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   by Jacob Solomon

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You shall make the Festival of Tabernacles for a seven-day period, when you gather in your produce from your threshing floor and from your winepress. You shall rejoice on your festival… and you will be completely joyful (16:13-15).

This section on the Festival of Tabernacles is the last of the three small sections in the Book of Deuteronomy concerned with the Festivals.

The Talmud derives from the words: ‘You shall make the Festival of Tabernacles… when you gather in your produce from your threshing floor and winepress’, that the covering of the sukka – the sechach – is made out of materials that actually share the characteristics of produce from the threshing floor and the winepress. Thus, it must be made out of natural, untreated materials of plant origins. In addition, the covering must be cut off from its source bush or the tree – in that sense it is ‘harvested’ (Rosh Hashanah 13a). If the branches are not ‘harvested’ the sechach is invalid: as the Talmud states, ‘If a person builds a sukka under a tree it is invalid: it is as though he built it in his own house’ (Sukka 9b).

The above leads to two questions:

  1. Why must the twigs be cut off from their source of growth before they become valid for sechach?

  2. Why does the Torah, on three occasions, state that one must be happy on the Feast of Tabernacles? It says so twice in this section (You shall rejoice on your festival… and you will be completely joyful), and once elsewhere (You shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d for seven days – Lev. 23:40). There is no explicit requirement to be happy on Passover: there is on Pentecost, but it is only mentioned once (16:11).

The simple answer to the latter question is given by the Da’at Zekeinim mi-Baalei ha-Tosafot (c12-c13). From the point of view of the annual harvest cycle, on Passover there is less to be happy about, on Pentecost there is more, but Tabernacles brings the greatest source of satisfaction. For on Passover, the reaping of the grain just begins. By Pentecost, the grain is in, but the plantations and orchards are still waiting to ripen and be harvested. The time to really rejoice and be grateful for the year’s produce is on the Feast of Tabernacles: by which time the entire year’s harvest has been gathered in.

If rejoicing must be complete, why does the Torah invalidate the use of ‘complete’ plants – i.e. attached to the ground or the tree – for use as sechach? Would they not be more beautiful, and give a greener look? Once branches and leaves are detached from their source of growth, they shrink, wither, and turn a more unsightly brown – symbolizing decay and death, rather than growth and prosperity.

A clue may be found in looking at the words ve-hayita ach sameach (16:15). Although this is generally translated ‘you will be completely joyful’, Rabbeinu Bachya (1263-1340) interprets the word in the more Talmudic sense as meaning ‘you will be joyful, but (literal translation of ach) that joy has its limits’. One should of course be happy on the Feast of Tabernacles, but that exhilaration ought not to get out of hand, and certainly not degenerate into ribaldry. One should remember that one’s stay in this life is only temporary, and that the real joy is the eternal one in the World to Come when, ‘seeing the Face of the Divine Presence and having all needs provided for, continuously and abundantly.’

This happiness – of ‘serving the Almighty with joy’ (Psalms 100:2), but at the same time ‘with fear’ (ibid. 2:11) and respect is illustrated with the Talmud’s description of the Temple ceremony of the Drawing of the Water on the Feast of Tabernacles – focussed on the service of G-d:

‘He who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never seen rejoicing in his life. At the conclusion of the first festival day of Tabernacles…they made a great ceremony. There were… golden candlesticks with four golden bowls on the top of each of them and four ladders to each, and four youths drawn from the priests in whose hands were held jars of oil containing one hundred and twenty measures, which they poured into the bowls. With lighted torches in their hands, they sung songs and praises. (Sukka 51a,b)… They said of R. Simeon b. Gamaliel that when he rejoiced at the Rejoicing at the place of the Water-Drawing, he used to take eight lighted torches [and throw them in the air] and catch one and throw one and they did not touch one another‘(ibid. 53a).

The wrong sort of joy and ensuing disorder is typified by the seventeenth century English diarist, Samuel Peyps. On visiting a London synagogue on the Rejoicing of the Law after Tabernacles, he wrote of:

‘…the disorder, laughing, sporting and not attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true G-d, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more: and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined that there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.’

This also explains the reason why the sechach is made out or materials that wither. Looking at the sechach reminds a person of the temporary nature of joy on this Earth, and of Man’s temporary stay on this Earth. This must not be forgotten even when everything seems to be complete and perfect – as with a good harvest in time for Tabernacles. As the prayer of R. Amnon – recited in the Ashkenazi rite on the High Holidays - states:

Man comes from dust and ends in dust; he wins his bread at the risk of his life. He is like the potsherd that breaks, the grass that withers, the flower that fades… the dream that flies away…

However, the joy can become permanent when used in the service of the Almighty and Man – as the penultimate verse of Ecclesiastes states:

Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of Man (Eccl. 12:13).

Rashi explains that means that all one’s actions and endeavors should be in order to fulfil the Will of G-d. That is the challenge of the Feast of Tabernacles – to be ach sameach – to enjoy it, within the guidelines of ‘finding favor and good understanding in the eyes of G-d and Man’ (Prov. 3:4). And the ‘eyes of G-d’ include reward for good deeds in the World to Come.



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