Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, firstname.lastname@example.org
Special rejoicing is commanded during the festival of Sukkot, the Feast of Booths (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 rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities. You shall hold festival for the Lord your G-d seven days, in the place that the Lord will choose; for the Lord your G-d will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.
A general principle to rejoice or to worship the Lord out of happiness does not appear in the Torah as a direct commandment, but is deduced from an expression in the Admonishment (Deut. 28:47): “Because you would not serve the Lord your G-d in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.” Being joyous is only expressly and directly commanded during the festival of Sukkot. Maimonides (Hilkhot Shofar Sukkah ve-Lulav 8.14-15), in the context of his discussion of rejoicing on this festival, sees the theme of worshipping G-d joyously as being highly significant, although he does not list this as a commandment in its own right:
The rejoicing that a person experiences in performing a commandment and in loving G-d as He commanded is of great importance in worshipping the Lord, and whoever holds himself back from this rejoicing deserves retribution, as it is said (Deut. 28:47): “Because you would not serve the Lord your G-d in joy and gladness.” All who set their mind to it and honor themselves and glorify themselves in their own eyes in these places – those people are sinners and fools; this was what Solomon cautioned us about when he said, “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence” (Prov. 25:6). All who humble themselves and make little of their body in these places are great and respected, worshipping out of love. Thus David, King of Israel, said (II Sam. 6:22): “I will dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem.” Greatness and honor are none other than rejoicing before the Lord, as it is said (II Sam. 6:16): “King David leaping and whirling before the Lord.”
How does Sukkot differ from the other festivals, that the Torah commanded rejoicing on this holiday? Why does the Torah repeat the theme, first saying, “You shall rejoice in your festival,” and at the end of the passage, “you shall have nothing but joy”? What is meant by the Hebrew word akh, rendered here as “nothing but”? Is it used to indicate exclusion of something?
Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (Appendices, 2) explains the essence of this rejoicing from three angles:
1) Rejoicing that comes of economic success:
“You shall rejoice in your festival” (Deut. 16:14). Note that rejoicing is mentioned three times with respect to this festival: “You shall rejoice in your festival” (loc. sit.), “you shall have nothing but joy” (Deut. 16:15) and “you shall rejoice before the Lord your G-d seven days” (Lev. 23:40). With regard to Passover, however, note that there is not even one mention of rejoicing. Why is this so? Rather, note that on Passover the fate of the grain crops lies in the balance, and whether or not the year will be a good one is unknown; therefore, there is no mention of rejoicing.
2) Rejoicing after the Days of Awe, on having passed them successfully:
But with respect to the New Year there is not even one mention of rejoicing. What is the reason? It is that one’s soul is on judgment, and one’s soul is of greater concern than one’s pocket. On The Festival [Sukkot], the souls have been acquitted on the Day of Atonement, as it is written: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you” (Lev. 16:30). Moreover the grain crops and fruits have been harvested, therefore rejoicing is mentioned three times, as it is written: “You shall rejoice in your festival,” “you shall rejoice before the Lord your G-d,” and “you shall have nothing but joy.”
3) The expression, “nothing but joy” (Heb. akh same’ah) indicates that the rejoicing is not complete:
Another interpretation of akh same’ah: What does this mean? Even though a person may be happy in this world, his rejoicing is not complete. How so in this world? A son might be born to a person, and the person will be concerned about him, worrying about whether his child will survive, and so he is sorrowful. But in the World to Come the Holy One, blessed be He, will do away with death, as it is said, “He will destroy death forever” (Isa. 25:8). At that time rejoicing will be complete, as it is said, “Then our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues, with songs of joy” (Ps. 126:2).
Another interpretation of akh same’ah: A person rejoices in this world. The festival comes, and he takes himself meat to cook in his home, to rejoice on the holiday. No sooner has he done so, he sits down to eat and begins serving each person, when one of his sons says, “My brother received a bigger portion than I,” and he finds himself saddened even in the midst of his rejoicing. But in the World to Come, the food will cook in the pots and people will see it and their souls will rejoice.
The idea that the word akh is a limiting qualifier was also espoused by Rabbenu Bahya (Deut. 16:15), but not on the grounds that the rejoicing is incomplete in the practical ways listed in the Pesikta, but from the moral point of view that a person ought to tone down his rejoicing even when there are objective reasons for complete happiness:
Perhaps it intimates to us that one should lessen one’s rejoicing in this world, for the expression akh is a word denoting limitation. Since a person begins rejoicing on Passover, that being the beginning of the harvest of the omer, and his rejoicing increases on the Harvest Festival [Shavuot], as it is said, “They have rejoiced before You as they rejoice at reaping time” (Isa. 9:2), when the Feast of Ingathering [Sukkot] comes and he gathers his grain and fruit, his wool and flax, his oil and wine-making harvest, and looks forward to rest and calm after toil and travail, his rejoicing is redoubled. Therefore this verse in Scriptures mentions that on Sukkot you should be akh same’ah – restrained in your rejoicing, for all expressions of akh and rak indicate limitation; thus Scriptures teaches that this middle-of-the road way should be followed when rejoicing in this world.
Furthermore, Rabbenu Bahya believed that one should limit one’s rejoicing even when doing positive things, such as performing commandments, to avoid falling into pitfalls of forbidden things.
While performing commandments it is fitting for a person to rejoice and tremble, as the Sages interpreted the verse, “Serve the Lord in awe; rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2:11). Where there is rejoicing, there should be trembling because of the evil inclination in this world, which is drawn towards rejoicing; and the righteous do not put their trust in themselves. Utter rejoicing in its perfect state is for the World to Come, upon beholding the Divine Presence, enjoying unlimited abundance along with comprehension and pleasure that has no end, for thus said Isaiah, of blessed memory: “Then the humble shall have increasing joy through the Lord, and the neediest of men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 29:19).
A similar theme was developed by Sefat Emet (Deuteronomy, Sukkot, 1877):
For akh serves to place limitations on joy which is not desirable, exceeding the permissible limits; that is what the Torah meant by “and you shall having nothing but joy”. This confirms that the joy can spread to the extent of libertarianism, Heaven forfend; therefore, it is coupled with the word akh, which expresses limitation. Just as the Sages interpreted akh et ha-zahav (Numbers 31:22) as indicating that one must first remove the rust, likewise with akh same’ah, the joy should be only for the sake of Heaven, with no impurities. And in truth, akh is to exclude the gentiles, as it is written, “And no outsider can share in its joy” (Prov. 14:10).
This might indeed contradict the famous sayings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav, according to whom joy should have no boundary, to the extent that one should make oneself joyful even with foolishness (Hanhagot ha-Tzadikim):
It is a great mitzvah to be perpetually joyful, and one must summon all one’s strength to keep sadness and depression at bay, and to be nothing but joyful always. This is the cure for all sorts of ailments. For all ailments come only from sadness and depression. Therefore we must rejoice with all that we can, even with words of nonsense.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (on Deut. 16:15) listed the various levels of rejoicing of any human being. The most basic rejoicing is over successful crops, but the rejoicing of the festival is actually supposed to be the spiritual rejoicing of pilgrimage to the Temple, joy that stems from adherence to the Lord and His Teaching:
“For the Lord your G-d will bless…, and you shall have nothing but joy.” In my humble opinion, this explanation is to be interpreted as follows, in terms of the context of what precedes it: The waste left over from your threshing floor and vats is used to make the booths for your festival. In these nomadic booths you experience the joy of national elation with your entire household, in your settlements. Moreover, during the period of ingathering you leave the field and vineyard, the threshing floor and vat, and you meld with the national gathering that assembles at the Lord’s Temple, at His chosen place, for the source of your blessedness and joy is not in your settlements, your fields and vineyards, your threshing floor and vats; rather, it is the Lord your G-d Who bestows this bountiful blessing on you from the place of His Torah and through the means of His Teaching, if you dwell in His tent faithfully. This adherence to the Lord and His Teaching, not the city and field, nor the threshing floor and vat, is what gives you joy, and your joy shall be such as to fulfill the words, “you shall having nothing but joy.”
The joy of “you shall have nothing but joy” is far more elevated than that of “you shall rejoice.” “You shall rejoice” is an expression used for the temporary manifestation of happiness, whereas “you shall have nothing but joy” expresses joy that has become a permanent personality trait. “Nothing but joy” indicates that the joy will continue to exist even under circumstances that would mar happiness or mix it with other feelings: notwithstanding everything, one remains happy, with “nothing” but joy.
Rejoicing is the choicest of flowers and fruits that ripen on the Tree of Life of the Torah. However all that we have learned does not mean joy that is restricted to festive times and gatherings: rather the joy of the holidays should continue to survive beyond the time of the festival into the realm of daily life. When the exuberant public gatherings are over, it will accompany us to our homes and not disappear from our hearts through all the vicissitudes of life. Such joy, however, is not found in “your settlements,” nor in “your threshing floor and your vats.” One can celebrate and rejoice on the threshing floor or the vat, but the secret of “having nothing but joy” – of being in a perpetual state of joy – is only learned when close to G-d and His Torah. Therefore, the material blessing that comes from the threshing floor and the vat is not enough; rather, we need the Lord’s favor for this blessing to bring perpetual joy and never be lost. Therefore, we leave the threshing floor and vat and make pilgrimage to the place the Lord chose, where we join the general community of those gathering before the Lord; it is there that we derive the spirit that prepares us for true joy, a love of life that will accompany us all our lives. There we learn not only how to rejoice and to make ourselves happy individually, but also how to be happy notwithstanding all else: “you shall have nothing but joy.”