“The Meaning of Sukkot: Insights of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) was a rabbi, statesman, philosopher and leader of German Jewry. The son of a prosperous German merchant, he decided not to engage in business, choosing instead to enter the rabbinate. Though a classically trained Orthodox rabbi, he enrolled in the University of Bonn, where he studied classical languages, history and philosophy.

In 1836, Rabbi Hirsch published a trailblazing volume entitled The Nineteen Letters on Judaism, which made a profound impression in German Jewish circles. For the first time, a fearless and uncompromising defense of Orthodoxy, its institutions and ordinances, was penned by a brilliant intellectual and written in classic German for mass consumption.

In 1838, Rabbi Hirsch published a full-length philosophy of the 613 Mitzvot, entitled, Chorev, later translated and rendered into English by Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld under the title Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances.

In 1851, Rabbi Hirsch accepted the position of rabbi in Frankfurt-am-Main, where he was to spend the rest of his life as their spiritual leader. Under his leadership, both the congregation and the community flourished. His legacy was to impact profoundly on Jewish communal life the world over.

To this day, Rabbi Hirsch’s Torah commentary is widely studied, and serves as a prime example of his original ethical-humanistic approach to Torah and mitzvot. Rabbi Hirsch’s legacy, however, was not without controversy. Some regard Rabbi Hirsch as the first “Modern Orthodox” rabbi. Others disagree strongly with that appellation, arguing that Rabbi Hirsch’s support of secular education was only intended to prevent assimilation, and was not an inherent principle of Orthodoxy as Rabbi Hirsch understood it.

Rabbi Hirsch’s Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances is a seminal contribution to contemporary Jewish thought. Rabbi Hirsch divided all 613 Mitzvot into six categories. 1. Toroth, are the fundamental principles that relate to mental and spiritual preparation for life. Among these are the sovereignty of G-d, revelation, pride and humility, and judging one’s neighbor. 2. Edoth, are symbolic observances that represent truths that form the basis of Israel’s life. Examples of these include celebrating and observing Shabbat and holidays, Tefillin, Tzizit and Mezuzzah. 3. Mishpatim, are declarations of justice toward human beings. Examples include respect for the human body, prohibition of murder, injuring others, lying, flattery, responsibility for damage caused by property or physical force. 4. Chukim, are laws of righteousness toward those things that are subordinate to the human being: toward the earth, plant, animal, even toward one’s own body, mind, spirit and word. Examples of these include respecting all beings as G-d’s property, the prohibition of suicide and self injury, modesty in clothing and behavior. 5. Mitzvoth, encompass the commandments involving love. This includes the directive for every human being to draw near to G-d through love, respect for parents, respect for age, wisdom and virtue, the study of Torah, marriage, education, charity, acts of kindness, and the prohibition of profaning the name of G-d. 6. The final section is known as Avodah, which Rabbi Hirsch defines as Divine service, and deals with prayers, the blessings of the priests, reverence for houses of worship and for schools, and reading of the Torah.

It is in the second section, Edoth, that Rabbi Hirsch includes the mitzvah of Sukkah and offers his extraordinary insights into this mitzvah. Rabbi Hirsch notes that the festival of Sukkot is dedicated to the physical preservation of Israel by G-d. It is at this time of year, when the harvest is almost complete, that the granaries and the houses are full with the gathered harvest. Among those who are fortunate enough to have the blessing of abundance, some no longer turn their eyes anxiously to Heaven for a blessing. Instead, they often rely on what they have stored, and face the winter season with equanimity. On the other hand, a farmer whose harvest was meager faces poverty and possible starvation, not only for himself, but also for his wife and his children. They soon grow despondent and see a future for themselves engulfed in want.

The Torah tells both the farmer who is successful and the farmer who is unsuccessful to leave home, forsake their solid and secure roofs and dwell under the sparse ceiling of foliage in the Sukkah. With this act, the People of Israel are to acknowledge that it was, after all, G-d who caused the ancient Israelites to dwell in booths for forty years when He led them out of Egypt and they traversed the wilderness. It was G-d who sustained them in their booths, and revealed Himself as the Divine Provider, Who sustains all.

It is in this manner that the successful farmer becomes aware that it is neither riches nor property, and certainly not one’s talents, that make a person’s life more secure, “It is G-d alone, G-d Who sustains, even in booths, those who surrender themselves to Him in complete faithfulness.” Consequently, all humans, whether wealthy or poor, must remember to thank G-d for their wherewithal, for their distinction, their treasures, all of which is subject to G-d’s will. One must not be a slave to one’s wealth and be led away from G-d, for it is only under G-d’s protection that one’s safety is ensured.

The impoverished farmer as well must leave his home and the sheltering roof that provides protection. The poor Jew must also learn that it was G-d who sustained his forefathers in the wilderness, in booths, in a Sukkah. And it is that same G-d who still lives, and Whose watchful eye can see through the roof of the Sukkah foliage, and embrace every person in loving-kindness. It is He who can “behold your tears, hear your sighs, and know your cares. He will not forsake you, as He did not forsake your forefathers.” Rabbi Hirsch boldly proclaims the message of Sukkot: ”Go into the Sukkah with G-d,” have ultimate faith in Him, Who sustains everyone, in the wilderness and in their home. “Go into the Sukkah!”

Rabbi Hirsch develops this theme further, comparing the mad race for material possessions to the builders of the Tower of Babel, who believed in the security of their own sham shelters. “From this madness may Sukkoth deliver us; from the idolization of possessions and of man’s talents, may our submission to the Sukkah release us, and may it lead us instead to G-d as the only basis of our life; may it teach us to put trust in G-d, to rely only upon G-d: Emuna.”

Rabbi Hirsch finds additional messages expressed in the observances of Sukkot, arguing that the Sukkah binds humanity into a single brotherhood. One may not move into a Sukkah with thoughts only of one’s own destiny, but rather as a son of Israel, conscious of the fate of the People of Israel, and their destiny. One must move into the Sukkah as a citizen of the world, and be bound into the brotherhood that encircles all of humankind, united under one G-d, to be freed from the worship of the idol of Mammon. Only in this way, argues Rav Hirsch, will G-d, as the Universal Father, receive all of humankind in His tabernacle of peace. Only in this manner, will He be recognized alone as the one G-d, to be adored by all the earth.

Special thanks to Mrs. Meta Bechhofer, a direct descendant of Rabbi Hirsch, for reviewing and fact checking this parasha.

May you be blessed.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, October 12th, 13th and 14th, 2011. The intermediary days [Chol HaMoed] are observed through Wednesday, October 19th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 20th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 20th and continues through Friday, October 21st.

Wishing you a wonderfully joyous holiday.