The History of Sukkot, Once the Most Important Jewish Holiday of All

Originating in harvest festivals, Sukkot became centered in Jerusalem. That was not to last.

Benedict Corazon / Bau Bau

The seven-day festival of Sukkot starts on the 15th of Tishrei. From ancient times, the holiday has been associated with temporary dwellings called "sukkot" in Hebrew, and "tabernacles" in English (which is the origin of the word "tavern") – which were not however part of the original festival at all.

Once upon a time, Sukkot was the most important holiday. The bible is replete with mentions of it, while barely mentioning other Jewish holidays at all. Not rarely it is merely called khag – holiday, with no other qualifier, which in and of itself reinforces the impression that this was the biggest holiday in ancient times. In further testimony to its ancient importance, Sukkot involved the largest number of animal sacrifices, according to the Bible.

In other words, in biblical times Sukkot was The Holiday: if an ancient Israelite could only make it to Jerusalem for one of the three annual pilgrimages (the other two being Passover and Pentecost), Sukkot would be it.

Based on its timing and the fact that it is frequently referred to in the Bible as "the holiday of ingathering," meaning harvest, we may assume that the holiday evolved from ancient agricultural religious practices. But over time it was formalized, centralized and given historical-national significance – that was fated to dissipate.

Natural evolution or deliberate selection?

We learn about the holiday’s new, formal significance from the Book of Kings (1 Kings 8:1-5), which narrates that the Tabernacle – the mobile sanctuary that Moses built in the desert to house the Ark of the Covenant - was brought to Jerusalem during the seventh month (Tishrei), and that many animals were sacrificed.

This is the first known description of the formal holiday of Sukkot, though it bears note that this account was probably written over a century after the fact, during the reign of King Josiah.

With that in mind, the story that the Tabernacle was brought to Jerusalem on Sukkot may or not be fanciful. It is possible that this was made up to justify a new pilgrimage holiday established as a part of Josiah’s push to centralize worship in Jerusalem.

Either way, during Josiah’s reign, Sukkot became a much greater holiday, but the tiny city of Jerusalem would have been unable to house the great multitude coming to worship in the Temple at once. Unable to find lodging, the pilgrims had to erect temporary dwellings – little huts that became known as sukkot.

With time the holiday became associated with the sukkot themselves. Later these huts were given a national-historical meaning, correlating the holiday with the Exodus, as is reflected in the (late) biblical passage: “Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born 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: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 23:42-3)

One problem with this connection is that the Bible tells us that the Israelites lived in tents, not booths, during the Exodus.

Whatever the case, spending the week in a sukkah became a major theme in the holiday. However, that was secondary to the practice of the holiday rites during the time of the First and Second Temples.

As was the norm with all Jewish holidays, and the Jewish cult in general, the holiday centered on the Temple and specifically on animal sacrifice therein. Altogether 70 bulls were sacrificed during each Sukkot, as well as numerous other animals.

Goodly trees and joyous dancing

Another important theme of the holiday, from ancient to contemporary times, were the four species that the people were to bring to the Temple. These are enumerated in Leviticus: “Ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (23:40)

Nehemiah seems to imply that these plants were to be used in the construction of the booths: ״And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.” (8:15) In fact this to this day is how the commandment in Leviticus is interpreted by the Samaritans.

At any rate, from the time of the Hasmonean Dynasty, probably in the first century BCE, Jews have interpreted this vegetation to mean: A citron fruit (etrog), a myrtle branch, a date frond, and a willow branch. These were ceremoniously carried by Jews participating in the Temple service and are used in prayer in synagogue on Sukkot to this day.

Ultra-Orthodox children collecting fronds to cover their sukkah in Bnei Brak / AFP

While the four species mentioned in Leviticus probably did include date fronds and willow branches, and may have included myrtle, the “goodly trees” were certainly not citrons, as these were unknown to the Israelites during the time of the First Temple.

Another important ceremony conducted during the Second Temple period was libation with water, ceremoniously brought from the Gihon spring outside Jerusalem and poured on the altar.

Every night, throughout the holiday a celebration took place at the Temple compound - Simkhat Beit HaShoeva. Great torches were lit, music was played, and people danced. The Mishnah tells us that this was a very joyous event, going as far as saying that a person who has not seen it had never experienced joy.

Also, every seven years (in the year following shmita), the king would ceremoniously read sections of the Torah to the people.

Developing new ritual after Temple's destruction

After the temple was destroyed by Titus in 70 CE, the Jewish religion went through a major change, and the heart of Sukkot - the temple sacrifices - could no longer be observed. Thus further emphasis came to be ascribed to the sukkah, the four species, and prayer.

Sukkot, which in the past were only erected in Jerusalem, were arose wherever Jews were living.

The main body of work we have concerning Sukkot is the Mishnah (220 CE) and Talmud (500 CE) tractate Sukkah, which in addition to elaborating the temple services, include a great deal of discussion of what constitutes a kosher sukkah - and a proper citron.

While Jews were instructed to sleep and eat in the sukkah throughout the holiday, if the weather was inclement or there was some other external problem, one could forgo this observance. Halakha is quite lenient here, saying that you shouldn’t stay in the sukkah “if it makes you uncomfortable.” Thus to this day Jews in northern climes tend to eschew this tradition, while in more temperate places such as Israel, observant Jews will usually sleep, eat, and pray in their sukkahs all week.

There are rules governing sukkah size: it must not be too small (at least 22 inches wide, 22 inches long, and 31” high) nor too big (not more than 32 feet high). It must have at least three sides and must be covered by a roof made of plants, traditionally palm date fronds. It must provide shade but let in rain and the stars must be visible through the frond ceiling, not that one can see them in modern light-polluted cities. Its sides may be made of any material as long as it is strong enough to withhold the wind. It is customary to build the sukkah right after the end of Yom Kippur.

Etrogs for sale on Sukkot / Dreamstime

When praying in the sukkah or at synagogue the four species are ritually shaken in different parts of the liturgical service.

Visits by patriarchs and kings

Over the years, Sukkot gained new traditions not originating in the bible or in ancient rabbinic texts. For example, a tradition dating back to the time of the Gaonim is to recite prayers called Hoshanot - poems asking for different kinds of divine favor. They are recited twice a day on each of the days of the holiday.

On the last day, the congregation recites the final prayer, called Hoshanah Rabah - the Great Hoshanah, walking in a circle outside the synanogue and shaking the four species in their hands.

The Zohar, kabbalist literature from the 13th century, is the source of a tradition that on each day of Sukkot a biblical figure - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David - visit the sukkah. These are collectively called the Ushpizin, which is Aramaic for visitors.

In ultra-Orthodox circles, parties with music and segregated dancing are held during the nights of Sukkot. These are called Simkhat Beit HaShoeva, a throwback to the parties of the Second Temple period.

In modern times, Sukkot has created an industry with special markets selling the four species and sukkah kits springing up in the days preceding the holiday. Etrog importing has become quite the cut-throat industry.

In Israel the first day of Sukkot is a holiday and businesses are closed. School remains closed all week but stores reopen from the second day. Where once upon a time, Sukkot was The Holiday for Jews - today among the non-observant it's become mainly an excuse for the kids to play camping in the sukkah, and for the observant – it's just another holiday.