A Holiday, Interrupted / Sukkot

For hundreds of years from the time of Joshua until that of Ezra and Nehemiah - traditions related to Sukkot were in essence suspended, but now they are being restored, thanks to the 'new’ Torah text that Ezra’s listeners 'discover,’ which now become a reality.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Sukkah preparations in Ra’anana, 2006. Was the tradition suspended for hundreds of years?
Sukkah preparations in Ra’anana, 2006. Was the tradition suspended for hundreds of years?Credit: Nir Keidar
Yakov Z. Meyer

In the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides discusses the various interpretations the sages provide for biblical verses. The interpretations, he writes, are not always understood so readily but are rooted in an ancient, but still-living, part of the tradition that accompanies each of them. Each interpretation is done according to that tradition. Talmudic scholars came up with creative homilies for certain verses so as to provide commentary that is congruent with the traditional reading, although their efforts cannot conceal the fact that the latter reading preceded the interpretive one. In such instances, the sole purpose of the interpretive reading is simply to “authorize” the familiar traditional interpretation.

To illustrate this point, Maimonides presents homilies on the etrog ‏(pri etz hadar, or literally “the fruit of goodly trees’; in modern Hebrew, hadar refers to citrus fruit in general‏), which is one of the four species that Israelites are commanded in Leviticus ‏(23:40‏) to bless on Sukkot, the seven-day Feast of Tabernacles that begins tonight. The source that says that it is indeed the etrog that must be taken with the other three species in a letter found in the Judean Desert, which was written by Simeon Bar Kochba, leader of the revolt against the Romans ‏(132-135 C.E.‏) that culminated with the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem. In that letter, Bar Kochba requests that he be sent lulavim ‏(branches of palm trees‏) and etrogim for Sukkot.

The Talmud contains many interpretations of the etrog as being “the fruit of goodly trees.” Maimonides cites these and offers this explanation: “Sometimes you see the rabbinical scholars in the Talmud debating theoretical issues with each other, and presenting evidence related to one of these interpretations ... For example, what they say with respect to the phrase [in Lev. 23:40] ‘the fruit of goodly trees’: The sages ask whether that reference is to the pomegranate, the quince or some other fruit.

“One deduces from the phrase’s inclusion of both ‘fruit’ and ‘tree’ that it must be referring to “a tree in which the tree itself and its fruit have the same flavor” [Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah, p. 35a]. Another states that the phrase in question should be read not as a ‘goodly fruit,’ but rather as ‘a fruit that dwells’ ? namely, ‘a fruit that dwells ‏(or lives‏) on any kind of water.’ A third argues that the phrase should be read as ‘a fruit that dwells in its tree all year round.’ This evidence is not presented because these scholars had any doubt as to the true identity of the fruit referred to - that is, the etrog - or because they were waiting for the correct interpretation to emerge. Quite the contrary: From Joshua’s time to the present, it is absolutely clear that the fruit taken with the lulav is the etrog. This point is indisputable. What the scholars were trying to do was identify the allusion in the verse to the traditional interpretation [namely, that the fruit to be taken is the etrog]” ‏(Maimonides’ introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah‏).

According to Maimonides, the sages’ homilies are not intended to constitute evidence that the “goodly fruit” refers to the etrog, because the identity of that fruit is already rooted in an ancient interpretive tradition, dating from the time of Joshua, and does not originate in other written sources. The aim of the scholars is, rather, to identify the allusion in the verse to the traditional interpretation, Maimonides claims, so all of these homilies are “de facto” commentaries: The homilist, who knows in advance that it is the etrog that must taken along with the lulav and the other species on Sukkot, simply wants to unequivocally identify in the Torah’s verses a hint to something that is already part of an accepted custom.

In essence, Maimonides is offering an even more radical argument. He is not claiming that the Torah’s text can be seen as coming along with a tradition that enables a correct interpretation of that text; instead, he holds that the tradition involving use of the etrog on Sukkot is totally independent and has no need of being corroborated by the Torah’s text. Although the sages exert a concerted effort to find in the Torah an allusion to this tradition, the allusion is not dictated by reality per se. The still-living tradition “mobilizes” the Torah with the aid of the sages’ homilies, and transforms it into an interpretation of an age-old ritual.

However, tradition does not always challenge the literal interpretation of the Torah’s text. After Ezra and Nehemiah return to Palestine and begin repairing the wall around Jerusalem, Ezra constructs a wooden pulpit from which he reads the Torah to all Israel. This impressive event takes place in the first month of the Hebrew calendar, Tishrei: “And on the second day were gathered together the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even to give attention to the words of the Law. And they found written in the Law, how that the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month” ‏(Nehemiah 8:13-14‏).

As they listen to the words of the Torah, which are entirely new to them, the Israelites weep, because they had not previously known the commandments associated with the month of Tishrei and its holidays, or what their religious obligations were. The people first discover upon hearing this text, for example, that they are obligated to construct booths (sukkahs) on Sukkot. The Torah does not confirm the tradition of blessing the etrog because there was no such custom in the era of Ezra and Nehemiah; indeed, that custom will now be created as an interpretation of the text.

The reaction to and significance of the above event is referred to again: “And all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness” ‏(Neh. 8:17‏). Thus, for hundreds of years - from the time of Joshua until that of Ezra and Nehemiah ? traditions related to Sukkot were in essence suspended, but now they are being restored, thanks to the “new” Torah text that Ezra’s listeners “discover,” which now become a reality.

There is a contradiction here: If the traditions related to Sukkot were suspended after Joshua, the traditional interpretation concerning the type of fruit that is to be blessed on that holiday could not have been preserved over time as public knowledge. These two myths thus contradict one another. One is biblical and the other medieval; one is a myth of continuation and other is one of renewal; one is a myth of memory and the other concerns restoration of a lost memory. Nonetheless, the two return to the same turning point: Sukkot as it was celebrated in the time of Joshua.

According to Maimonides, not only did Joshua create the tradition regarding use of the etrog, which continues to this very day, for a millennium and a half: He was also the last Jew to obey the commandment of observing the festival of Sukkot until it was restored to collective memory centuries later, in the age of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Joshua thus embodies the starting point of the history of Jewish settlement in the Land of Canaan, which can be interpreted as the beginning of time. In Parashat Vayelech, Moses transfers to Joshua the leadership of the nation and blesses him. Moses then commits the Torah to writing and gives it to the priests and elders of Israel, instructing them how to observe Sukkot after his death: “And Moses commanded them, saying: ‘At the end of every seven years, in the set time of the year of release, in the feast of tabernacles, when all Israel is come to appear before the Lord thy God in the place which He shall choose, thou shalt read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law; and that their children, who have not known, may hear, and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as ye live in the land whither ye go over the Jordan to possess it’” ‏(Deuteronomy 31:10-13‏).

Joshua’s Sukkot is the festival when the book that is the text of the Torah is reopened in order to remind the nation of the forgotten words of God. Joshua is the leader who takes the Children of Israel from their temporary dwellings in the desert to permanent homes in the Promised Land; he is the leader who transforms Israel from a nomadic people to an agricultural nation. He is also the leader who effects the metamorphosis the nation will undergo when

it enters Canaan, and who is responsible for maintaining the continuum of memory and ensuring that the nation will not forget its God. Perhaps for this reason, Joshua’s festival of Sukkot serves as the starting point for the axis of time covering the history of memory and oblivion.

Although the two myths do not merge to form a single coherent picture, Joshua’s double, paradoxical image, which is reflected in them, is aptly suited to the dialectical nature of Sukkot. This is a festival that is integral to the Promised Land; it is an agricultural holiday, a celebration of the harvest. However, on the other hand, it is also a historical festival that reconstructs Israel’s 40-year journey in the Sinai desert to Canaan; a festival of both renewal and reconstruction; and a festival of oblivion and restoration of lost memory. Sukkot encompasses both of Joshua’s roles: as the last Jew to observe the holiday’s tradition and also the creator of the tradition. The Joshua of Ezra and Nehemiah, and the Joshua of Maimonides is not only the figure that causes memory to be lost but is also the one who reminds his people of that lost memory.

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