The Symbolism of the Sukka, Part 2

By Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

The Symbolism of the Sukka, Part 2


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


In "The Symbolism of the Sukka," published in the Fall 1994 issue of JUDAISM, I discussed one dimension of this theme: the sukka as a symbol of the "clouds of glory."(1) According to the dominant rabbinic tradition seven "sukkot of clouds of glory" surrounded the Israelites throughout their desert travels following the exodus. These sukka-clouds shielded them from the blazing sun above, protected them from the hot sand below, and guarded them from dangers such as thorns, scorpions, and even the weapons of their enemies. Six clouds covered the six sides of the Israelite camp while the seventh, the pillar of cloud of God's presence (shekhina), stood in the middle. The festival sukkot in which we dwell each year symbolize these clouds and hence the protection, love, and presence of God. This sense of the divine is not only communicated through the symbolism of the sukka but is experienced in the shade that the roofing of the sukka casts. Shade offers protection from the sun and became the dominant metaphor for protection and peace in Jewish tradition. In the shade of the sukka one experiences the "shade of God" and the same sense of divine protection, love and nurture which the Israelites felt while sojourning within the clouds of glory.

There is, however, a second strand in rabbinic tradition which believes that the Israelites dwelled in "real sukkot" throughout their desert travels, not in "sukkot of clouds of glory."(2) The ordinary, flimsy sukkot the Israelites inhabited were part of the hardships of the exodus and their difficult life in the desert. For forty years they "dwelled in a wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates" (Numbers 20:5). The desert experience was a test of Israel's faith, a place of "hardship" and adversity (Deuteronomy 8:15-16).(3) In this view the ritual sukka does not directly symbolize the clouds of glory or the consummate divine protection it bestowed.

This second dimension of the symbolism of the sukka conceives it as a symbol of the transience, temporariness, and insecurity of this world. To be sure this symbolism is in some tension with the symbolism of the clouds of glory. But that is part of the power and complexity of religious symbols, which are multivalent and polysemous, operating on several levels and expressing different meanings simultaneously. Indeed, the complex, sometimes contradictory, nature of religious symbols devolves from the complex, sometimes contradictory, nature of the human condition and experience of the divine.

2. Biblical and Talmudic Images

In the heat of summer a sukka provides agricultural laborers with a shady, protective shelter from the sun. Guards and watchmen sit in the shady sukka during the long hours of duty throughout the summer months. In villages, too, a sukka built on the roof of a house or in the adjacent courtyard offers a cool place to dine or sleep during periods of extremely hot weather. But throughout winter the picture changes. Workers abandon the fields until the next harvest season. Winter rains and chills force watchmen to seek warmer, sturdier shelters during their infrequent visits to check on the orchards. For weeks and months sukkot stand neglected by their builders, subject to wind, rain, storm, and frost. Gradually the roof falls in, the arboreal covering withers and wastes away, the walls or corner-posts weaken. Until the next growing season the sukka stands alone in the field-isolated, dilapidated, crumbling.(4)

The Bible accordingly employs the sukka as a symbol of fragility and vulnerability. Amos' famous prophecy compares the breached Davidic kingdom to a fallen sukka: "In that day I will set up again the fallen booth of David: I will mend its breaches and set up its ruins anew. I will build it firm as in the days of old" (Amos 9:11). The prophet gives us an idea of how a sukka typically appeared in the winter months. The roof collapsed, gaps formed in the walls, and the structure was ruined. …

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