Shia Altman

Don’t worry, be happy — a Sukkot Dvar Torah

Four times in the Torah the reference of “simcha,” happiness, is used in relation to the Pilgrimage Festivals of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks) and Pesach (Passover).  None with regard to Pesach, one in connection with Shavuot (Devarim – Parshat Re’eih, Deuteronomy 16:11), and three for the holiday of Sukkot (ibid. 16:14, 16:15, Vayikrah – Parshat Emor, Leviticus 23:40).  Why is that?  Is Sukkot supposed to be happier than the other holidays?  Is Pesach not supposed to be happy at all?  One of the “happiness” verses in general says we should be happy on our festival, and it does mean all three of them, but what is so special about Sukkot that it warrants three out of four?

Artist Shalom Koboshvili (1876–1941). Feast Of "Sukkot," 1938. {{PD-US}}
Artist Shalom Koboshvili (1876–1941). Feast Of “Sukkot,” 1938. {{PD-US}}

We do know that Sukkot, the holiday commemorating the temporary dwellings the Children of Israel built as they traveled through the desert after leaving Egypt, is a very joyous holiday with added laws and customs that relate to celebration.  There is the extra day at the end of the holiday, Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth day of Assembly, independent, yet also part of Sukkot, when God tells us not to leave the festival just yet, to have just one more day of joy.  The holiday is culminated by the jubilant Simchat Torah when we begin anew the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah.  At the time of the Second Temple, the Simchat Beit Hashoeva or the Drawing of the Water ceremony, took place on the evenings of Sukkot, when water for the main alter was gathered from a stream near the Temple Mount.  The observance was so exuberant with dancers, bands and a parade, as well as thousands of euphoric onlookers, that the Rabbis said in the Talmud (volumes of legal discussions and commentary dating back over 1500 years), Sukkah, 51b, “He who has not seen the rejoicing at the water-drawing place has never seen rejoicing in his life.”

OK, so Sukkot is a happy holiday.  But Shavuot is when Matan Torah happened, when the Jewish people were given the Torah.  That’s a big deal.  Why only one biblical reference of happiness for this holiday?  (The connection between Matan Torah and Shavuot is not mentioned in the Torah, but it is inferred by the Rabbis.)  And Pesach?  Come on.  There really is no need to remind anyone of the Exodus from Egypt and the transformation of the Children of Israel from slaves to a free people.  What could be more happy that that?

The simple answer is that when the Torah refers to happiness in relation to the three festivals, it is referring to satisfaction at the harvesting of crops, something of significant importance to the agricultural economy of ancient times.  Whether or not, literally, the fruit of one’s labor was successful.  The Daas Zekeinim Mibaalei Tosafos (a medieval commentary) at Devarim, Deuteronomy 16:15, explains the happiness reference breakdown this way.  Crops are growing but are not yet harvested by Pesach, so there is no reason for rejoicing, and so, no mention of happiness.  By Shavuot, grain crops such as wheat and barley are ready for harvest, albeit not yet fully gathered into storage, but tree crops such as fruits and olives have not yet ripened, so only one mention of happiness.  By Sukkot, grain and tree crops have been fully harvested, and everything has been stored away.  Three reasons to be happy, three mentions of happiness.

Is there a way to use happiness to interconnect all three holidays?

Three out of the four happiness verses are general in nature.  The fourth, for Sukkot, is the verse that mentions the Arba Minim, representatives of four species of trees – the etrog (citron) fruit, the lulav (unopened date palm tree branch), the hadasim (three myrtle tree sprigs), and the aravot (two willow tree sprigs).  All four are bound and held together.

The Arba Minim, The Four Species
The Arba Minim, The Four Species

The Midrash (a collection of ancient biblical commentaries), Vayikra Rabbah 30:12, explains that each of the species represents a different type of Jewish person.  The etrog, a pleasant-tasting fruit that also has a pleasant smell, represents someone who has Torah knowledge and who fulfills the mitzvot, the biblical commandments.  The lulav, itself without a pleasant smell, but which comes from a tree that yields pleasant-tasting fruit, represents someone who has Torah knowledge but does not fulfill the mitzvot.  The hadasim, pleasant-smelling but coming from a tree that does not yield anything pleasant-tasting, represents someone without Torah knowledge but who performs the mitzvot.  The aravot, neither pleasant-smelling nor coming from a tree yielding anything pleasant-tasting, represents someone lacking Torah knowledge as well as the performance of the mitzvot.  The four species are bound and held together to symbolize unity, a very important element of the holiday, just as we are beginning a new year, and a renewed chance for a good life. Not a bad reason to be happy.

The Passover Seder Haggadah tells about the four sons referred to in the Torah when a father tells his children about the Exodus from Egypt. The wise son, the wicked son, the simple son and the son unable to ask about anything.  I think each son, each Jewish person, can be compared to each of the four species.  The wise one is like the etrog.  He has Torah knowledge and he does the commandments.  The wicked one is like the lulav.  He has Torah knowledge but does not do the commandments.  The simple one is like the hadasim.  He does not have Torah knowledge but does do the commandments.  And finally, the one unable to inquire is like the aravot.  He does not have Torah knowledge and does not do the commandments.  All the Jews, good ones and bad, left Egypt, and although it didn’t last, much like the symbolism of the binding and holding together of the four species, there was unity.

The Passover Haggadah says that in every generation, each person should feel as if he or she went through the Exodus.  For the holiday of Shavuot, according to the Talmud, Shevuot 39a, all Jews from all generations were at the Matan Torah.  And the Talmud in Sukkah 27b, says that on Sukkot, it is appropriate for all of Israel to live in one Sukkah.

So, unity is an important theme of each holiday and as with Sukkot, when there is so much emphasis on togetherness and joy, as exemplified by the pleasure of having guests dine with us in the Sukkah, on Shavuot and Pesach, with unity comes happiness.  The verse relating to all the festivals (Deuteronomy 16:14) does say, after all: “And you shall be happy in your festival, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your man-servant, and your maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within your gates.”  In other words, being together with family and friends and others makes you happy.

It also says in the Talmud, Shevuot 39a, “Kol yisroel areivim zeh lazeh,” “All Jews are responsible for one another.”  Whether we like it or not, whether we are all in agreement or not, for better or worse, in good times and bad, we are one people.  Let’s hope we can act that way.  Or at least come close.

Chag Sameach!  Happy holiday!

About the Author
Shia Altman who hails from Baltimore, MD, now lives in Los Angeles. His Jewish studies, aerospace, and business and marketing background includes a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from the University of Baltimore. When not dabbling in Internet Marketing, Shia tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and Judaic and Biblical Studies to both young and old.
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