Understanding Sukkot in the Context of the Shalosh Regalim
By Jemima Schoen
Published in the October 7, 2022 Issue
We have many holidays across the Jewish calendar. Most revolve around praying, rituals, and lots of food. The most important of these days on the calendar, the main three holy days — the Shalosh Regalim — were times of ascending by foot, making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bring sacrifices. These three holidays are Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Each holiday has its own roots in Jewish history, each has specific mitzvot associated with it, and each reflects a separate agricultural season.
Pesach, commemorating the exodus from Egypt, falls at the start of the planting season, and we are commanded to eat matzah for eight days. We remove all chametz (leavened food) from our homes and recount the Exodus, Yetziat Mitzrayim, at our seders, while eating maror and charoset to remember the bitter work we did as slaves in Egypt. Pesach, Zman Cheiruteinu, has a theme of redemption ‒ redemption by God’s hand from Egypt long ago and redemption in the future times of Mashiach.
Shavuot, literally the Feast of Weeks, arrives seven weeks after Pesach, at the time of the first harvest. Shavuot commemorates Matan Torah (our acceptance of God’s commandments) and becoming God’s nation. Traditions for the holiday include learning Torah late into the night and eating dairy. We listen to the Ten Commandments and the Book of Ruth. In the time of the Beit Hamikdash, this was the start of the period for bringing our first fruit to Jerusalem. Shavuot has a theme of accepting the mantle of Torah, a promise between us and Hashem that we renew annually.
Sukkot reflects the Jews’ wanderings for 40 years and the temporary nature of our lives in the desert. We trusted in and relied on God for food and protection. Sukkot falls at the time of the last harvest before the rainy season. We are commanded to live in the sukkah for seven days, and we make brachot on the lulav and etrog and march around saying the Hoshanot. By living in the sukkah, we reaffirm our trust and reliance on Hashem in the face of the unknown. We maintain our commitment to Hashem and to the Torah with the hope that the rains will come and the cycle of seasons will renew.
Sukkot is the holiday of joy — Z’man Simchateinu. In Vayikra 23:40, we are commanded to rejoice before Hashem for seven days. While we rejoice on other holidays, there seems to be an additional emphasis on joy during Sukkot, the only holiday where God expressly commands us to rejoice. Coming just four days after the time of Yom Kippur and the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, a holy period of introspection, fear, guilt and awe, in contrast, Sukkot is a time of release to just be happy and look forward to a new year. It is a time to appreciate the unity of the people celebrating the holiday and displaying their love of their religion and its practice. The celebrations in the Beit Hamikdash reflect pure jubilation, and the Simchat Beit Hashoeva (a special water libation/offering ceremony specific to Sukkot) is considered the highest form of rejoicing ever seen. Adding a holiday simply to delight in our rituals and time together demonstrates the importance of enjoying ourselves in Judaism and appreciating all that we have. Sometimes, it can seem like the most crucial aspects of our religion should be the most serious or monumental, but Sukkot shows that taking time to relax and rejoice is essential, as well.
Over the course of each year in the cycle of our holidays, we remember and renew our relationship with God, remembering how God astounded us with the miracle of the splitting of the sea and escape from Egypt, gave us the Torah and took us as a nation, and how we forever rely on God and celebrate our relationship and observance of the commandments.
May everyone’s Sukkot be full of joy and celebration as we live in our sukkot and affirm our commitment to Hashem.