Origins of Sukkot Celebrations

As we know, the Jewish new year is on the first of Tisrei, the seventh month. But new years was probably originally on Succoth, the 15th of that month. A full moon is an auspicious time to start a new year, the moon seems to shine its approval. Historically, we find that Solomon in fact dedicated the First Temple in the holiday of the 7th month. This we presume is Succoth since it is the classic "holiday" ( hag ). If we cinsider that it would seem reasonable for Solomon to found the Temple on the first day of the year much as kings reigns are counted from the first day of the year. So G-d, the king of kings, should also have his reign established on new years day. So why was it instead on Succoth? If succoth was in fact new years then this would explain the choice of dates.

Encyclopedia Judaica notes that Babylonian kings did in fact celebrate their yearly renewal as king on the 15th of Tishrei. Moreover, slaves were freed in the first part of Tishrei so it seems either way it must be admitted that the whole first half of Tishrei (and not just the first of the month) is closely associated with new years and beginnings. Probably some time later the first of tishrei was selected as the new new years day.

Ezra and Nehemia also dedicated the Second Temple on Succoth and the Hasmonian kings chose the celebrate eight days of temple re-inaugeration becasue they wished to re-enact the Succoth holiday which had been missed due to the preceding war. So Succoth is closly associated with beginnings and with the new reign of the king.

Since the new year is a time or re-assessment and judgement, the prophets envisioned the Final Judgement to take place on the new year, Succoth. It is the the end of the old order and the start of the new. Thus we read in the Haftara of the first day of Succoth from Zecharia 14 about the final judgement taking place on Succoth. We then can understand why we have the Shabbat hol-hamoed haftara again describing the Final Judgement and the war of Gog and Magog (ezekiel). It too follows the end of days theme.

The two main pilgrimage holidays of Judaism are Passover and Succoth. Each are two different ways in which we bring the Temple into our lives.

The main law of Passover is to remove leavening from the home. In the Temple, leavening was also forbidden. Almost all the sacrifices were forbidden to contain leavening. In fact, the only context in which the term Hametz applies, other than Passover, is in the temple. Outside the temple there is no such thing as hametz. With this observation we can cast Passover as a holiday in which we bring the Temple into our home. We remove leavening and make our home into a model of the Temple. We thus elevate our existence in holiness.

Conversely, Succoth is a holiday where we leave our home and enter a small private Temple which we build. The original Temple was actually a tent, or tabernacle. The Succoth boths resemble this original tent of worship. In the Talmud there is an argument as to whether the succoth are a rememberance for actually boths in which we dwelt or for the clouds of glory which protected us in the desert. According to this second view, our Succoth are even closer to the Temple. When the Temple was completed, G-d's Glory descended upon the Temple. This is the same sort of protecting presence we had in the desert journey.

So these two holidays come to remind us that we need to bring holiness into our lives but also we need sometimes to leave our ordinary lives and seek out a purer holiness. This leaving is of course only temporary, as Succoth is only 7 days. In this way it also reminds us that out holiness is ultimatley designed to enrich our regular lives and is not an end in itself.

© Nachum Danzig - 11 Oct 2004 - 19 Nov 2008