Seven Reasons For Sukkah Sitting

Diverse sources on why we eat and sleep in the sukkah

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Reprinted with permission of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.

The holiday of Sukkot has been blessed with many beautiful laws and customs: the recitation of Hallel, Ushpizin (welcoming our ancestors as honored guests), reading the book of Kohelet [Ecclesiastes], and, of course, blessing and waving the Arba'ah Minim--the four species. Yet, needless to say, the most basic mitzvah is that of dwelling in a sukkah. But why do we sit in the sukkah?

Biblical Reasons

The Torah itself gives two reasons, one agricultural and one historical.

The agricultural reason is found in two places in the Torah:

1) Exodus 23:16: "…and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in the results of your work from the field".

2) Deut. 16: 13, 15: "After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days…You shall hold a festival…in the place that the Lord will choose, for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy".

Thus, according to these verses, Sukkot is a holiday of thanksgiving for the harvest.

The historical reason is found in the book of Leviticus (23:42-43):

You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths. In order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…

Thus, according to Leviticus, we sit in the sukkah in order to retain a historical link with our ancestors and to remember all that God did for us when we left Egypt.

These are the simple reasons given by the Torah for observing this holiday, but Jews are never satisfied with the simple reason for anything! A few verses in the bible were frequently expounded upon by later Jewish philosophers and rabbis. Sukkot is no exception.

Remembering the "Bad Old Days"

Philo was a Hellenistic-Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria in the first century C.E. In his many works written in Greek, he gave allegorical interpretations to stories and commandments in the bible. In his book De Specialibus Legibus, On the Special Laws (2:204, 206-211), he adds a number of reasons to those mentioned above. He writes:

"Another reason may be, that it should remind us of the long wanderings of our forefathers in the depths of the desert, when at every halting-place they spent many a year in tents. And indeed it is well in wealth to remember your poverty, in distinction your insignificance, in high offices your position as a commoner, in peace your dangers in war, on land the storms on sea, in cities the life of loneliness. For there is no pleasure greater than in high prosperity to call to mind old misfortunes.

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Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.