The Symbolism of the Sukkah

By Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

The Symbolism of the Sukkah


Rubenstein, Jeffrey L., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


THE SUKKAH STANDS OUT AMONG ALL MITZVOT. IT IS the only commandment that involves a ritual dwelling. One is totally surrounded by the mitzvah for an extended period of time. For seven days, eating, sleeping, reading, relaxing, studying and almost all activities are performed within the sukkah. Yet the mitzvah is not only to eat, sleep, read, relax or study--but to be, to be within the sukkah. One simply enters the sukkah-space and the mitzvah is performed. One need not really do anything. No action, no gesture, no exertion, no effort is required. There is no real commandment to builds sukkah (although this is certainly a meritorious act), but only to stay in one. Surely a singular mitzvah.

What is the meaning of this ritual? What are we supposed to experience within the sukkah? What is the point of this extended stay? What does the sukkah symbolize? The answer to these questions is long and complex, for rituals and symbols operate on many levels, and have many meanings. This study explores one dimension of the symbolism of the sukkah and the accompanying religious experience: the sukkah as symbol of the clouds of glory and the experience of dwelling in its shade.(1)

I. The Sukkah and the Clouds of Glory

The typical explanation for the sukkah is that it symbolizes the booths in which the Israelites dwelled during their journey through the desert. On Passover we eat matzah because our ancestors ate matzah when they left Egypt, and on Sukkot we reside in booths to commemorate those in which they lived for forty years. This explanation follows from Lev 23:42-43, the source of the commandment:

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 Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.

Yet this understanding is not as simple as it seems at first glance. We should not immediately picture the Israelites actually dwelling in the type of booths that we build today. Leviticus relates that they dwelled in sukkot, but does not say what those sukkot were. The rabbis debated exactly what this meant. In the Sifra, the halakhic midrash to Leviticus, we find the following dispute:

R. Eliezer says: They were real sukkot. R. Akiba says: The sukkot were the clouds of glory.(2)

For R. Eliezer the Israelites dwelled in real booths in the desert. For R. Akiba, however, the Israelites did not reside in booths at all! They dwelled midst the "clouds of glory," within the clouds that marked the presence and radiance of God. R. Akiba's opinion became the majority rabbinic interpretation. It is found in the targums (the Aramaic translations of the Torah), in later midrashim, and in medieval codes.(3) Thus the dominant trend in Jewish thought never pictured the exodus generation dwelling in leafy huts but rather in glorious clouds. The leafy sukkot we build symbolize those clouds.(4)

Why did R. Akiba interpret the exodus sukkot as clouds?

First, sukkot are generally not found in the desert. They are built in fields for the protection of watchmen, workers or animals and constructed from the products of the field-leaves, branches, reeds, foliage, wood and hay. Where would the Israelites have found such materials in the desert wasteland? Desert travelers stay in tents, not booths.

Second, outside of this lone verse in Leviticus, the Bible never claims that the Israelites stayed in booths. There are several descriptions of the camp of the Israelites in the desert, but not one pictures the tribes dwelling in sukkot. Tents are occasionally mentioned, but never booths.(5) Why does Lev 23:42 suddenly assume that the Israelites dwelled in sukkot, while the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy know nothing about it?

Third, Leviticus relates that God "made the Israelite people dwell in sukkot," not that "the Israelite people built sukkot for themselves. …

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