10 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Sukkot

It began as a Canaanite festival, superseded Passover among Bible-era Jews and won a disloyal king a royal pelting with etrogim.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children play between sukkahs, temporary structures built for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in Jerusalemץ
AP

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot arose from a Canaanite agricultural festival, developing over the years into the holiday we know today, tabernacles and all. Some of the traditions and customs of this holiday, such as sleeping under the stars for a whole week, may seem strange enough to the onlooker, but these 10 things you probably don't know will make it seem even stranger.

Sukkot isn’t just a holiday. It is 'the holiday'

Gili Cohen Magen

Today many Jews feel Yom Kippur is the most holy of days in the Jewish calendar. Passover is a solemn occasion and even Hanukkah, an extra-biblical holiday, has risen to prominence, possibly due to it coinciding with Christmas.

But it seems that in the time of the First Temple, Sukkot was the most important of holidays.

How do we know this? Well, for one thing, Sukkot is mentioned a great many times in the Bible, often referred to as “the holiday.” Also the Jewish historian Josephus describes Sukkot as the "most holy and important feast." And then there is the matter of the sacrifice...

The bloodiest holiday

In general, temple Judaism was a bloody affair, with different animals slaughtered and burned on the altar every single day of the week. But Sukkot was particularly bloody, surpassing all other holidays in the number of animals presented to God.

How many animals? Well in addition to the regular slaughter, on Sukkot the following were added: 70 bulls, 98 sheep and 14 deer.

The closest holiday in number of animals offered is Passover, which is a whimpering second with just 14 extra bulls, 98 more sheep and seven additional deer.

Sacrificed animals were offered to the Lord, and were then traditionally devoured by the priests and faithful. On Sukkot, of course, they did this sitting in their sukkot -- their tabernacles, or if you will, their wall-less shelters. And this is because

Wait, why are we sitting in booths anyway?

Leviticus tells us that we must sit in sukkot in memory of the exodus from Egypt. Modern researchers suspect this is a later addition to biblical lore, and is a reinterpretation of a more ancient tradition.

For one, this reason is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. Nor does the Leviticus passage itself allude to a specific event in the desert.

Moreover, nomads in the desert use tents. Not booths. They don't like sand in their eyes any more than the next guy.

So where did this tradition originate? One leading theory is that the booths are a distant memory of farmers temporarily housing themselves under impromptu shelters in the field, to protect the crops during the harvest. The holiday is most certainly of agricultural origin: In fact, one of its names is "The Festival of Ingathering."

Another widely accepted theory is that the during the holiday, the great multitude that came to Jerusalem for the festival would put up booths to live in during the week-long festivity. They filled the city with booths and thus gave the holiday the name “Feast of Tabernacles.” And while they were all celebrating together

Sukkot is a time for (public) reading

On the second day of Sukkot, everyone (women and children are specifically mentioned) were to attend a public reading of the Law (“The Torah”) by the king in the Temple of Jerusalem.

This tradition was sadly discontinued in the year 70 with the destruction of the Second Temple by Romans, who may have been deeply religious in their own way but were certainly goyim

Sukkot is for the goyim, but not yet

As you too may be, dear reader. Are you not Jewish – but you'd like to participate in the holiday? Well, worry not.

According to the prophet Zechariah, after the End of Days, Sukkot will be the main holiday for all peoples. During this holiday people the world over will come to Jerusalem and worship God in the Temple in Jerusalem. For those who fail to show, we are told, rain will be withheld; their fields will wither and they will not be able to grow anything, let alone

The four species. What species?

One of the best known symbols of Sukkot is the four species - the citron (etrog), the closed frond of a palm tree (lulav), boughs of myrtle (hadas) and branches of willow (aravah) - which are ceremoniously shaken during the holiday.

But these are almost certainly a later addition to the holiday. They sure aren't mentioned in the Bible.

In the context of Sukkot, the Bible does list four plants but of the four, only the palm is identifiable. (Leviticus 23:40) The willow, myrtle and citron were only introduced to Palestine after the Babylonian Captivity.

It was only during the time of the Talmud that what can be rendered “fancy fruit” (pri hadar) was interpreted as an etrog, whose name together with the fruit itself was brought by the Persians from India by that time. At least you don't have to shake the etrog, though...

We are supposed to do WHAT with these branches?

The passage in Leviticus describing the four species doesn’t actually say what is to be done with them. It just says we should “take” them.

The Book of Nehemiah (8:14-16) interprets Leviticus as meaning take the branches (here they are olive, pine, myrtle and “thick tree” branches, in addition palm fronds) and build booths from them.

The Karaites, taking Nehemiah’s lead and rejecting the teaching of the rabbis, also interpret the passage in Leviticus as being an extension of the call to build booths. They therefore eschewed the shaking of the four species that Jews have practiced since the time of the Second Temple. But not everybody thinks the species are for shaking

You can always use your etrog to pelt a king

In addition to being King of Judea from 106 to 76 BCE, during his reign, Alexander Jannaeus was also the High Priest. One year during Sukkot, the Jewish historian Josephus tells us, the king/priest decided to show his allegiance to the Sadducees over the Pharisees regarding a Sukkot tradition which involved pouring water mixed with wine over the burnt carcass of a lamb.

Thing is, the Sadducees felt this water nonsense was a new and unwelcome addition to the cultic worship.

So, to appease them and annoy the Pharisees, instead of pouring the water on the lamb as was the custom -- Alexander Jannaeus poured the water on his feet.

The crowd that surrounded King Alexander Jannaeus, a crowd made up mostly of Pharisees, was shocked and dismayed by his actions. They responded by pelting him with the etrogim they held.

This prompted the king to order the guards to slaughter the attendants. We are told 6,000 perished. Needless to say, he wasn’t a popular monarch.

What you can't do with an etrog, by the way, is eat the thing, though some try to make jams and the like with it. What you can eat is

Cabbage – eat it, it's tradition

There is an Ashkenazi tradition of eating cabbage, usually stuffed, on Sukkot. This is because on the seventh day of Sukkot Jews traditionally chant a prayer called “Kohl Mevasser” and kohl, which in Hebrew means voice, is the Yiddish word for "cabbage."

And while chewing cruciferous delicacies, you can think about this

While you were in the sukkah

The Jews were sitting in their sukkot when in 1187 the Crusaders of Jerusalem capitulated to Saladin.

It was Sukkot, too, when –

* The Israeli army conquered Be’er Sheva in 1948.

* The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in 1962.

* The British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, survived an IRA assassination attempt in the Brighton Hotel Bombing of 1984.

* The Temple Mount Riots that left 17 Palestinians dead and over 100 wounded in 1990 also took place on Sukkot.

* The Million Man March took place in Washington D.C. in Sukkot of 1995.

* It was during Sukkot when following 9/11, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

* Saddam Hussein's trial opened during Sukkot 2005, and Moammar Gadhafi was captured and killed during Sukkot six years later, in 2011. This was the same Sukkot that Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released from Hamas captivity.

This article was originally published in September 2013