“Why is Sukkot Celebrated in the Fall rather than in the Spring?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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, You shall dwell in booths (Sukkot) for a seven day period; every native in Israel shall dwell in booths so that your generations will know that I [G-d] caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them out from the land of Egypt; I am the L-rd your G-d.

According to the Talmud Rosh Hashanah 11b, Tosafot, the slavery in Egypt ended approximately six months prior to the Exodus. The Jews, the former slaves, who had by then won over the favor of the Egyptians, sat confidently in their homes that were filled with all the good of Egypt that was given to them by the Egyptian people. The wicked Pharaoh and his ministers tried to persuade the Israelites not to leave Egypt, promising them many benefits for remaining.

On the day that the people departed from Egypt, the Torah, in Exodus 12:37, states that the Israelites traveled from Ramses to Sukkot, with 600,000 men alone, along with multitudes of women and children. Together with the mixed multitude who left Egypt, there were likely more than three million people who left Egypt. They all faithfully followed G-d into a wilderness, a howling wasteland without any shelter, shade, food or water, only serpents, snakes and scorpions.

When the people arrived at Sukkot, it was there that G-d built for them makeshift dwellings. Other sages say that G-d encompassed the people with seven “Clouds of Glory” to protect them, one cloud that always traveled under them, one above them, one in each of the four directions, and a seventh cloud that traveled before them leading them through the wilderness. Some suggest that both opinions are correct, that first G-d made huts for them, and then, as a reward for leaving the comfort of their homes in Egypt, G-d encircled them with clouds (see Sukkot 5764-2003).

If all this took place in the month of Nissan soon after the Exodus, why then does the Torah instruct the people to celebrate Sukkot six months later, in Tishrei? The Torah in Leviticus 23:34 declares: בַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי הַזֶּה, חַג הַסֻּכּוֹת שִׁבְעַת יָמִים לַהשׁם, On the fifteenth day of the seventh month [Tishrei] is the festival of Sukkot, a seven-day period for G-d.

Many reasons are offered for the festival being delayed to the fall rather than celebrated in the spring. Many of the explanations point to the fact that leaving one’s home in the fall when the weather is less pleasant is recognized as an act of devotion and loyalty to G-d.

  1. In the springtime, in the warm month of Nissan, it is quite natural for people to leave their homes. The rainy season is finally over and the temperature begins to rise. In contrast, during the month of Tishrei, because the rain and the cold winds arrive, people usually return to their warm and secure homes. Dwelling in the Sukkah in the month of Tishrei, makes it clear to all that moving to a temporary and flimsy hut is meant to be an act of devotion to fulfill the wishes of G-d and not for comfort or convenience. That is why it says (Leviticus 23:43), לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם, so that your generations will know that I [G-d] made you dwell in these booths.
  1. Other commentators suggest that there is a special reason why Sukkot comes immediately after Yom Kippur. Since G-d sits in judgment of the Jews during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, perhaps a Divine judgment of גָּלוּת-“Galut”–exile, was issued as a punishment for Israel’s sins. By leaving their homes and going into the Sukkah, Jews enter a self-imposed exile, in the hope of avoiding a true exile (Yalkut Emor, 653).
  1. The original “Clouds of Glory” that encircled the Jewish people after the Exodus, vanished when the Jewish people sinned with the Golden Calf. It was only after Moses came down from the mountain for a third time on Yom Kippur that the people were permanently encircled by the “Clouds of Glory,” indicating that G-d had totally forgiven them and was now dwelling with them.
  1. When Moses came down from the mountain on Yom Kippur, he gathered the people and instructed them (Exodus 35:5) to bring valuable gifts, and to start building the Tabernacle. It was on the fifteenth of Tishrei, on the same day that the people actually started building the Tabernacle, that the Divine “Clouds of Glory” appeared. By stationing His Divine Presence in the newly-built Tabernacle, G-d showed that He was prepared to leave His heavenly abode in order to dwell with the Jewish people. Similarly, the Jewish people showed that they were prepared to leave their comfortable homes and move to the unstable Sukkot in order to dwell with G-d.
  1. Since Sukkot is the festival of in-gathering, the farmers-of-old likely felt self-satisfied at the time knowing that they had gathered in all the produce from the field and were now blessed with abundance. In order to show their gratitude and modesty, they left the abundance that was stored in their homes and went out to live in the rickety shacks, to dwell in the shade of the Al-mighty’s Divine Presence. This served as a bold declaration that “the earth and its fullness, belong to the L-rd.” (Psalm 24). True happiness is only found in the shadow of G-d.
  1. Since Sukkot comes on the heels of the Teshuva process of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the penitent people still felt embarrassed by their sinfulness. Even though they had been forgiven, they were ashamed of their deeds and uncomfortable in their own homes. G-d said, “Come dwell with Me, live in the shadow of the Divine Presence and feel the embrace of a forgiving G-d.”

May the final days of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah be a time when we all feel closer to G-d, surrounded by His “Clouds of Glory,” and held in His warm embrace.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a שָׁנָה טוֹבָה-Shanah Tovah and a גְּמָר טוֹב, a very Happy and Healthy New Year. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, and may all our prayers be answered favorably.

The first days of Sukkot were observed this year on Sunday evening and all day Monday and Tuesday, October 16th, 17th and 18th. The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Sunday, October 23rd. On Sunday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Monday, October 24th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Monday evening, October 24th and continues through Tuesday, October 25th.