sukka decor
Decorations for a sukka. The rabbis call Sukkot "Ha-chag" -- "the festival" par excellence. Photo by Alex Levac
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Jews have so many holidays, chagim, this time of year. It is a plethora of festivals, a glut of gladness, a surfeit of simcha (joy). This period in Israel is even known as "The Chagim," with life moving ahead in fits and starts between the various festivals, of which there are four, spread over more than three weeks. That is, until we reach the next period known as (what else?), "After The Chagim," when we resume our regular activities in full force after having put off everything for a month.
After Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this week's holiday of choice is Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, called by the rabbis Ha-chag, "The Festival" par excellence. But what exactly is a chag? And how is it related to our very experience of time, and its passing?

Lines and Circles

We have discussed some of the words that express the cyclical side of time – such as machzor, "cycle"/"holiday prayer book," and teshuva, the "repentance" that is "return." Likewise, in Hebrew, kidum, "promotion," is tied to all that is kadum, "ancient," and kidmah, "progress," going ahead, takes us back to what was kodem, "before."
But we also conceptualize and experience time as being linear, as having a clear 'before' and 'after.' Indeed, this may be the more widespread common-sense understanding of time. Ever since about 4th grade, I can't help seeing history and time as a line, for that was how it was drawn on the wall at Whiteford Elementary School – from the past (way off on the left), through the present (somewhere in the middle), into the future (on the distant right side).
Perhaps nature has cycles, the revolutions of planets and stars, but history has, or rather is, in the Western view, an arrow.
So, not unlike light, which is both a particle and a wave, time for us is both a circle and an arrow, both cyclical and linear. And so it is significant that the very seminal word chag encodes this deep truth. Its root is connected to two other roots, one circular, and the other more of a vector, a line.

Dancing and Walking

When you look up chag in the dictionary, you get the root ch-g-g, which of course gives us lachgog, "to celebrate," chagigah, "a celebration," and chagigi, "festive." These roots are both secular and religious in use. You can lachgog a birthday or anniversary, not just a holy day, and anything from a nice shirt, to a fancy meal, to a solemn ceremony can be chagigi.
But ch-g-g, the books tell us, is related to two other roots. One is ch-u-g, whose core meaning is "circle," or "round." The basic root chug means a circle, either its circumference or its internal area. Thus it is used in contexts like chug hasartan, and chug hagedi, which mean respectively Tropic of Cancer and of Capricorn, big circular lines on the globe. And somewhat more metaphorically, chugim shiltoniim, are "ruling" or "governing circles."
If you send your children to an after-school chug, enrichment lesson (like ballet, judo, etc.) they may not literally sit in a circle – but that's the idea.
Those children, if they grew up here, will know the song "'oogah, 'oogah" (literally, "cake, cake"), a sort of "London Bridges-esque" nursery rhyme-dance, where everyone dances around in a circle, to the tune of "'oogah, 'oogah ,oogah, bama'agal nachugah," meaning: "cake, cake, cake, we shall turn around in the circle."
The little instrument that turns a pencil around in a circle to draw one – "compass," in English, though not the directional kind – is a mechoga. And a machog is most any sort of dial-like instrument, as on the dashboard of your car, say, or your oven, or the hands on your clock.
In our digital age, these are probably all but obsolete. Likewise, even though no phone has had a round dial, a chuga, for a decade or more, one still "dials" the phone, mechayeg.
The other word, the "linear" one that Hebrew chag is apparently connected to, is none other than the Arabic chaj (pronouncing the final gimmel as a soft "g"), or as it is usually spelled, haj, which means pilgrimage. For Muslims, the haj is always to Mecca. But it's no accident that ha-chag, The Festival, i.e., Sukkot, is one of the 3 regalim, the "foot" (regel) holidays, where it was incumbent upon all to make a pilgrimage to our sacred center, Jerusalem. And a pilgrimage is not circular or cyclical; it is a journey to a destination, a straight line connecting two points. A haj, too, is a sacred time, at once solemn and festive, a chag.

Back to Basics

So what is a chag? As we've seen, the word itself evokes images both of sitting, eating and dancing in circles, whether around the fire, or the table, and of trekking, journeying, "going up on foot" – the literal translation of the Hebrew for pilgrimage, 'aliyah leregel. So whether you celebrate these festival times in the chug hamishpachti, "the family circle," or in some journey, inner or outer, sacred or secular (a vacation is also a "holiday" for the British among us ) – may it be a joyous one!
And if it ends up raining on our parade, or pilgrimage, that too would be a blessing.

Next week: On the connections between Pharisees, scandals, and commentary (not the magazine…). Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Add your comments here, or write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.