Succos and the Seventy Nations

Dear Friends,


We will begin to discuss the relationship of the earth’s nations to the Festival of Succos. According to the Torah, there are seventy primary nations which are the roots of the diverse national groups and cultures which we have today. This figure is based on the number of the descendants of Noah which are listed in the Book of Genesis, after the story of the great flood. Seventy names are recorded, and at the end of the section it states, “These are the families of Noah's descendants, according to their generations, by their nations; and from these the nations were separated on the earth after the flood” (Genesis 10:32). The Midrash therefore teaches that seventy nations emerged from Noah (Numbers Rabbah 14:12).


The Torah states that the festival offerings that we bring during the seven days of Succos include seventy bulls (Numbers 29:12-34). According to the Torah, there are 13 bull-offerings on the first day of the Festival, 12 on the second day, eleven on the third day, ten on the fourth day, nine on the fifth day, eight on the sixth day, and seven on the seventh day - totaling seventy (ibid). The Talmud explains that these offerings are on behalf of the seventy primary nations of the world (Succos 55b). In his commentary on this Talmudic passage, the classical commentator, Rashi, explains that the purpose of these offerings is to seek atonement on behalf of the seventy nations so that the entire world will merit rain during the coming year. Succos is also known as the “Festival of the Harvest” (Exodus 23:16), and during the seven days of this harvest festival, we are to ask “Hashem” - the Compassionate One - to give the seventy nations continued life and sustenance through the blessing of rain. We seek their continued existence, as each of these nations has a unique purpose within the creation. These seventy offerings - which were accompanied by the singing of the Levites and instrumental music - serve as an inspiring reminder of our universal concern for all the nations.


Rashi, in his commentary on the biblical passage about these offerings, adds a teaching which seems to contradict the universal interpretation he gave in his commentary on the Talmud. In his biblical commentary, he writes:


“The bulls of the Festival are seventy, corresponding to the seventy nations, and they progressively decrease in number, i.e. each day, fewer bulls are offered than the day before. This alludes to the eventual destruction of the nations.” (Commentary to Numbers 29:12-34)


In his commentary on the Talmud, Rashi states that the purpose of the seventy offerings is to preserve the seventy nations, and in his commentary on the biblical text, Rashi adds that the decreasing number of offerings on each day alludes to the eventual destruction of the seventy nations. How do we understand this contradiction? In addition, Rashi's teaching regarding the destruction of the nations seems to contradict all the biblical prophecies which describe the redemption of the nations during the messianic age! For example, it is written, “It will happen in the end of days: The mountain of the Temple of Hashem will be firmly established as the head of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2). How, then, are we to understand Rashi's statement regarding the “destruction” of the nations?


The beginning of the answer can be found in the following prayer that we chanted on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur regarding world unity: “Let them all become one society to do Your will wholeheartedly.” The Divine goal for human history is one, unified society; thus, the decrease in the number of offerings each day is alluding to the elimination of seventy independent and competing nation-states that currently oppose the unifying purpose of the Compassionate One. Humanity will enter a new stage of history when there will no longer be seventy separate nation-states opposing each other; instead, there will be one society composed of seventy diverse peoples that will be aligned with Israel in the service of the Compassionate One. The Prophet Zephaniah therefore proclaimed the following Divine message:


"For then I will cause the peoples to speak a purified language, so that they all will proclaim the Name of Hashem, to serve Him with a united resolve" (Zephaniah 3:9).


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses the future demise of the nation-state in his commentary to Psalm 67:5. Rabbi Hirsch writes that there will still be diverse peoples, each with its own characteristics, but all these peoples will be united through their acceptance of the Divine sovereignty and through their fulfillment of the Divine will. In addition, the rulers of the nation-states “will retreat before God, back into the ranks of the peoples.” Rabbi Hirsch explains that these former rulers will still work for the welfare of their peoples, but they will do so under the leadership of the Compassionate One.


Regarding this future age, it is written: “They will proclaim the Name of Hashem, for His Name alone is exalted” (Psalm 148:13). According to the classical commentator, the Sforno, this verse is alluding to the elimination of all forms of human sovereignty in the age when all will acknowledge the sovereignty of the Compassionate One, as it states:


“Humankind’s haughty eyes will be brought low, and men’s arrogance will be humbled; and Hashem alone shall be exalted on that day.” (Isaiah 2:11)


On the first day of Succos, we read a section from the Book of Zechariah which tells the following story about how Hashem alone shall be exalted on that day: Before the final redemption, an international military force representing the nation-states of the world will invade the renewed Jewish community in Jerusalem. The ancient hatred of our people will have surfaced, and these nations will attempt to eliminate our presence in Zion. Our endangered people will be saved, as “Hashem will go out and wage war with those nations” (Zechariah 14:3). The defeat of their armed forces through the open and miraculous intervention of the Compassionate One will lead to universal spiritual renewal, and all will acknowledge the unity and sovereignty of the Compassionate One. As the Prophet states:


“It will be a unique day, known to Hashem, neither day or night, but it will happen towards evening that there will be light. And on that day, living waters will flow out of Jerusalem, one half towards the eastern sea and one half towards the western sea; in summer and in winter will it last. And Hashem will be the Sovereign over all the earth; on that day, Hashem will be One and His Name will be One.” (Zechariah 14:7-9).


“Living waters will flow out of Jerusalem” –  In addition to the simple meaning, this alludes to the spreading of the Divine teachings which will cause all the nations to acknowledge the unity and sovereignty of Hashem. (Commentary of the Malbim, a noted 19th sage)


The Prophet adds: “It shall be that all who are left over from all the nations who had invaded Jerusalem will come up every year to worship the Sovereign, Hashem, Who is God of all the hosts of creation, and to celebrate the Festival of Succos." (Zechariah 14:16)


“To worship Hashem” – “The God of love of all the hosts of creation” (Rabbi Hirsch). Instead of serving a god of hatred, they will serve the universal God of love.


In their commentaries on the above passage, the Metzudas David and the Malbim cite the tradition that the defeat of the armed forces attacking Zion will take place during Succos. In order to commemorate this miraculous event which inspired the nations to acknowledge the Divine unity and sovereignty, pilgrims from the nations will journey to the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem each Succos. They will join us on the very Festival when we bring seventy offerings on their behalf.


We will then experience the fulfillment of the following Divine promise: “My House shall be called a house of prayer for all the peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).


Have a Chag Samayach - A Joyous Festival,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings and Comments:


1. A term for “people” in biblical Hebrew is am, and a term for "nation" in biblical Hebrew is goy (plural form - goyim). The root meaning of goy is “body”; thus, Rabbi Hirsch explains that the term goy refers to the outer structure or "body" of a nation. Rabbi Hirsch points out that when verses in our Sacred Scriptures refer to the future destruction of evil nations before the dawn of the messianic age, they usually use the term goyim. These verses are therefore referring to the destruction of evil national structures, but not to the destruction of the peoples. (Rabbi Hirsch's commentary to Psalms 10:16 and 67:5) 


2. When the Compassionate One promised Abraham, our father, that a great nation will emerge from him, the Compassionate One added, “And through you, all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:30). The verse does not mention “nations” or even “peoples”; instead it refers to families. The verse is therefore alluding to the final stage of human history when the relationship of all the peoples of the earth to each other will be a relationship of families. (This insight is from Dr. Isaac Levy, the grandson of Rabbi Hirsch who did an English translation of Rabbi Hirsch’s German translation and commentary on the Torah. His comment appears in parenthesis in the commentary to Genesis 12:3.)


3. The Netziv, a noted 19th century sage and biblical commentator, cites the tradition that during the reign of King Shlomo (Solomon), representatives from all the nations would come to Jerusalem during the Festival of Succos, when Israel offered seventy offerings on behalf of the seventy primary nations of the earth. The Netziv writes that during the intermediate days of the Festival of Succos, the sages of the nations who were in Jerusalem would hear King Shlomo share his teachings from the Book of Ecclesiastes (Herchav Davar on Numbers 29:12). The Book of Ecclesiastes was written by King Shlomo, and there is a custom to chant this book during the Festival of Succos.


4. At the dawn of the messianic age, when the peoples begin to acknowledge the Divine sovereignty, the Messiah will act as a judge who will help to settle the disputes among the peoples (Isaiah 2:4); however, he will fulfill this role as a representative of the Divine Teaching, and not as an agent of human authority.

Hazon - Our Universal Vision