History of Sukkot

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The booths, sukkot, which have lent their name to the holiday, have a somewhat hazy origin. According to the verse quoted above from Leviticus 23, we are to dwell in these booths because our ancestors lived in booths when God brought them out of Egypt. This is, however, the only reference we have relating the Exodus narrative to these temporary dwellings, leading scholars to speculate that the holiday’s connection to the Exodus developed rather late.

In rabbinic literature, much attention is given to these temporary dwellings. Extensive discussion on the nature and construction of a proper sukkah has helped shape Sukkot into the holiday it has now become, which is very much centered on the construction, decoration, and meaning of the impermanent structures we are told to make our homes for one week of the year.

Another well-known Sukkot tradition is that of the four species (arba’ah minim), also known as the lulav and etrog. “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees (traditionally identified as the etrog/citron tree), branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). Certainly these gathered species must be a symbol of the agricultural aspect of the holiday--emphasizing four different types of growing things.

Indeed, these four species are ones that specifically grow in Israel, which makes Sukkot a natural tie-in to the land, its agricultural rhythms, and by rights, a fitting time to celebrate national events that also celebrate the land, such as the Temple’s dedication. In Nehemiah 8, we find another tradition for the four species, including olive branches instead of willow branches, as is specified in Leviticus. We are also told that the people would cover the booths with these plants.

By the rabbinic period or even earlier, however, it is clear that the waving of the Four Species had become a commandment that is separate from that of the construction of the sukkah. The lulav and etrog also became symbols of the land. This can be deduced from coins that have been found from the time of the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 CE), on which pictures of the lulav and etrog were found.

Today’s practice is to use the lulav and etrog every day during the Hallel (psalms of praise) and during the Hoshanot-- hymns recited every day of Sukkot as we circle the synagogue, holding our lulav and etrog while singing the refrain hoshanah, “save us.” This is based on similar processions that took place when the Temple was still standing. The lulav has continued to be a poignant physical symbol following the period of intense spiritual reflection during the High Holidays.

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