Of Palms and Booths

succot - painting-1348125502

מבבַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת

מבבַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת:

“For a seven-day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths.” (Vayikra, 23:48)


For centuries, Western philosophers have privileged the spoken word over the written.  This privilege was based on the temporary nature of the spoken symbol.  To their neo-platonic way of thinking, once the echoes of the symbol fade away, only the ideal which it represents remains.  The written symbol, on the other hand, remains present as a barrier between the reader and the ideal.  Derrida, however, deconstructs this privilege.  According to Derrida, the ink patterns on the page have no more inherent connection to the signified than does the acoustic waves of the spoken word.  The physical signifier “chair” has no more relationship to the ideal (or signified) “chairness” than does the spoken “chair.”  Not even the memory of the reading of the word remains after our eye has moved across the page.  In this case, the temporary has no privilege over the permanent.

And so, we come to Sukkot, a holiday dedicated to the inter-junction of the temporary and the permanent. The primary symbol of Sukkot is the sukkah, a temporary shelter representing the portable structures (the prototypical travel-trailer) the Israelites used during their forty-year sojourn through the desert following the exodus from Egypt.  As is the case with most ritual objects in the practice of Judaism, there are many levels of significance as to the meaning of the sukkah.  The principle, ritual purpose of the sukkah is to serve as a reminder of the Exodus and G-d’s protection of the Israelites in the desert.  We are to dwell in the sukkah, as it is written, “in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God” (Vayikra 23:44).  In this way, the sukkah function as do many of the symbols from the Passover sedar, as a physical reminder of Biblical events.

The metaphorical meanings of the sukkah, however, are of greater significance and make for a much more interesting discussion.  Principal among these metaphors is the temporary nature of the sukkah.  There are many laws concerning the building of a sukkah, and most of them are there to ensure the temporary nature of the structure.  For example, the sukkah, cannot be connected to the ground.

So, why be so concerned about this symbolic, ritual structure be temporary?  Is it that what is important about the sukkah is not the physical structure itself but rather the temporary nature of the structure?  What are we to learn from the temporary?  R. Akiva was the first to focus on the sukkah as symbol rather than physical structure and reminder.  While most of his contemporaries focused on the historical, physical nature of the sukkah, R. Akiva said of sukkot, “they were the clouds of glory” (Sifra 17:11,).  In other words, the sukkot the Israelites dwelled in during their wandering were not physical structures but rather the protective shade of Ha Shem.  Interestingly, one of the laws concerning the construction of a sukkah is that the roof should be open to the stars but provide more shade than sun.

One of the popular interpretations of the frail, temporary nature of the sukkah is it’s being  analogous to the fragility and temporality of human existence.  Like the sukkah in which we are dwelling (for a temporary period, by the way), we are ourselves “housed” in frail, temporary shelters (i.e. our bodies) for a temporary period of time.

If we continue to follow this path of representation, it appears that Judaism and its scholars privilege the temporary.  There is this entire holiday dedicated to celebrating the temporary.  But, then we encounter Rambam (Maimonides to you Hellenists).  In his Mishneh Torah, Rambam says of the commandment to dwell in the sukkah for the seven days of Sukkot, “throughout the seven days, one should regard his house as temporary and his sukkah as permanent” (6:5).  What are to make of this?  How do we regard this shelter, built to withstand only a common wind, as permanent and our built-to-code house as temporary?  An answer comes from the symbolic nature of each structure.  Our house is a symbol of our day-to-day life, our “secular” life: the sukkah is a symbol of our relationship with Ha Shem.  The man-made “protection” of our house is temporary, illusory; while, the Ha Shem’s protection is permanent.

Sukkot reminds us of a truth greater than our frail, temporary existence. Our lives our finite. History, even, is finite. Only Ha Shem is eternal.

Chag Sameach.

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