Sukkot 5771/ September 23, 2010
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
What is the Rejoicing of Sukkot?
Dr. A. Arend / Prof. Moshe Arend Z"L
Department of Talmud
In the entire book of Genesis rejoicing is mentioned but once, and there the word simhah might not refer to true rejoicing, for it occurs in the mouth of the evil Laban, who accuses Jacob, “Why did you flee in secrecy and mislead me and not tell me? I would have sent you off with festive [Heb. be-simhah] music, with timbrel and lyre” (Gen. 31:27). The word simhah also occurs only once in Exodus, with reference to the natural happiness felt when brothers meet. The Lord said to Moses, “There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you” (Ex. 4:14). In Leviticus there is no mention at all of happiness, save in conjunction with the festival of Booths: “On the first day … and you shall rejoice (usmahtem) before the Lord your G-d seven days” (Lev. 23:40). This refers to the commandment of rejoicing before the Lord. In Numbers, rejoicing is mentioned but once: “And on your joyous occasions – your fixed festivals and new moon days – you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings” (Num. 10:10), which joyous occasions the Sages interpreted to mean Sabbaths (Sifre).
In Deuteronomy, however, rejoicing is mentioned numerous times, once with reference to the Feast of Weeks: “Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks, … You shall rejoice before the Lord your G-d” (Deut. 16:10-11), and twice with reference to the Feast of Booths: “You shall rejoice in your festival, … and you shall have nothing but joy” (Deut. 16:14-15). Taken together with the above-mentioned verse in Parashat Emor, we have a total of three times that we are commanded to rejoice on the Feast of Booths. Therefore, in our prayers we say: “You gave us, O Lord, our G-d … festivals for rejoicing … this day of the Feast of Booths, the season of our rejoicing.”
What is the nature of this rejoicing? We shall attempt to characterize it along five basic lines:
1. The main thrust of the commandment to rejoice on our festival, as the Sages have taught us, is directed towards the sacrifice of well-being (qorban shelamim), offerings of rejoicing that were made on one of the days of the festival. But Maimonides wrote (Hilkhot Yom Tov, 6.17-18):
Even though the rejoicing here is that of the sacrifice of well-being … there is also general rejoicing: a man and his children and household should rejoice, each in the way appropriate to that person. How so? Young children are given nuts and sweets, women are bought beautiful clothing and jewelry according to the husband’s pocketbook, and men eat meat and drink wine, for there is no rejoicing except in meat nor any rejoicing save with wine.
Thus we see that Maimonides had in mind material rejoicing in the context of the family, family rejoicing.
2. Twice, once with respect to the Feast of Weeks and once with respect to the Feast of Booths, Scripture says, “You shall rejoice … with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities” (Deut. 16:11, 14). The Sages commented on this (Midrash Aggadah [Buber ed.], Deut. 16:11):
You shall rejoice before the Lord your G-d: I (the Almighty) have four people in my household – a Levite, a stranger, a fatherless and a widow; and you have four in your household: a son and daughter, a male and female slave. If you make mine happy, I shall make yours happy.
Rashi comments on the same verse: “My four as against your four.” This is the second type of rejoicing: not only within the family, but rejoicing that stems from philanthropy and hospitality. Maimonides, from whose work we cited above, goes on to say: (Hilkhot Yom Tov 6.18): “He who locks the doors of his house, and eats and drinks with his children and wife but does not give food and drink to the poor and misfortunate, does not rejoice in fulfillment of the commandment but only to fill his belly.”
3. The commandment to rejoice during the Feast of Booths is special not only because it appears three times in the Torah, but also because it has to do with the commandment of the Four Kinds. On the Feast of Booths we read in the Torah: “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your G-d seven days” (Lev. 23:40). We are to take on the first day, but to rejoice for seven days. According to the Torah, the commandment of Lulav and the other kinds is only on the first day, but the commandment to rejoice before the Lord lasts all seven, if not eight, days, for the Sages inferred: “and you shall have nothing but joy – including the eve of the last festive day” (Pesahim 71a).
The Four Kinds, according to Leviticus Rabbah (30.12), symbolize four different groups among the Jewish people:
The fruit of the hadar tree symbolizes Israel; just as the etrog has taste as well as fragrance, so Israel have among them men who possess learning and good deeds. Branches of palm trees, too, applies to Israel; as the palm tree has taste but not fragrance, so Israel have among them such as possess learning but not good deeds. And boughs of thick trees likewise applies to Israel; just as the myrtle has fragrance but no taste, so Israel have among them such as possess good deeds but not learning. and willows of the brook also applies to Israel; just as the willow has no taste and no fragrance, so Israel have among them people who possess neither learning nor good deeds. What then does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible. But, says the Holy One, blessed be He, let them all be tied together in one band and they will atone one for another. (Midrash Rabbah, Soncino ed., Leviticus, pp. 392-393)
The verse, “all citizens in
There is a controversy over the reading of the word niggash (rendered here as “approached”). Targum Jonathan reads it as niggas, with the letter sin… as another word for boasting … since they are lofty in their own eyes and show off as overlords to the rest of the people, honoring the Lord with their lips and praying before Him.
The niggas who shuts himself off from others and boastingly takes pleasure in his own saintliness, like a goose roasting in its own fat, stands for religious arrogance. Now in fact, the etrog, according to the halakhah, does not need to be bound together with the other of the Four Kinds – one holds the etrog on its own in one hand and the other three kinds (tied together) on the other. We might infer from this that in certain areas of life separatism is in place: we have to be careful about how we educate, to take care “lest the pitam fall off;” but we may not forget the overall message: we are specifically commanded to take the etrog along with the other kinds, and lacking any one of the four kinds impedes fulfillment of the commandment. One cannot fulfill the commandment with an etrog alone, even in dire circumstances.
4. Beyond emphasizing the unity of the Jewish people, the festival of Sukkot brings out the universal in our Torah. The haftarah of the festival says:
For I will gather all the nations to
The additional offerings of the seven days of the festival
include seven bulls, for the seventy nations of the world.
The universal aspect also finds expression in
the liturgical poems in the prayer for rain, recited on Shemini Atzeret:
first comes a prayer for the world:
“Water, to grace the plants in the soil,” and
only afterwards a prayer for the people of
5. We conclude with a quote from Maimonides, from the end of his laws about lulav, apparently containing a heartfelt “midrash” of his own, since no source in the writings of the Sages has been found for it. He writes (Hilkhot Lulav 8.15):
The joy that a person experiences in performing the commandments and in loving the Lord who gave the commandments is a great act of worship, and whoever deprives himself of this joy ought to pay the price, for it is written, “Because you would not serve the Lord in joy and gladness” (Deut. 28:47). And whoever holds himself high and gives honor to himself in these is but a fool and a sinner. Solomon warned us of precisely this, saying, “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence” (Prov. 25:6). And whoever humbles himself and makes himself small in these – he is to be greatly respected as a person who worships out of love. Likewise, King David said, “and dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem” (II Sam. 6:22). Greatness and honor is to be found in none other than in rejoicing before the Lord, as it is written, “King David [was] leaping and whirling before the Lord” (II Sam. 6:16).
The central verse in Maimonides’ interpretation is Deuteronomy 28:47: “Because you would not serve the Lord in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.” According to the plain sense, “in joy and gladness” means while things were going well for you (see Rashi), or according to Midrash Lekah Tov, you would not serve the Lord because things were too good for you, as in the verse, “So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked” (Deut. 32:15), attributing your success to your own efforts. Maimonides, however, understood the verse as follows: Indeed, you may have worshipped the Lord, but you did not do so with the joy of performing the commandments, simha shel mitzvah, for the joy of the commandments is not compatible with seeking honor, pride, nor with arrogance and vulgarity.
Thus we have learned about five facets of “rejoicing before the Lord”: rejoicing with one’s family, being charitable, from a sense of national unity, aspiring to universal peace, and the joy of performing the commandments of the holiday, the sukkah and the four species, making certain that one avoids any self-seeking pride or honor-grubbing that may arise in the context of the holiday.
Have a happy holiday, may the holiday be one of rejoicing in the performance of the commandments.
From a sermon delivered on the first eve of Sukkot, 2009, by his father and teacher, Prof. Moshe Arend, of blessed memory.