“Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov’s Observations on the Sukkot Festival”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov was one of Israel’s most prolific and acclaimed religious writers. His monumental Hebrew work, Sefer Ha’toda’ah, known in English as The Book of Our Heritage, has become a standard reference guide. Rabbi Kitov also wrote extensively on the weekly Torah portion. His works are truly unheralded masterpieces.

In his weekly analysis of the Torah portion, on parashat Emor, in Sefer Ha’parashiyot, Rabbi Kitov presents an in-depth analysis of the festival of Sukkot. The entire chapter of Leviticus 23 in Parashat Emor focuses on the Jewish festivals, beginning with Shabbat, followed by Passover, Shavuot, the counting of the Omer, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and finally the festival of Sukkot.

Regarding the festival of Sukkot, the Torah in Leviticus 23:42-43, states, בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים,  כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, אֲנִי השם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, You shall dwell in booths for a seven day period; every native in Israel shall dwell in booths. So that your future generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them from the land of Egypt; I am the L-rd, your G-d.

The imagery of the Sukkah is analyzed at great length in rabbinic literature. There is even a debate in the Talmud as to whether the “Sukkah” in which the people of Israel dwelled during the sojourn in the wilderness was an actual physical Sukkah or a spiritual Sukkah, in which the Al-mighty wrapped the People of Israel, as a gesture of love.

Citing the interpretation of the Zohar, Rabbi Kitov notes that the Torah’s repeated emphasis on the mitzvah of dwelling in a Sukkah comes to affirm that those who sit in a Sukkah on the festival are actually sitting בְּצֵל אֱמוּנָה, in the shadow of heavenly faith. By leaving their homes and dwelling in an insecure Sukkah, Jews demonstrate immense faith in G-d, Who protects His people. When sitting in the Sukkah, the people can dwell without fear, because they have been rendered impervious to harm. Those who leave their homes to dwell in a flimsy hut, exposed to the raw elements, become part of this exclusive coterie of faith.

An additional reason for the ritual of dwelling in the Sukkah at this particular season is because the festival of Sukkot took place at the time of the ingathering of the harvest. When farmers saw their storehouses and homes filled with the abundant produce of the field, there was concern that they would become arrogant. Dwelling in a temporary and flimsy Sukkah made the farmers realize that it was not their “hands and might that accomplished all this,” but rather the Al-mighty Who gave them the rich crops, and endowed them with all the good that their fields have yielded. That is why all Jews, even small children, are instructed to dwell in the Sukkah, and bless the Al-mighty whenever they eat in the Sukkah.

Rabbi Kitov cites an interesting Midrash that traces the origins of the Sukkah to the time of the exodus from Egypt. The Midrash maintains that the enslavement of the people ceased six months before the actual exodus. During that six month period, the Israelites dwelled in their secure and peaceful homes, together with the abundant riches that the Egyptians had showered upon them. During this time, all the Egyptians, even the evil Pharaoh and his servants, tried to persuade the Jewish people not to leave the blessed land of Egypt.

When the day came for Israel to be redeemed, the Torah, in Exodus 12:37 records, וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס סֻכֹּתָה, כְּשֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הַגְּבָרִים, לְבַד מִטָּף, the Children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about 600,000 men on foot, aside from the children. This huge assemblage, consisting of about three million individuals, left their homes and their cities with all the good that they had amassed in Egypt, to follow G-d into the wilderness. On faith alone, they marched with the Al-mighty to a place without shelter, shade, food, or water, populated by snakes and scorpions. Despite the unknown destination, the people never hesitated or questioned G-d about their final destination, seemingly unconcerned about where they would find shelter from the burning heat during the day and the frigid cold at night, or from where their food and sustenance would come.

The Torah notes that the people traveled a distance of about 125 miles, “From Rameses to Succoth.” A trip of this magnitude would normally take a single individual at least three days. For three million men, women, children, sheep, cattle and flocks, a journey of this length would take six or seven days or more. Nevertheless, the Torah reports that the people of Israel reached Succoth in but a single day. To emphasize the exalted level of faith to which the people had risen in their relationship with G-d, the Torah in Exodus 19:4 records, “And I carried you on the wings of eagles.” This comes to teach, that those who travel at the behest of G-d, who place their faith fully in the Al-mighty, will not be forsaken. If necessary, G-d will happily perform miracles for such a faithful flock.

As a reward for the people’s spiritual devotion and uncompromised faith, G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and took the people out of Egypt with an outstretched hand.

G-d declared to the Jewish people, “My beloved son, you are not Pharaoh’s servants. You are not servants to their gods or committed to their faiths. You are My servants. I took you out from the hand of Pharaoh, and I redeemed you from all the meaninglessness of Egypt. Leave your homes and your fortified shelters and come under the security of My wing. This will be your true security. Their castles and fortresses are nothing compared to the unremitting love of the Divine clouds that have enveloped you.”

It was not long after, at Sinai, that the Al-mighty betrothed the Jewish people, entering them under the Chuppah, under the shade of G-d’s Sukkah. It was there that G-d acquired His people, forever and for eternity.

May the festival of Sukkot that we celebrate at this time, serve as a renewal of the nuptial vows of old, between G-d and His people. May we all soon dwell in the Al-mighty’s ultimate Sukkah in good health, peace and tranquility.

May you be blessed.

he first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, October 8th, 9th and 10th, 2014. The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, October 15th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 16th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 16th and continues through Friday, October 17th.