Sukkot: How Sleeping In A Hut Became A Major Jewish Holiday
The Meaning of Sukkot: Why On Earth Would We Celebrate Sleeping In Huts?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Why do we even celebrate Sukkot? Sukkot doesn’t seem to commemorate an important historical event, unlike other Jewish holidays. What should Sukkot mean to us – and why on Earth do we celebrate by sleeping in Jewish huts?
Compared to Passover and Shavuot, Sukkot celebrations seem to be missing a big event to commemorate. We know the Sukkot story about how the Israelites slept in the desert in small Jewish huts, or booths, after fleeing from Egypt. But we also see that Sukkot refers to the place where they first slept. Why call a place "Sukkot" – basically, the Hebrew equivalent of "shantytown?” Are these clues about the importance of Sukkot?
The Torah tells us one more detail about the Sukkot food – unleavened dough – that they ate on their first night in these makeshift booths. But we also relate Matzah with Pesach, which commemorates the same night. So how is the meaning of Sukkot different? There still seems to be a missing event of why we celebrate Sukkot.
Rabbi Fohrman takes a deeper look at the Torah readings surrounding the story of Sukkot, and explores the real meaning of why we celebrate Sukkot, and the reason we build and sleep in sukkah huts.
Hi there, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and you are watching Aleph Beta. Sukkos is right around the corner, and we all know how we celebrate it: Mainly, we build these little huts and live in them for 7 days. But why do we do that? What are we actually commemorating on this day? Well, here is where we get into just a little bit of a quandary.
Why Is Sukkot Even Celebrated?To see that quandary, I would like to play a little game with you. It's called 'Big-deal, Little-deal.' Here's the way the game works: We're going to take each of the three main festivals of the Torah – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot – and we are going to ask ourselves: What event does this holiday commemorate – and… is the event a "big deal" or a "little deal"?
So let's play our game. We'll start with Pesach, Passover. What event does it commemorate? Well, that's easy enough: It celebrates our Exodus from slavery; the night we left Egypt. Okay – so, what do you say? Would you call that a big deal or a little deal?
So, I don't know about you, but I'd say: That's, like, the biggest of deals, right? On a scale of 1–10, Pesach's event is like, a ten. There are plagues. Blood, darkness, hail, fire – the Sea splits in this climactic moment of triumph. Death to the bad guys; salvation to the good guys. This is a very big deal. Plus: it's our Independence Day, the very beginning of our nation.
Okay, what about Shavuos? How big a deal is the event commemorated by Shavuos? On a scale from 1-10, it's like… an 11! Shavuos celebrates the moment an entire nation rendezvoused with God. The Almighty literally descended into our world, on the top of a mountain, to give us a document that would define our destiny, that would shape the course of world civilization. Without that event – what would we be? We would be no more than a nomadic tribe in the wilderness. We would be missing a mission. We would be missing a legacy. That's a really big deal.
Alright, so, now let's go to Sukkos. So… what does this holiday commemorate?
Well, we sleep in booths – and we do that, the Torah tells us,
מג לְמַעַן, יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
43 that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
Okay, we sleep in booths, because we all slept in booths in the desert. So now let's play big deal, little deal. On a scale from 1–10, everyone, how big a deal is that booth thing? I'm pretty sure that's like, a two and a half. I mean, it's all very nice to sleep in booths. Nothing against it, certainly. But do we have to have a whole holiday commemorating it?
So, you're probably shaking your head right now. "Oh, c'mon Rabbi Fohrman, the sukkahs aren't just about little huts! I seem to remember that the Talmud says something about miraculous clouds that protected the Israelites in the desert." Yes, in fact, that's true.
So What Does Sukkot Actually Celebrate?The Talmud records a dispute as to what the holiday of Sukkot celebrates. One view is that it celebrates the booths we slept in – but another Talmudic view is that the holiday commemorates what it calls "ananei hakavod," Clouds of Glory, that enveloped the people and protected them in the desert. So suppose we accept this second Talmudic view: that the holiday commemorates these miraculous clouds. Well, we certainly needed those clouds to survive. I mean, without Divine protection of some sort, like those clouds, we would have perished in that uninhabited wilderness – we would have been killed by enemies, or by wild animals! Isn't that worth celebrating?Well, to tell you the truth, you're right. But getting into that Talmudic explanation opens up some other problems: For example, does the Talmud really mean to tell us that we do not even know what we are celebrating on Sukkot, that that's actually subject to dispute? I mean: think Passover. We know what we are celebrating. No one says Passover was really about celebrating God flying the Israelites out of Egypt on magic carpets. The facts of the Exodus aren't in dispute. So how could something as basic as what we are celebrating on Sukkot be open to dispute?
So I'd like to suggest a theory here: Maybe there is a "big deal" in Sukkot – and it can be apprehended if we find it's missing "event". Here's what I mean by that.
If you look at all the other holidays, you find that, generally, they commemorate a particular event, limited in time, that you can actually point to. Pesach commemorates the night we went free, Shavuot commemorates the moment we stood at Sinai and received the Torah – but Sukkot, at face value, it seems to break the pattern. It appears to commemorate 40 years worth of booth sleeping. Day in and day out, booths one night, booths the next. So is it really the case that we have a holiday that doesn't commemorate an actual event you could point to?
Maybe not. Maybe there is a discreet event with Sukkot too, and if we can find it, we can see what the big deal in the holiday is really all about.
Why Is Sukkot Important?Let's return to that verse in the Torah and see what it tells us. We celebrate Sukkot, the Torah says, so that…
מג לְמַעַן, יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:
43 … your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt:
Now, let's listen carefully to those words. What exactly is the Torah saying here?
It sounds like the Torah is talking about a particular point in time. Right? God made us sleep in booths "when" He brought us out of Egypt. Not 40 years in the desert; seemingly, if we take the words of the verse seriously, it is right when He brought us out that we slept in those booths.
But that sounds crazy. Is this whole booth-commemoration-thing really all going back to the very moment of the Exodus – that first night?
To find out, let's go back the Torah's own description of those first moments of leaving Egypt, back in the Book of Exodus. Is there anything there that involved Sukkot in some way?
So listen to this verse, it describes the very beginning of the Israelites departure from Egypt:
לז וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס, סֻכֹּתָה, כְּשֵׁשׁ-מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הַגְּבָרִים, לְבַד מִטָּף.
37 And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children.
Read that again. Where did they travel to when they were leaving Rameses?
They traveled to a place called Sukkot.
Now isn't that quite a coincidence?
What Does Sukkot Really Mean?Sukkot is the name of the very first place Israel encamped on their very first night after leaving Egypt. You have to ask yourself: Is that a coincidence? We have a Sukkot holiday that supposedly celebrates God causing us to dwell in Sukkot "when He took us out of Egypt"... and lo and behold, right when God "took us out of Egypt," the Torah mentions we slept at a place called Sukkot.
Could it possibly be that the holiday commemorates where we slept that first night in the desert?
In other words, to be perfectly frank with you: what I'm suggesting here is something that might seem incredibly radical. When the Torah says that the holiday commemorates God "having made us dwell in Sukkot", the verse may not actually be referring to what we slept in; maybe it's referring to a place that we slept at: a place called Sukkot.
But wait a second, you might say: What are you trying to tell me – that all those rabbis – the ones who talked about Sukkot celebrating sleeping in booths, the ones who talked about the Clouds of Glory – you're trying to tell me that they were all wrong, that they missed this obvious implication of the verses? And anyway, Fohrman, let's just say you're right – that בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי means that God settled us in the place called Sukkot. Why, you might ask, should we celebrate that? Who cares where we slept that first night we left Egypt? I mean, look: Every place has got to have a name; this place, it happened to be called Sukkot. Wonderful. Time to feast! This is what we are celebrating?
So here would be my response to that: The theory I'm suggesting – it doesn't oppose what the rabbis of the Talmud say. On the contrary, I'd argue: It's the basis for what they say; it's their point of departure. In other words, the rabbis of the Talmud, they too understood that the holiday commemorates our sleeping in a place called Sukkot. The rabbis were just making the following obvious inference: Why do you think the place got called that? Why of all things, call a place "Sukkot" – basically, the Hebrew equivalent of "shantytown?" It's probably because people made these little shanties, these little sukkot huts, to sleep in there.
And here's the proof of the pudding: It turns out that, here in Exodus is not the first time the Torah mentions to us a place by the name of Sukkot.
Way back in Genesis, we encountered a place named that, too.
Digger Deeper Behind The Meaning Of SukkotWhen Jacob left Laban's house, exiting his own personal slavery in his father in law's domain, one of the first places he came to was a place called Sukkot. And the Torah tells us why it was called that: Jacob built little huts there for his cattle there, huts called Sukkot – and, the Torah tells us, "that's why he called the name of the place Sukkot."
So basically, in Exodus, the Torah just kind of uses shorthand to get its point across, based upon what it assumes we already know from Genesis. In other words, the verse says: the Israelites, like Jacob before them, they also exited slavery; and, like Jacob, they also had lots of cattle; ..and then the very next thing we hear about is that the people slept in a place called Sukkot. Well, how did the place get its name? That is left implied. Obviously, it was because they built Sukkot there, little huts for their cattle, just like Jacob did in similar circumstances. The difference between Jacob and the people, if anything, is that while Jacob had built a house for himself and huts for the cattle – when it came to the people leaving Egypt, there weren't separate domiciles for people and cattle. Rather, בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי – it was in Sukkot, shanties made for cattle, that we humans slept. That night, everyone – cows, sheep and people – slept in those shanties.
And that, according to Leviticus, is what we celebrate. God says: "I made you sleep in Sukkot that first night. That's where I settled you…"
Okay, but now let's get back to that second objection I just raised with you: Let's say we grant that the Torah's asking us to celebrate a single night's encampment in the desert in little huts. So… why was that really such a big deal? Why would we be celebrating, for generations, what happened that very first night? Is that really the BIG missing event?
The answer is: That night, in those huts; it actually was a momentous turning point.
Understanding The Importance Of SukkotCome with me, for a moment, back into the Torah's description of that first night. You'll find a curious thing. Right after we hear about that first night in Sukkot, the Torah tells us another apparently trivial point. It takes a step back to give us what looks like an accounting of the total years we spent in slavery:
מ וּמוֹשַׁב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר יָשְׁבוּ בְּמִצְרָיִם--שְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה, וְאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה.
Now the time that the children of Israel dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.
Now, why would the Torah bother to tell us this right now, as it is chronicling the night the nation spent in Sukkot? Why is the Torah suddenly interested in playing accountant, and making sure you know how many years they spent in Egypt?
The answer, I think, will jump out at us if we pay attention to a another phrase the verse employs. Don't get distracted by the four hundred and thirty years. Instead, look at the verse's first words: וּמוֹשַׁב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר יָשְׁבוּ בְּמִצְרָיִם… I'll translate it literally for you: And the settling-downs that the Children of Israel settled-down while they were in Egypt were… four hundred and thirty years.
The Torah is establishing a contrast for the reader.
For four hundred and thirty years, the people had been "settled down". They had a real roof over their heads. They might have been guests in Egypt, they might even have been slaves – but they knew that when they went home at night, they had a reliable shelter, a real home, in which to sleep. They knew where their next meal was coming from.
In an instant, all that changed. It changed that very first night of freedom – when they found themselves sleeping in those cattle pens along with the sheep and the cows. It changed when, after four hundred and thirty years of being "settled" – having a 'moshav' – in Egypt, they were 'settled' by God into these little cattle pens in the desert. It changed... in Sukkot.
Stop and think for a minute: What must that night have been like?
Experiencing Sukkot Like Our AncestorsHere they were, the first night away from Egypt. It was the first night they experienced without a master's lash at their backs. That night, they breathed in the heady air of freedom. For the very first time in generations, they could come and go as they pleased. They could make choices. On the one hand, it was like living a dream.
But the dream was also full of terror. They were in the desert. And they had nowhere real to sleep. No home to call their own. They were sleeping with their cattle, for goodness sake – right next to Bessie the cow and Spotty the sheep.
You could almost imagine what might have been going through their minds.
This is ridiculous. What am I doing here?
To add to the ridiculousness of the situation, the Torah tells us one more thing about that night. It tells us what they ate that night in Sukkot. Let's read a little bit more from these verses:
לט וַיֹּאפוּ אֶת-הַבָּצֵק אֲשֶׁר הוֹצִיאוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, עֻגֹת מַצּוֹת--כִּי לֹא חָמֵץ: כִּי-גֹרְשׁוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לְהִתְמַהְמֵהַּ, וְגַם-צֵדָה, לֹא-עָשׂוּ לָהֶם.
39 And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual.
Wait a minute. They made Matzah that first night? You're startled, you say to yourself: One second, Matzah-making isn't a Sukkot activity; it's a Pesach activity. On Pesach, we eat unleavened bread to remember how we rushed out of Egypt. Have we pieced together all these clues about that first night in the desert only to arrive … at a different holiday?
Something really interesting is beginning to emerge, it seems to me. There are two holidays in the Torah – Pesach and Sukkot – that somehow both seem to be commemorating the same event: The very first night that Israel spent alone in the desert.
From Pesach To Sukkot: Commemorating A Leap Of FaithThe only difference between the holidays seems to be one of perspective: One holiday, Pesach, commemorates that first night from the perspective of food – we remember what we ate that night. The other holiday, Sukkot, commemorates the night in terms of where we slept.The two basic needs of life are, of course, food and shelter. We had them both in abundance in Egypt. Bread for the eating, and a real roof over our heads. We had those necessities – but we were missing freedom. Suddenly, in an instant, everything changed. God caused Ten Plagues to descend upon our tormentors and suddenly, our masters were powerless to keep us tethered to them anymore. We could go free. The question is: Would we?
We made a choice the moment we left – a crazy choice, if you stop to think about it. We made a choice to embrace freedom, to accept God's invitation to become His nation and travel to a land He promised us, a land we had never seen – all without any real preparation. There was no logistical infrastructure for that journey. Imagine tasking a modern day Army Corp of engineers with the duty to lay the infrastructure for a walk through the desert that would last forty years – and 2.3 million people would be taking the journey. The project would cost billions of dollars. You'd have to set up roads, plumbing, Safeways, malls for clothing – a few 7-11's for good measure. But none of that would be in place for the Israelites' journey. It was a choice thrust on them in an instant. This is your chance: Are you ready to go?
The choice to leave can't be described as anything other than a supreme act of faith. We quite literally placed ourselves in the embrace of the Divine – and said, in effect, "you're inviting us God, and we're going. Our most basic needs – they are all now in your hands." The text that tells us of the journey to Sukkot emphasizes the tentative nature of the journey by telling us: וְגַם-צֵדָה, לֹא-עָשׂוּ לָהֶם – 40 they hadn't even packed provisions for the journey. So there they were that first night, sleeping under the stars, in the ridiculous cattle pens they set up for these animals; there they were, eating their last morsel of half-baked bread realizing, with stunning clarity, that there was no more where that came from – there they were, for the first time, utterly and totally in God's embrace.
That was the night these two holidays – Pesach and Sukkot – are celebrating.
Celebrating More Than Just Sleeping In Sukkot HutsWe asked earlier what the big deal was about Sukkot. Making Sukkot doesn't seem as earth-shattering an event as revelation or the Exodus. But I think the answer is: It was earth-shattering, what happened that first night. Earth-shattering in a quiet, terrifying kind of way.
The act of faith is always earth-shattering. The pit in your stomach as you look around in the desert and feel all alone, only to have it dawn on you – you're not really alone. There's someone else there, one other Being – and it is God. It is just you and Him. And you have just left behind everything you took for granted and made this harrowing choice to completely rely on God. If God doesn't come through here for you, the next night could just be your last.
The prophet Jeremiah says something to us about God's own memories of that first night. Here is his language:
ב הָלֹךְ וְקָרָאתָ בְאָזְנֵי יְרוּשָׁלִַם לֵאמֹר, כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ--לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר, בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה.
2 Go, and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: Thus saith the LORD: I remember the gifts of kindness of your youth, the love of thine espousals; how you walked after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.
That night – it was a big deal for us. And it was a big deal for God. It was the night we gave God the gift of… trust.
Connecting The Disupted Meanings Of SukkotI mentioned to you before that there is a dispute among the Sages as to what we celebrate on Sukkot: Are we commemorating the booths that we slept in, or the Divine Clouds of Glory? I wonder if there might be something complementary in the two of these views. In other words, if you go back to that first night in the desert, when we slept in those booths, there were really two important things happening simultaneously: The first thing that happened – was that we slept in these little booths. That's what we did, the people of Israel. But we weren't the only ones who did something that night. God did something too. We put ourselves, vulnerable, in God's hands – ceding our most basic need for protection to him. And as we looked up at the stars, easy prey for enemies, wild animals, or really anything that goes bump-in-the-night – God saw us leap into the darkness, as it were, and He responded to our act with an act of His Own. He provided for us in the desert. He sheltered us. He said – I see your shantytowns, and I'll raise you; I'll establish for you these Clouds of Glory. I will turn your token efforts at providing shelter for yourselves, efforts you know are inadequate – I will turn them into miraculous sustenance and protection. I will envelope you in Divine Clouds, as it were. God understood our need for protection and responded in kind. We woke up in the morning, safe and sound; that morning, and every morning hence, day in and day out, for forty years.
As for the dispute as to what we commemorate on Sukkot – now we understand, the dispute isn't about what happened: Did we sleep in booths or did God protect us with Divine Clouds? Both happened. The dispute is about what we are commemorating. The Talmudic view that suggests we are commemorating the booths, the Sukkot, is suggesting that we are commemorating our act – the human act of faith, the leap into the darkness that was the first night's stay in Sukkot. That was an act of faith – and, if you think about it, an act of love. The greatest gift we give another in love is the willingness to trust them, to cede control; to put ourselves completely in their hands. That was what we did that first night. And the other Talmudic view? It suggests that we are commemorating God's reciprocation of that act, with a protective act of love of His own. One view suggests that we are commemorating Israel's heroism when we celebrate Sukkot; the other view suggests it's God's heroism, His willingness to be our knight in shining armor, as it were, that we celebrate on Sukkot.
One last little wrinkle, it seems to me, remains to be dealt with. If this theory is to be accepted – this theory that, on some level, Pesach and Sukkot both celebrate the very same night, but from different perspectives – if we are to accept this theory, we kind of need to wonder: Why are these holidays separated by so much time on the calendar?
Look, it makes sense that we celebrate Chag Hamatzot on the 15th of Nissan; it is the night we started eating Matzah. But what about Sukkot? Why in the world would we celebrate it months later, on another date entirely? Why choose a date that seems to bear no obvious connection to the Exodus at all?
Uncovering More Layers Of Meaning Behind SukkotWell… here's a clue for starters: This date on which we celebrate Sukkot; it's not just any old, random, date. The fifteenth of Tishrei is, in an intriguing way, related to Pesach; it occurs exactly six months after the onset of Chag HaMatzot. It is actually the date at the exact opposite end of the calendar, the farthest you can get from the middle of Nissan.
It seems like the Torah was specifically situating Sukkot at the furthest, calendrical point from Pesach that it possibly could. And maybe that's because: That's when Sukkot is needed most.
Because Sukkot is not just at the furthest point calendrically from that first night, but at the furthest point experientially, too.
The farthest we, as a nation, get from that first night in temporary shelter, when we were nothing but a ragtag band of escaped slaves huddled around campfires in no-man's land – the farthest point we get from that is when we are a sovereign nation, in our own land – living in sturdy homes, with the security of a successful harvest behind us. It is at that moment, when our home is our fortress, that we snuggle up under the covers knowing exactly where our next meal is coming from.
That's the night we are supposed to celebrate Sukkot.
The 15th of Tishrei, the Torah itself says, is a time of ingathering. Ingathering of grain. The harvest is finally over. At this time of year, we are most susceptible to the belief that we are self-sufficient, that we have brought into our homes the food that will secure our future. Until now, perhaps we were vulnerable. When we planted the grain back in the spring, the seedlings might not take. There might not be rain. But now, at Sukkot time, בְּאָסְפְּכֶם אֶת-תְּבוּאַת הָאָרֶץ – when we gather in the grain into our homes – our homes, at this time of year, have become veritable fortresses of agricultural security. Now we are finally safe and secure.
It is then that we are asked to leave our home behind, and reoccupy the huts we slept in that first night. In doing so, we recreate the precious gift of that first night – the gift of trust. Then, we placed ourselves, fragile and vulnerable, into the care of our Creator. And so we do now.
Celebrating Sukkot Holiday In A Modern ContextNow, even when we have a roof over our heads, with indoor plumbing and the niceties of electricity – even when we have sofas, coffee tables and Keurig machines; now, we place ourselves under the Creator's protection, just as we did then. We do so because we understand that, on some level, a home is little more than a hut; the security it provides is illusory. We do so because it is only a little pig who believes that if he makes his home not out of straw, not of wood, but of bricks, then the big bad wolf can't huff and puff and blow the house down. But we, we know it's not true. All houses can be blown down if the hurricane is terrifying enough, and if the enemy is ominous enough. Real security always comes from God.
Sukkot, all told, was about a gift of love – a gift of faith that we as a people gave to our Creator, and a gift of care that He reciprocated in turn. It is these gifts that we are asked to recreate, year after year, every Sukkot – so that we never forget the embrace of our Heavenly Protector.