Shabbat Sukkot: What Are Sukkot and Why Do We Live in Them?

  • Prof. Yoel Elitzur

What Were the Original Sukkot and Why Do We Live in Them?

            The answer to the question seems to depend on whom you ask. If we ask the darshan – the homilist – he will respond that the sukkot represent the clouds of glory, and we live in them on Sukkot because “I made the people of Israel live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). As Onkelos translates, “I made the people of Israel live in the shade of the clouds.”

            If we ask the pashtan – the realist – he will say that the people of Israel lived in literal sukkot, or booths, when they wandered through the wilderness. The pashtan may even criticize the darshan for not considering the simple reading of the verse sufficiently dignified for him to accept; why must he feel obligated to add a supernatural interpretation on top of that? Meanwhile, the darshan will accuse the pashtan of shallowness: If the verse does not refer to something lofty and divine, then why was it important to note what kind of dwellings the people of Israel used?

            There is a well-known dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva on the matter: “These were clouds of glory – so said Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva said: They made for themselves real booths” (Sukka 11b). In Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishma’el (on the verse, “The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth” [Exodus 12:37]) and Torat Kohanim, the proponents of these two views are reversed: Rabbi Akiva said that sukkot are clouds of glory, while Rabbi Eliezer claimed that they were actual booths. Mekhilta De-Rashbi on Parashat Bo follows the Talmud Bavli’s version, while on Parashat Beshalach it follows the version of the halakhic midrashim.

            The Jewish Targumim – Onkelos, the Jerusalem Targum (MS Neofiti) and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan – translate the word as “clouds of glory.” On the other hand, the Septuagint, the Peshitta, the Vulgate and the Samaritan Pentateuch translate it as actual booths.

            From that point on in history there has been a divergence among the interpretations, like parallel lines that will never meet. In the traditional beit midrash setting, the sages – including R. Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Chizkuni, Ramban, the Zohar and various midrashic and Hasidic works – have consistently interpreted sukkot as clouds of glory. The same is true even in halakhic literature. Rabbeinu Ya’akov, known as Ba’al Ha-turim, opens his “Laws of Sukka” with the following:

“You shall live in sukkot seven days… in order that future generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in sukkot when I brought them out….” The sukkot in which the verse states that God made them live are clouds of glory in which [God] enveloped them, so that hot wind and sun would not strike them. (Tur, Orach Chayyim 625)

Echoing and reinforcing this position, R. Yosef Karo states there: “You shall live in sukkot seven days… that I made the people of Israel live in sukkot.” These are clouds of glory in which [God] enveloped them, so that hot wind and sun would not strike them” (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 625). In his commentary Machatzit Ha-shekel, R. Shmuel Ha-Levi Kelin writes that in general, it is not appropriate to render halakhic rulings on questions of Biblical interpretation. Here, however, since the Torah specifically commanded “in order that future generations may know,” it is incumbent on the halakhic decisors to rule on the matter, thus determining what it is that future generations must “know” and what a person’s intentions should be when fulfilling the mitzva.

            In contrast to the prevailing traditional approach stand the pashtanim Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, along with most of the later translators and commentators and virtually all of the non-Jewish exegetical literature. All the members of this group are certain that the sukkot described in the verse are actual booths.

A Few Questions to Ask Ourselves

  1. In what kind of dwellings did the people of Israel live in the wilderness? The people of Israel’s wanderings through the wilderness from the time of the Exodus from Egypt until Moses’ death in the plains of Moab are described at length throughout the books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. We find that they generally lived in ohalim (“tents”; for a few examples, see Exodus 16:16; 33:8-10; Numbers 16:26-27, 24:5), or as they are occasionally called, mishkanim (“abodes”; see Numbers 16:24-27; 24:5). Sukkot are not mentioned throughout the narrative of the people of Israel’s journey through the wilderness even once!
  1. One famous question is the lack of any connection between the reason for celebrating the festival and the festival’s date. If our sukkot serve as a remembrance of the Exodus, why were we not commanded to live in sukkot on Pesach, which occurs when we departed from Egypt?
  1. What is the source of the explanation of “in order that future generations may know”? The festivals are enumerated in full or partial lists five times in the Torah: twice in brief in Exodus, once in Leviticus, once in Numbers and once in Deuteronomy. All three festivals are enumerated in each of the five places. In the two brief overviews of the festivals in Exodus, the festival of Sukkot is known as “the Festival of the Ingathering” (Exodus 23:16; 34:22). In Numbers 29:12-38, the festival is called only “a festival of the Lord.” It is described at length (including the eighth day), and the only mitzvot mentioned are the unique musaf offerings of the festival and the prohibition on ordinary work (melekhet avoda) on the first and eighth days. Only in two of the five lists – in Leviticus 23:33-44 and in Deuteronomy 16:13-15 – is the festival called “the Festival of Sukkot,” and only in Leviticus is the mitzva of living in the sukka mentioned explicitly! In Deuteronomy, the festival is indeed called “the Festival of Sukkot,”[1] but only two mitzvot are mentioned there: the mitzva to rejoice “with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow in your communities”; and the mitzva to hold a festival for the Lord in the place that the Lord will choose.

Thus, we are left only with Leviticus. Let us carefully examine the situation here. It is easy to see that the passage dealing with the festival of Sukkot is divided here into two parts: one part in its proper place within the passage that discusses all the festivals; and the other part as a kind of addendum tacked on at the end. I will not attempt here to deal with the question of why the passage is structured in this way. Instead, I will focus on the manner in which the festival is described in the two descriptions contained in the passage. Like in Numbers and Deuteronomy, in the first section (Leviticus 23:33-36), which is an integral part of the passage of the festivals in general, the festival is called “the Festival of Sukkot.” However, the mitzva of sukka is not mentioned; the mitzvot of the festival that are mentioned are the prohibition on work on the first and eighth day and the mitzva to bring offerings for seven days. Then come the verses that conclude the entire passage of the festivals:

Those are the set times of the Lord that you shall celebrate as sacred occasions, bringing offerings by fire to the Lord… apart from the Shabbatot of the Lord, and apart from your gifts and from all your votive offerings and from all your freewill offerings that you give to the Lord. (23:37-38)

At the end appears an appendix, a kind of postscript:

Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Lord seven days: a rest on the first day and a rest on the eighth day. On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of the Lord for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. You shall live in sukkot seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God. (23:39-43)

What comes out of all this? It seems that the only place in the Torah that explicitly describes the festival of Sukkot as we know it – the festival when we are commanded to live in the sukka and take the Four Species, along with the explanation, “in order that future generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in sukkot” – is the appendix of only one of the five festivals passages in the Torah. Why did the Torah only reveal the most important concept of the festival – “that I made the people of Israel live in sukkot” – in the closing lines of the appendix of one out of five passages?

When the Tanakh Provides a Reason

            The questions that we have raised here strongly bring to mind the questions we asked regarding the approach to naming people and places in the Tanakh (in our discussion on Parashat Vayetze). We saw there that the explanations given in the Tanakh for names are almost always artificial. When the name of a person or place in the Tanakh is given an explicit explanation, there generally exists another, simpler explanation. There are times when the text provides two different explanations for the same name, times when the same name is “given” twice or even three times, times when the text states explicitly that the name existed before it was given in a particular instance and times when we find that the same name was given to a different person or place without an accompanying explanation. Our conclusion was that in most cases, the names predated their explanations. When a person or place is named for a specified reason, that does not mean that this was when the name itself was created, but only when it was given a new interpretation to reflect the events of the time.

            It seems that this can serve as an effective general explanation for any case in which the Tanakh provides a reason for a certain statement. When the Tanakh provides a reason for something, our point of departure must be the understanding that this reason represents a kind of second-level explanation, rather than a primary explanation.

            Let us introduce another similar example. Why do we eat matza on Pesach? Every child knows the answer to this question: Because our ancestors did not allow their dough time to rise, as the Torah says:

And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12:39)

This explanation is found in an explicit verse, but it seems artificial; can it truly be that each of the 600,000 people who left Egypt began to knead their dough at precisely the same moment, such that none of the dough was able to rise? And furthermore, did all of them travel with “their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders” (12:34)? And apart from this, there is also a mitzva involving matza that pertains to the entire Temple service – “all meal offerings must be offered unleavened” (Menachot 52b) – as well as the prohibition of “It shall not be baked with leaven” (Leviticus 6:10). What, then, is the reason we use matza in the Temple? In addition, making matza was clearly not a novelty at the time of the Exodus, as the Torah records that Abraham and Lot baked matza for their guests! And the ultimate question: How can the Torah present the people of Israel’s use of matza during the Exodus as something requiring explanation, if they were already commanded to bake matza and that “no leavened bread shall be found with you” before then – in the passage of “This month shall mark for you…” (Exodus 12:2)?

            The Mishna in Chullin 7 provides the key to understanding this matter. The chapter deals with the prohibition of eating an animal’s sciatic nerve. The final mishna presents a dispute between Rabbi Judah and the Sages:

It applies to pure animals but not to impure. Rabbi Judah says: Even to impure animals. Rabbi Judah argued, was not the sciatic nerve prohibited from the time of the sons of Jacob, and at that time impure animals were still permitted to them? They replied: This law was ordained at Sinai but was written in its proper place.

According to the Sages, whose opinion the halakha follows in practice, one can only violate the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve if it belonged to a pure animal. According to Rabbi Judah, the prohibition applies even if one ate the sciatic nerve of a camel or a donkey. In such a case, he violates two prohibitions: the prohibition of eating an impure animal and the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve.

The prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve and its connection to the struggle between Jacob and the angel raises questions once again. It is not clear why one is prohibited to eat a certain nerve in a cow’s leg merely because the angel touched Jacob’s thigh during their struggle. Furthermore, the story of the struggle itself, which gave rise to the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve, does not actually mention the sciatic nerve – it only refers to Jacob’s hip socket! The dispute in the Mishna clarifies the matter. Rabbi Judah’s claim seems to be justified: If the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve originated in the time of the sons of Jacob, then it should include impure animals as well. The Sages respond that while the law was ordained at Sinai, it was written in its proper place. In other words, the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve is simply one of the many food-related prohibitions in the Torah, like the prohibitions of eating chelev (certain kinds of animal fat) and blood, or eating a pig or a camel. The Torah would have prohibited the sciatic nerve even if the incident with Jacob and the angel had not transpired, but the Torah chose to link the prohibition to the story of Jacob and the angel in order to create a homiletic connection between the experiences of the nation’s patriarchs and the mitzvot that the nation is obligated to fulfill.

Thus, in the cases that we have discussed, as well as in all similar cases, the explanations given in the text cannot be considered peshat. These verses have no peshat. Rather, they take a homiletic approach in their explanations, and leave the simple explanation unsaid, perhaps for us to attempt to understand it on our own. Ironically, the peshat is actually the explanation provided by the darshanim. We eat matza during the seven days of the Festival of Freedom, first of all because it represents simplicity, new beginnings and humility, flour and water – “man may live on anything that the Lord decrees”; “Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth.” It seems that the matzot of the Pesach offering also contain the aspects of a meal offering that accompanies the consumption of meat from a holy offering and the exclusion of all leaven and honey from the Sanctuary and from the offerings brought therein (a law that is itself perhaps connected to simplicity and modesty before God). On the level of homiletic connection, the Torah says: Lo and behold – the turn of events during the actual Exodus led to a point when the nation, or many of its members, left Egypt with nothing but matzot on their shoulders.

What about Sukkot? First of all, it should be noted again that the term sukkot was not mentioned at all in the description of the people of Israel’s journey through the wilderness. In other words, the word’s point of origin is actually the sukka that we live in on the festival of Sukkot. The use of the word to describe our ancestors’ tents represents an artificial, homiletic usage that stems from our own sukkot. Why do we live in sukkot? During the summer, which is the threshing season, followed by the summer fruit harvest, people would generally live in guard huts or booths near the threshing floors and vineyards. The Torah commands us to preserve the atmosphere of the outdoors and the simple life until the harvest, and to celebrate the end of the agricultural year in a simple manner, to remember God and to avoid the mindset of “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” (Deuteronomy 8:17; see Rashbam on Leviticus 23:43). Just as when we bring the bikkurim (first fruits) offering our recitation begins with the shame of “My father was a fugitive Aramean” (26:5) and conclude with the praise and thanksgiving of “He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (26:9), the same is true of the Festival of the Ingathering. We are commanded to remember God who redeemed us from Egypt, led us through the wilderness and gave us the power to get wealth. And since the Torah has been focused on the concept of the sukka here, it uses a homiletic, somewhat artificial connection, explaining that it is “in order that future generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” In other words, during the Exodus from Egypt, when you possessed nothing, I housed you in structures that, in midrashic language, can be called sukkot. And since, as we explained, this verse exists outside the realm of peshat, and indeed, represents derash in the most basic sense, there is no reason to favor one explanation over the other. It may be that the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva is not exegetical but ideological: Rabbi Eliezer believes that the redemption must come by way of divine intervention – through the clouds of glory; while Rabbi Akiva, who was Bar Kokhba’s greatest supporter, believes that the redemption and the Shekhina must be achieved through actual booths, which one builds with his own two hands that toil in the threshing floor or in the winepress.[2]

Guard hut in Wadi Jinan (Meir Rotter)



            The world of modern Biblical criticism is well aware of what we have presented here and of our analysis of the Torah’s approach to naming, presented in our discussion on Parashat Vayetze. This approach is known as etiology, or the study of causation (from the Greek aitia – “cause” – and -logia – “study of”). The problem is that scholars, in their criticism, view Biblical etiology as a characteristic of primitive folkloric thinking. They maintain that people from the Biblical period were utterly naïve, lacking the ability of logical analysis. In the view of modern scholars, these people truly believed that the name “Gilgal” was created when the people of Israel were circumcised, and they really believed that the original reason they ate matza on Pesach was that their ancestors had not given their dough time to rise. Many scholars even expand this approach, applying it to the Biblical narrative in general, maintaining, for example, that the conquest stories in the book of Joshua originated in myths that were created in order to explain the existence of an uninhabited tell in Jericho, a large cairn in the valley of Achor and five trees at the entrance to a sealed cave in Makedah.

            It seems that the primitive and naïve ones are those scholars themselves. It can be demonstrated from the Biblical text itself that while the people of the Biblical period loved to engage in linguistic homiletics and etiological explanations, they knew quite well how to distinguish between them and the simple elements of cause and effect. When Esau cries out bitterly, “Was he, then, named Jacob that he might supplant me (va-ye’akveni) these two times? First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!” (Genesis 27:36), his purpose was not to provide the “true” explanation for Jacob’s name. He and those who heard his declaration understood that this was merely a defiant, personal statement that was formulated as a name interpretation. When the verse states: “And Mizpah, because he said, ‘May the Lord watch (yitzef) between you and me’” (31:49), even without stating explicitly “That is why the place was called Mizpah,” it is clear that the verse’s intention is to create a homiletic connection rather than an actual “true” explanation.

            It is worth turning our attention to a few cases in which a verse’s etiological explanation is actually meant to be ironic. In the culture of the Biblical period, there was not a person alive who was unaware that the name “Babel (בבל)” derived from the term bāb-ili, meaning “Gate of God.” The name was written as “Bab-el (בבאל)” in sources as late as Aramaic documents from the Persian period. When the Torah interprets that Babel was given its name “because there the Lord confounded (balal) the speech of the whole earth” (11:9), it was clear to every reader from the ancient periods that this was a case of irony. The Torah uses this etiological technique to argue against the pagan Babylonian belief systems of the time, saying, in essence: You think that Babel is the gate of the gods, the nexus between heaven and earth; but in truth your belief is no more than a confused mess.

            A similar, yet more extreme example can be found in the concluding words of the story of the Philistine god Dagon in the book of Samuel. After the Philistines brought the Ark of God into the temple of Dagon in Ashdod, they found their god lying face down on the ground, with its head and both hands cut off. The verse states: “That is why, to this day, the priests of Dagon and all who enter the temple of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod” (I Samuel 5:5). The entire purpose of this verse is to serve as a literary joke. Stepping over the threshold of the temple was an established custom of all pagan worship during the Biblical period, as we know from various sources and as we read in Zephaniah:

And I will wipe out from this place every vestige of Baal, and the name of the priestlings along with the priests; and those who bow down on the roofs to the host of heaven… I will punish the officials and the king’s sons, and all who don a foreign vestment. I will also punish on that day everyone who steps over the threshold. (Zephaniah 1:4-9)

When the book of Samuel emphasizes that “That is why, to this day, the priests of Dagon and all who enter the temple of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod,” this is a prime example of “poking fun at idolatry” (a practice that Chazal expressly permit in Megilla 25b).  The priests of Dagon certainly do not believe that their god fell, hands severed, onto the threshold of its temple, and the custom of stepping over the threshold was not unique to them. The verse here is mocking them through the use of an etiological formulation: It is good that they do not step on the threshold of their god’s house, since that is where its severed head and hands were found.

            We find other instances of this “winking” etiology in the aggadot of Chazal. One example is the aggada about the two celestial luminaries that were originally created equal in size. When the moon then complained to God that “two kings cannot use one crown,” God responded: “Go and diminish yourself” (Chullin 60b and parallels). In the same vein, we read in Bereishit Rabba: “When iron was created, the trees began to tremble. [The iron] said to them, ‘Why do you tremble? Let none of your wood enter me, and not one of you shall be harmed’” (Bereishit Rabba 5:10). These aggadot and their like express moral concepts through the vehicle of etiological mythology.

A Word on the Ideology behind the Etiology

            Toward the end of our discussion on Parashat Vayetze, I explained that the Torah’s general approach is not to raze the old world to the ground, uproot its foundations and build a new world in its place. Rather, the Torah’s approach is to sustain and sanctify the existing world through the sanctity of Israel, the land of Israel and the mitzvot. To this end, it should come as no surprise that the Torah refrains from changing the names of people and places that were given through a natural linguistic process and reflected the development of nations and the lives of their members, instead preferring to inject new meaning within these names. This observation can be expanded and applied to other areas as well.

            I would like to relate a short story. My teacher, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht, z”l (1924-1995), rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, struggled for many years with a chronic heart disease. Following the advice of his doctors, Rabbi Goldvicht would occasionally travel to the Swiss Alps to breathe the mountain air. In one of his talks, Rabbi Goldvicht recounted that on one wintry Shabbat he sat in his hotel, which was perched on a mountaintop, along with another Jew – a Torah scholar who happened to be staying in the same hotel. The two of them looked out through a large glass window at the snowy mountains above and a blue lake and green forest below. Rabbi Goldvicht related: The two of us spent Shabbat alone, amid Torah, singing and festive meals, and the incredible landscape inspired and uplifted us. In the afternoon, when it came time for se’uda shelishit, my Shabbat partner said to me: I have a question for God. Why did He create this amazing place so far away from the land of Israel, in the midst of blundering non-Jews who lack the heart to feel it and to understand it? I answered him: God knew perfectly well that on one wintry Shabbat, two Jews from the land of Israel would find themselves in this location; and that the sheer power and beauty of the place would allow them to attain great levels of sanctity. Perhaps it was for the sake of this very Shabbat that this place was created!

            It seems to me that a similar approach often underpins instances of etiology in the Tanakh. It is as if the text defies the low perspective of reality when it states, “He built a house for himself and made stalls (sukkot) for his cattle; that is why the place was called Succoth” (Genesis 33:17). Linguists and historians will give you scholarly – and accurate – explanations for why the place was actually called Succoth, but the Torah takes a different approach entirely. The Torah points its finger at the moment when Jacob, father of the chosen people, passed through this place, declaring: From my perspective, that is why the place was called Succoth.

            When something unusual happens that creates an additional connection between a place and its name, or between a mitzva and the history of the nation that is tied to that mitzva, that incident constitutes a kind of sign that this thing was created for this very moment. This is true, for example, in the case of the dough that was not given time to rise, which shows that the essence of the moment is connected to matzot.

            Let us pay attention to the only two Aramaic words in the Torah: Yegar-sahadutha. Why does the Torah contain these two foreign words? The Torah relates that Jacob and Laban met in the hill country of Gilead. After arguing with each other over several issues, they collect stones and make a mound, testifying to the pact forged between them. Laban, using his own language, calls the site Yegar-sahadutha, an expression that does not contain any additional meaning. But when Jacob – the man charged with translating this expression into the Holy Tongue – arrives, he names the place Gal-ed (גַלְעֵד), a name whose letters are identical to those of the place’s original name: Gilead (גִלְעָד). It was like a sign from heaven that from the dawn of time, this place was created for this very moment.

This is similar to the role of the servants in the story of the Binding of Isaac. The servants are mentioned only in order to provide a contrasting background to the exalted, transcendent state that Abraham and Isaac reach. (The servants also walked for three days; they also saw the firestone and the wood, and perhaps even the ram caught in the thicket. But at the moment of truth they stay behind “with the ass.”) Here as well, Laban is portrayed as the stereotypical “normal” person: Nothing special happens to him; there is no connection formed between the place and the incident. In contrast, for Jacob it is as if the place were created for his sake alone.


For further study:

D. Ashbel, “Ki Ve-sukkot Yashevu Avoteikhem Be-tzeitam Mi-Mitzrayim,” Beit Mikra 29 (1967), 100-104 [Hebrew].

Yehudah Elitzur, “Midgal Bavel Ve-sulam Ya’akov,” Israel and the Bible, Ramat-Gan 2000, 44-48 [Hebrew].

Yehudah Elitzur, “Aron Hashem Be-eretz Pelishtim,” Israel and the Bible, Ramat-Gan 2000, 89-95 [Hebrew].

Y. Kaufmann, “Criticism of the Aetiological Interpretation,” The Biblical Account of the Conquest of Palestine, Jerusalem 1953, 70-74.

S. Leonstam, “Etiology,” Encyclopaedia Biblica 1, 258-259 [Hebrew].

B. O. Long, The Problem of Etiological Narrative in the Old Testament, Berlin 1968.


Translated by Daniel Landman



[1] The Torah alludes to the name “the Festival of the Ingathering” in the words “After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your winepress.”

[2] This formulation is adapted from one that I heard from Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun.