On Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, the holiday commemorating the temporary dwellings the Children of Israel built as they traveled through the desert after leaving Egypt, as with other holidays, Jews add a small prayer to the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals prayer. That prayer is, “Harachamon who yakim lanu et sukkat Dovid hanofelet,” “May the Merciful One rebuild for us King David’s fallen sukkah (tabernacle).” The words “rebuild for us King David’s fallen sukkah” come from a verse in the book of the prophet Amos.
For the other two Jewish “pilgrimage festivals” — when during the time of the Jewish Temples Jews all over Israel would journey to Jerusalem to celebrate — of Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), we simply say the prayer, “Harachamon who yanchilainu yom shekulo tov,” “May the Merciful One let us inherit a day that is completely good.” Why add the prayer about King David’s fallen sukkah on Sukkot? Is it because we simply wish to add an invocation to the liturgy with “Sukkah” in it? Then why not add separate prayers for Pesach and Shavuot? There are plenty of biblical verses mentioning those holidays.
First, let’s look at that verse in Amos, 9:11. It reads, “On that day, I will raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up its breaches, and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old.” Amos lived during the time of the first Jewish temple. He warned that unless the people stopped sinning, terrible things would happen. And they did. He also prophesied deliverance. Some Jewish commentators say the verse refers to the days of Jewish Messianic redemption when the kingdom of David will be restored. Others say that the word “sukkah” refers to the rebuilding of the third Jewish Temple.
There is a conversation in the Talmud, volumes of legal discussions and commentary dating back over 1500 years, Sanhedrin 96b-97a, where Rabbi Nachman asks Rabbi Yitzchak, “Have you heard when ‘bar Nafli,’ ‘the son who is fallen,’ will come?” Rabbi Yitchak asked, “Who is bar Nafli?” Rabbi Nachman replied, “Moshiach (the Messiah).” Rabbi Yitchak asked, “You call Moshiach, bar Nafli?” “Yes,” was the response, “because it is written, ‘On that day, I will raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen.’”
Rashi, the preeminent medieval Jewish commentator, recognizing that Mashiach will come from the lineage of King David after the Davidic dynasty is restored, says Rabbi Nachman was referring to the fallen kingdom of David, and that was why he called Mashiach, bar Nafli, the son who is fallen.
In addition, being every Hebrew letter has a numerical value and so, every Hebrew word has a cumulative numerical value, the numerical value of ben Yishai – King David was Dovid ben Yishai, David the son of Jesse – is the same as the sum of the Hebrew letters for bar Nafli, 372.
Now we know more about the Sukkot prayer in the Grace After Meals. But still, what is so special about this festival of Sukkot that we add a reference to the verse in Amos when there are no additions for Pesach and Shavuot?
Although each of the three pilgrimage festivals have their own sacred importance and their own specific and revered laws and customs, some well-known, such as the Seder on Pesach and the reading of the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, it is the festival of Sukkot that specializes in something for that which we never seem to have enough – happiness.
There are four verses that use the word “simcha,” happiness, in the Torah that refer to the pilgrimage festivals. None with regard to Pesach, one in connection with Shavuot and three for the holiday of Sukkot.
There are two extra festival days at the end of Sukkot (one combined day in Israel) – Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Assembly, where God wants the jubilation not to end, and Simchat Torah, the Joy of the Torah, when we begin anew the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah.
Both the first and second Jewish temples were dedicated on Sukkot.
During the time of the Temple, on Sukkot, there was an observance called the Simchat Beit Hashoeva, the Joy of the Drawing of the Water, which with its accompanying bands, dancers and parades, was one of the most exuberant ceremonies of the year.
The Sukkah itself, the temporary dwelling built for the holiday, creates the most natural reason for families and friends to invite and visit each other for festive and lively meals within that dwelling.
Lastly, because of all of the above and more, the Rabbis actually nicknamed Sukkot, Z’man Simchatenu, the Season of Happiness.
The festival of Sukkot falls only a few days after the most solemn day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On that day, a day of fasting and deprivation, and the nine days before it beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Jews spend the time in retrospection and intense prayer, asking forgiveness for sins and emotionally appealing for the new year to be one of life, tranquility and gladness.
I think, if ever there was a time for happiness, it is just after that most somber and fearful, period and day of the year when God decides who will live and who will die. Just as when a loved one is lost, and the related interval of mourning must end, God reminds us that as there is trepidation, there is also assurance and serenity, even rejoicing. As it says in Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, which is chanted on Sukkot, there is, “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
Which Jewish holiday is the one most identified with happiness in the Torah? Sukkot. And what words remind us why it is so happy and at the same time give us hope for a coming period of honor and celebration? “On that day, I will raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen.” And accordingly, in Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals prayer, we ask God to “rebuild for us King David’s fallen tabernacle,” so we can once again freely worship on Har Habayit, the Temple Mount, and joyfully perform those laws and customs that were biblically ordained.
May our new year be one filled with love, grace and peace. May we have no sorrow and hardships, but instead, a year full of laughter and dancing.
Chag Sameach! Happy Holiday!