were inherited from the Canaanites, among whom the ancient Hebrews fought and lived, and from their neighbors from whom they accepted certain norms and beliefs, traces of which may be found in the Bible, and some of which are still extant today.
In his The Golden Bough – a Study of Magic and Religion, Prof. James George Frazer explains how the ancient, primitive people, unable to explain a disaster or disease, believed that demons, or invisible alien forces, were responsible for their plight.
Wanderers living in tents preferred to leave them for a time, while moving to another, temporary abode, in order to get rid of such enemies.
These were gotten rid of by casting spells, drastic cleaning of contaminated tents, temporary total absence. The expulsion of evils responsible for peoples’ misfortunes tended to become periodic and associated with certain cultic practices. It became a practice among many wandering tribes to eradicate devils or other imagined or invisible enemies at fixed times, once a year, in order to return to the old, but cleaned from all actual or imagined impurities.
In today’s language we could simply assume that a wanderers’ tent was very much in need of a once-ayear thorough cleaning for hygienic, if not for other, purposes.
Frazer provides many examples of settlements in which people visited by a series of disasters or severe epidemics laid the blame upon devils who were infesting their dwellings and who had to be expelled from them. The inhabitants quit their homes, carrying all their household items with them, and took up quarters in temporary huts.
They spend several days there, offering sacrifices and preparing to return after a final ceremony. Once the evils were driven away, a great and general joy was observed by the entire tribe. It seems therefore likely that the ordinance and instruction received at Sinai turned an ancient practice of a Hebrew tribe seeking purity in its own way into a tribute to the Almighty who brought the people out from the Egyptian slavery.
There is absolutely no proof the Israelite succot originally served such purposes. But there is overwhelming proof cited by Prof. Frazer, as a result of his lifelong anthropological studies, that this was once a a very widespread practice not only among wandering tribes, but among various settled peoples as well, lasting up to the 18th century CE.
The expulsion of malignant spirits was sometimes accompanied by the waving of long brushes, noise and prayers, as well as by a thorough cleaning of inhabited premises, which were left for a day or more.
The customs and practices, part of the tribe’s tradition, may have been different and changed with times, but the ultimate goal was always similar – to get a new, fresh beginning, to leave the old problems behind, even if it necessitated a temporary moving from a comfortable, permanent dwelling to a more primitive location.
The question could be asked: why wouldn’t such people simply move into a new tent? The answer seems to be that a tent, or even a building, was for a wanderer his home; he was born there, and so were his children, and so, he hoped, would his grandchildren.
A tent was a mainstay of tradition, a property dear to his heart, and seven days of separation was the most he could bear.
A succa was only a provisional retreat. A great festival was usually held upon the tenant’s return to his ancestral home, just as it became a religious festival today. Life in the succa has also changed; today it is a source of joy for the whole family.
It is, therefore, likely that the ancient custom of wandering Hebrews had changed throughout millennia and eventually became what we observe as the Festival of Succot today. But the main purpose of the succa – as both a symbol of and a tribute to the 3,000-year-old tradition and a bridge to a better future for the entire people of Israel – continues to live with us today.
If all this is true, then we should never forget what we owe to our savage predecessors who learned certain truths and lived by them.