Sukkot: An Agricultural or Historic Holiday?

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This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center
In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

Wouldn’t make more sense to celebrate Sukkot during the month of Nisan instead of Tishrei?

After all, this is the holiday that commemorates our dwelling in ‘booths’ in the desert after we left Egypt, and it was in the month of Nisan that we first set up camp in the desert! In fact, Sukkot was even the name of Bnei Yisrael’s very first camp-site, during that first week of the Exodus, as Sefer Shmot records:

“And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Sukkot, about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children…”
(see Shmot 12:37-39 / note as well that it was in the camp site of Sukkot when they first baked matza!)

Furthermore, the sole pasuk in Chumash that explains the historical reason for this holiday emphasizes how we must thank God for His special protection and care in the desert immediately after the Exodus:

“You shall sit in sukkot for seven days… in order that future generations may know that I made Bnei Yisrael dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt…”
(see Vayikra 23:42-43).

Pay attention, however, to the special wording of this pasuk – for it doesn’t command us to ‘remember’ (what happened in the desert), rather – we are commanded to ‘know’ [‘lema’an yeid’u doroteichem’ / as opposed to ‘lema’an tizkeru’]!

In the following shiur, we will show how this distinction can help us better understand the historical reason for the holiday of Sukkot, and appreciate why the Torah instructs us celebrate this holiday specifically during the autumn harvest season [i.e. to coincide with the agricultural holiday of “chag ha-asif”].


As you probably recall, we find both an historical reason, as well as an agricultural reason for each of the three ‘pilgrimage holidays’ [the ‘shalosh regalim’].

Now the reason why we are commanded to ‘remember the Exodus’ in the spring is simple – it’s because that event took place in the spring (see Devarim 16:1). Similarly, we received the Torah in the month of Sivan, hence we are to commemorate that event seven weeks later – on “Shavuot”.
However, there doesn’t appear to be any obvious reason for celebrating ‘our dwelling in booths in the desert’ specifically in Tishrei. After all, this holiday does not commemorate a single event, but rather an entire time period of our national history – that spanned over forty years. So what makes Tishrei special?

In fact, it might have made more sense to commemorate ‘our dwelling in sukkot’ in Nissan – together with our commemoration of the Exodus. Certainly, both events are related (and as we explained earlier that Sukkot was first mentioned in Chumash when we left Egypt /see Shmot 12:37 & 13:20!).

Nevertheless, the Torah insists that we commemorate our ‘desert experience’ six months later, in the month of Tishrei (a month that certainly doesn’t lack holidays), and specifically at the time of our grain harvest.

To explain why, we begin with a general distinction which relates to the historical reason for celebrating all of the holidays.

Remembering ‘What’, or Remembering ‘Why’

We posit that when Torah instructs us to remember a certain key historical event, God is not interested that we simply remember what happened, rather it is more important that we remember why that event took place.

[Recall that in our shiur on chag ha-matzot / Parshat Bo, we applied this principle to our understanding of chag ha-matzot and korban pesach; likewise in our shiurim on the underlying reason for the four fast days in Sefer Zecharya.]

Applying this principle to Sukkot, we posit that we don’t sit in the sukka simply to ‘remember’ [and express thanksgiving] that God provided for our needs during our journey through the desert; rather the Torah commands that we sit in the sukkah in order to remember why that entire desert experience was necessary!

Therefore, our shiur will first consider why the entire desert experience was necessary. Then, we will show why the summer harvest becomes an ideal time to commemorate that time period of our history. Finally we will explain why we are commanded to know these events (not just remember them); and why seven days are necessary to accomplish this goal!

Life in the Desert – a Transition Stage

Let’s begin by taking a closer look at the Torah’s commandment to celebrate Sukkot, noting how the Torah focuses on commemorating the ‘desert experience’ (and not the Exodus itself):

“You shall sit in sukkot for seven days… – in order that your future generations may know that I made Bnei Yisrael dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt…”
(see Vayikra 23:43).

In our shiur on Parshat Beshalach, we explained how Bnei Yisrael’s various experiences in the desert [after they left Egypt] could be understood as a ‘training’ period – initiated by God to help transform this nation of slaves into a nation capable of establishing His model nation in the Promised Land.

Even though this process began with a ‘big bang’ – i.e. the Ten Plagues, the Exodus, the splitting of Red Sea, etc.- those great miracles were necessary to convince Bnei Yisrael of their total dependence upon God (see shiur on Beshalach). However, that high level of miracles could be considered more of an ‘attention getter’ than an ideal. Sooner or later, Bnei Yisrael would need to learn to recognize God in their daily lives without the help of miracles. But this required a long ‘educational’ process that would spiritually prepare them for challenges of daily existence once they would inherit the Land of Israel.

In fact, Moshe Rabbeinu himself provides us with a beautiful explanation of the preparatory nature of the entire ‘desert experience’! We need only quote from that speech, delivered to Bnei Yisrael as they prepare to finally enter the land, to understand the purpose of their experiences in the desert:

“All these mitzvot which I command you… keep in order that you live… and inherit the Land…
remember the way that God has led you during your wanderings of forty years in the desert – in order to test you with hardships to know what is in your hearts; whether you would keep His commandments, or not…

“He gave you the manna to eat… in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, rather man lives on the words of God…
‘ve-yada’ta” et levavecha…’
[In order that] you should know, that just as a father puts his son through hardship (to train him), so too has God put you through hardship” (See Devarim 8:1-6).

Note how Moshe explains how the ‘manna’ served as a ‘training’ food for Bnei Yisrael, to teach them in the desert that their food comes from God, so that when they enter the land of Israel – and make their own food – they will remember that God is the underlying source of their sustenance.

To support these introductory remarks, Moshe continues by explaining why this ‘testing period’ was necessary:

“…for God is bringing you into a good land… a land of wheat and barely, vines, figs and pomegranates, of olive trees and honey…a land where you will lack nothing…
* Be careful, lest you forget God and fail to keep His commandments. Should you eat and become satiated, and build fine houses and live in them… and everything you own has prospered…
* Beware lest you grow haughty and forget your God who took you out of Egypt…
* Lest you say: My own power and my own might have won this wealth for me.
* Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth…” (see Devarim 8:7-19).

It was specifically because daily life in the land of Israel would be without ‘obvious miracles’ – that this training in the desert was so necessary! As Moshe explains, God is fearful that once Bnei Yisrael cultivate the land and provide for themselves, they may become haughty thinking that ‘they did it all themselves’ – and hence reminds them how they must always remember ‘their lesson’ from the desert.

According to Moshe Rabbeinu’s speech, this transition period in the desert was necessary to prepare Bnei Yisrael for the spiritual dangers facing their agrarian society, which they are about to establish in the Land of Israel. To recognize the hand of God in a miracle was easy – but to recognize His hand within the nature will be much more difficult.

This background provides us with a very logical reason for the Torah’s commandment to celebrate Sukkot on a yearly basis.

As this danger of ‘becoming haughty and forgetting God’ is so real, it will apply to future generations as well, especially those who never experienced the desert! Hence, the Torah instructs Bnei Yisrael that all future generations must not only remember this ‘desert experience’, but they must virtually ‘re-live’ [to know it] – by living in a sukka for seven days!

The Most Fitting Time of the Year

This background also explains the ‘advantage’ of celebrating Sukkot at the conclusion of the harvest season.

If we are sitting in the ‘sukka’ to remember why that desert experience was necessary – and if that experience was necessary due to the fear of haughtiness that may stem from economic prosperity – then the ‘harvest season’ [when economic prosperity is at its highest] is the best time to remember those events, for that is when the fear of haughtiness is greatest!

This fear was not only expressed by Moshe Rabeinu in his speech (as quoted above in 8:3-12), but see also shirat Ha’azinu (see especially 31:16,20 and 32:13-15!). Our own life experience certainly supports the reality of this fear.

Just as dwelling in the desert prepared Bnei Yisrael for their entry into Eretz Yisrael, so too, our sitting in the sukka prepares us for the spiritual challenges that inevitably surface as we gather our produce & reflect on our ‘profits’ and wealth.

[See Rashbam on Vayikra 23:43, in contrast to the interpretation of Ramban to that pasuk. Our shiur will follow the direction of Rashbam, noting how he also quotes from Devarim chapter 8!]

Therefore, the Torah commands that we celebrate Sukkot at the climax of the agricultural year – as we gather the fruits and ‘count our wealth’. It is specifically during this time of year that the spiritual dangers of affluence are greatest. At the height of the harvest season, we must not only ‘remember’ the lesson of that desert experience, we must actually re-live it, or as the Chumash commands us – we must know it.

Knowing Something – In the Biblical Sense

The Torah’s use of the phrase ‘lema’an yeid’u doroteichem’ takes on additional meaning when we consider the deeper meaning of the word ‘lada’at’ – to know. As we all remember, the Torah uses this word to describe the intimate relationship between husband & wife: ‘ve-Adam yada et Chava ishto’ (see Breishit 4:1). [It is not by chance that this word is also used to describe the Tree of Knowledge -‘etz ha-da’at’ in the story of Gan Eden.]

Later on in Sefer Breishit, when God takes a ‘close look’ at the people of Sedom – to punish them for their terrible sins – this type of intense relationship as well is described with the verb lada’at – see Breishit 18:21, [Note also Breishit 15:8 & 13.]

Similarly, in preparation for the Exodus, God wants to make sure that Bnei Yisrael will internalize the message of ‘Ani Hashem’ – that He is their God, and the only God: [See TSC shiur on Parshat Va’era / Ani Hashem.]

To emphasize this commandment, note again how the Torah employs the verb lada’at to describe this intense relationship:

“Therefore, tell Bnei Yisrael that I am God, and I will take them out of…, and save them… and redeem them with an outstretched hand… and take them as My nation and I will be their God —
“vi-yda’tem ki Ani Hashem Elokeichem”-
In order that you will know that I am the God who has taken you out of Egypt” (see Shmot 6:6-7).

In other words, to ‘know something’ (or someone) in the Bible entails much more the intellectual knowledge. To know – reflects an intense and very close relationship – to internalize that idea.

This can help us appreciate to meaning of ‘lema’an yeid’u doroteichem’ in Vayikra 23:43. We are commanded to sit in the sukka not just to remember what happened, but to know it – i.e. to totally identify with the purpose of that ‘desert experience’ and its eternal message.

Note as well how Moshe Rabbeinu used this very same word when he explained the purpose of the original desert experience: “And you shall know in your hearts…” [that this was a ‘training’ experience] (see Devarim 8:5).

This also explains the difference between the mitzvot of Pesach and Sukkot. The mitzvot that we observe on Pesach (and chag ha-matzot) are in order to ‘remember’ [lizkor’] what happened (and why), yet we are not commanded to re-live that experience – for it was a ‘one-time’ event in Jewish history. In contrast, on Sukkot, we must re-live that ‘desert experience’ for its underlying purpose is no different today than it was back then – to inculcate the eternal message that man should not become haughty at the height of his prosperity.

Why Seven Days?

This background can also help us understand why the Torah requires that we sit in the sukka specifically for seven days. Note that all the agricultural holidays revolve around the number seven.

As we explained in our shiur on Parshat Breishit [perek aleph], the Torah’s description of the story of Creation in seven days emphasizes that the creation of what we call nature was not by chance, nor a ‘balance of powers’ among a pantheon of gods, bur rather – the willful act of one God, for a purpose. Therefore, each time that seven is found in Chumash (e.g. Shabbat etc.), it is to remind us that God is the creator of, and master over, all nature.

Thus, it is only ‘natural’ that we find the number seven prominent in the agricultural holidays, as we thank God for His providence over nature, and recognize that He is the true source of our prosperity.

From Sukkot to Shemini Atzeret

The above interpretation can also help us understand the importance of Shmini Atzeret. As the shalosh regalim come to their conclusion, we add one extra day of celebration, void of any specific mitzva, other than rejoicing with God. Even though it is the ‘eighth day’ of Sukkot, we do not need to sit in the sukka, nor do we need to take the lulav – for the preparatory stage is now over!

On the other hand, we cannot just jump from the desert right back into the Land of Israel. Instead, a time of transition is necessary to wean us from the ‘desert environment’ back to daily life. [This also emerges as a primary theme in Sefer Yehoshua.]

This may explain why we don’t sit in the sukka on this ‘final’ day of Sukkot, for it represents how we must return to our homes. We keep the essence of our ‘desert-like experience’ – our closeness to God – and make it the basis of our daily natural existence.

From this perspective, one could suggest that we do not simply leave the sukkah on Shmini Atzeret, rather we bring the sukka into our homes. We then rejoice with the Torah [dancing seven hakafot – just like Yericho!), for its mitzvot – that we received in the desert – enable us to continue the spirit of our ‘Sukkot honeymoon’ with God throughout the entire year.