Why Do Jews Erect Booths During Sukkot?

The Bible ties building booths on Sukkot to Exodus, but another explanation may lie in ancient Ugaritic tablets about a Canaanite supplication to Baal.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children play between Sukkahs built for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Jerusalem.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children play between Sukkahs built for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Jerusalem.Credit: AP
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The most important custom of Sukkot is erecting booths in which Jews traditionally eat, pray and often sleep during the entire weeklong holiday. In fact, Sukkot is Hebrew for “booths.” But where did this custom come from?

The Bible explicitly says that the reason is “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” (Leviticus 23:43). The problem is that this defies logic, and indicates an editing of the reality of the time.

Desert nomads sensibly do not lug heavy materials for booths around with them, they use tents, and the Israelites in their desert wanderings were no different. The Bible also explicitly says several times that they lived in tents (e.g. Exodus 33:8).

In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any connection between Sukkot and the Exodus from Egypt at all. While Passover and Shavuot are ostensibly celebrated on dates important in the story of the Exodus, nothing in the Exodus story took place during the week of Sukkot. For these reasons, modern Bible scholars believe the Bible’s explanation for why the booths are to be erected is a post facto explanation. So what is the real reason Jews build booths on Sukkot?

Scholars have come up with various alternatives to the religious theory for the origin of the booths, the most popular being that families would move into the fields during harvest season and live in huts, which over time, became part of the ritual. A second theory is that the booths were housing for pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the harvest festival and eventually became part of the ritual.

What all three of these origin stories have in common is that they assume that the tradition of the booths started from practical, secular use of huts. However, yet another explanation could explain the genesis of the tradition directly from religion: that Sukkot, like much else in the Jewish religion, developed from the Canaanite religion that preceded it.

There is no evidence that the Canaanites built booths in an autumnal festival, but its absence should not be taken as evidence that a festival of this sort didn’t exist. The Canaanite culture disappeared long ago and left us very little in the form of writing, and close to nothing regarding their holidays, festivals and religious ceremonies. What they did leave us is myths, including what scholars call the "Ba’al Cycle" – a series of stories inscribed on six cuneiform tablets, which seems to have encoded in it a Canaanite version of Sukkot.

The Ba’al Cycle

The Ba’al Cycletell about Ba'al Hadad, the Canaanite God of rain and storms and a leading deity in the Canaanite pantheon (roughly equivalent to Zeus). Among the myths recounted in the cycle, which was discovered in the 1920s in the Canaanite seaside city of Ugarit (in present-day coastal Syria) is the story of Ba’al subduing his rival Yam, God of seas and rivers, and Mot, god of death.

At a certain stage of the story, Mot defeats Ba’al and eats him. Ba’al finds himself in the underworld, which is probably a myth to explain why there is no rain in the summer.

Being a god, Ba’al does return from the underworld, but finds himself powerless to produce rain.

The narrative then moves onto the chapter that seems to be the Canaanite inspiration for the later Jewish custom of building ceremonial booths: the story of building Ba’al’s palace, without which Ba’al cannot bring rain down on the earth.

With the aid of his sister Anat, goddess of war, and Asherah, queen of the gods, Ba'al petitions El, king of the gods, for permission to build a palace. After some gifts are given, permission is granted. A messenger is dispatched to Egypt, to call on Kothar-wa-Khasis, god of building and technology. Once he arrives the materials are collected: gold, silver, timber, lapis lazuli and two other materials whose identity remains a mystery, but some scholars believe are “weeds and herbs.”

Kothar-wa-Khasis suggests to Ba’al that a window be put in the roof of his palace but Ba’al refuses. Kothar-wa-Khasis advises him that he will change his mind in the end. Construction takes seven days. All 70 Canaanite gods attend a banquet in the palace, which is completed once Ba’al gives Kothar-wa-Khasis permission to install a window in the roof. This window turns out to be critical because Ba’al shoots out lightning and thunder, and most importantly, rain out of it. The end.

'There will be no rain upon them'

This story seems to be about how the dry season ends in fall and the rainy season begins, but there must be good reason for the scribes 3,200 years ago to have troubled to meticulously inscribe such elaborate details about the building of Ba’al’s palace.

A reasonable explanation is that the text elaborates rites of a long-forgotten Canaanite autumnal festival, which involved building booths that represented Ba’al’s palace; and the Canaanites believed that building them just right was imperative to the renewal of the rains.

Moving onto the Jews a few hundred years later, a connection between Sukkot and rain is clearly drawn. Not only is the festival celebrated just before the first rains begin to fall: the connection is explicitly mentioned in the Book of Zechariah: “Then every one that survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the feast of booths. And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain upon them” (14:16-17).

Further evidence that the Jewish holiday was based on an older Canaanite ritual is that the ancient Jews were aware of the connection between Sukkot and the construction of divine palaces: That is why the Temple of Solomon was dedicated on Sukkot (2 Chronicles 7:5). Later, when the Maccabees rededicated the Temple, they chose to do it with a Sukkot-like celebration (2 Maccabees 10:8).

As Ba’al’s palace may have been built using “weeds and herbs,” that could explain why the booths were originally made using branches of different plants. The construction of the palace took seven days, which could explain why Sukkot lasts a week.

While the Jerusalem Temple was operating, all ceremonious sacrifices were made there, and on Sukkot, 70 bulls were sacrificed (more than any other holiday). The sameness of the number is intriguing. Could that be one for each of the 70 Canaanite gods that attended the banquet – possibly a remnant of an ancient tradition of appeasing each of the visiting guest gods.

The Canaanite myth repeats time and again how important it is that the palace have a window in its roof. That may explain why a sukkah is only kosher if you can see the stars through its roof.

And finally, a prayer recited after eating in the sukkah goes: “The Merciful One he will grant us the honor of sitting in a sukkah made of the skin of Leviathan” - Leviathan is Yam’s most important monster-warrior in the fight against Ba’al. One of the first things that Ba’al does in his palace, according to the myth, is brag about vanquishing Yam.

All these correspondences between the Ba’al Cycle and Sukkot seem to indicate some connection. The remarkable parallels even enable us to postulate the existence of a week-long Canaanite rain supplication festival that left no solid evidence behind – but may have left a mark in the rituals performed by Jews on Sukkot for hundreds of years after the last adherent of the Canaanite religion drew his final breath.

This story was first published in October 2016

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