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Why is Sukkot Celebrated in the Fall?

I noticed that of all the major holidays, Sukkot does not really seem to correspond to the time of year we celebrate it. The Torah states that we should dwell in huts on Sukkot to commemorate the huts the Jewish people used in the desert. But I assume they lived that way the entire forty years they were there! If so, why is Sukkot celebrated specifically in the fall, right after the other major holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It’s an excellent question. In fact, it is so good that it is practically considered the classic question of Sukkot – the equivalent of the Hanukkah question why we celebrate the first day if there was enough oil to burn for one day. A number of great scholars over the centuries have posed and discussed your question, so I’ll offer a brief sampling of some of the main answers.

Before answering, I should mention that the Talmud (Sukkah 11b) records two opinions as to the exact meaning of the “booths” of the Torah (“…for in booths I caused Israel to dwell when I took them out of the Land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43)). One opinion sees them as literal huts. The second understands them as a reference to the Clouds of Glory which protected the nation in the desert. The Children of Israel did not need their tents to protect them from the sun. God Himself did so with His glorious clouds.

Thus, according to one opinion, we celebrate Sukkot to commemorate the Divine protection God accorded us when we first became a nation. It’s very plausible that the same theme holds true for the other opinion as well. By commemorating the flimsy huts our ancestors inhabited in the desert, we are reminded that such huts were sufficient in such an inhospitable climate because it was truly God who was protecting them. As we will see, many of the answers below are predicated upon this overall theme that Sukkot commemorates God’s protection.

With that introduction, we’ll begin the answers.

(1) Logically, we should celebrate Sukkot shortly after Pesach – to commemorate the first time we began dwelling in huts right after our departure from Egypt. But God instructed us to wait until the fall, when the weather is cooler. He did this so that our act would be more meaningful. Had we gone outdoors during the summer, it would have appeared that we were doing so to enjoy the nice weather. Instead, God told us to wait till the cooler weather, so our act would make it clear we are dwelling in booths for God’s sake rather than our own (Tur O.C. 625, Minhagei Maharil sof hil’ yom kippur). (Note that God told us to wait till the fall but not the winter – so the mitzvah would not be too uncomfortable either.)

(2) We do not commemorate the original Clouds of Glory, which we received when we first departed from Egypt. We lost those clouds after the sin of the Golden Calf. We rather celebrate the return of the clouds which occurred after God granted us absolution from that sin. According to the Vilna Gaon, this occurred on Sukkot.

The sin of the Golden Calf occurred on the 16th day of Tammuz, three months after we left Egypt. Moses returned a day later with the Tablets of the Ten Commandments – and smashed them. Moses then spent 40 days praying that God not destroy Israel, then another 40 days receiving the second Tablets. According to our tradition, that entire period ended on Yom Kippur, the 10th of Tishrei, on which date God wholeheartedly re-accepted Israel as His nation.

The next day, the 11th, God commanded Israel to donate materials for the building of the Tabernacle. The nation donated for a few days. On the 14th the artisans collected the material and on the 15th they began the actual construction. On that day, the Clouds of Glory returned.

Thus, at the same point in time we began building a house for God – so He could dwell among us, we were commanded to leave our ordinary homes and dwell with God in our sukkahs (Kol Eliyahu 84 with Sefer HaToda’ah p. 74).

(3) Although Sukkot could be celebrated any time of the year, God decreed it be done in the fall, after the harvest. This is the time when man is happiest and the most blessed with possessions. God therefore instructed us that rather than becoming too involved in our riches and our physical needs, that we go out to temporary dwellings and remind ourselves that all is truly from and truly belongs to God. Ultimately it is not our homes and possessions which give us security. It is the God who granted them (Rashbam Leviticus 23:43, Menoras HaMaor).

(4) The Children of Israel first constructed (substantial) booths for themselves in the desert in the fall when the weather became cooler. Thus, Sukkot commemorates the time of year when we first began dwelling in booths (Ramban and Ibn Ezra to Leviticus 23:43).

(5) The holiday of Sukkot has a unique role in the Jewish calendar. It serves as the culmination of the three major festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. Passover celebrates our freedom – our emancipation from bondage and becoming a nation. Shavuot celebrates our receiving the Torah – in essence the taking of our freedom and directing it towards God by accepting the national mission He has for us.

Sukkot represents the culmination of the first two holidays – the point in time in which we are settled in our new role – when we celebrate our living the mission God charged us with. Sukkot does not commemorate a specific, one-time event in the desert. It celebrates the ongoing state we maintained – that after attaining freedom and receiving the Torah we lived with God, under His Divine protection beneath the Clouds of Glory. It is the holiday of “making it” – of just celebrating who we are and the closeness to God we achieved. It is this closeness we commemorate when we leave our houses to dwell with God in the sukkah.

This explains why Sukkot is celebrated in the fall. The seasons of the year (in the Holy Land) reflect the spiritual seasons of the universe. Passover celebrates our birth as a nation, and it occurs in the spring when the world likewise comes to life. Shavuot celebrates our receiving the Torah, and it comes out in the harvest season. Just as we have taken our newfound freedom and transformed it into devotion to a higher cause, in early summer the springtime seeds of potential have become fully-grown plants.

Lastly, Sukkot is celebrated in the fall. In Biblical Israel the crops which had been drying in the fields the entire summer are gathered in in the autumn. This is the time of the true celebration of the labors of the growing season. On Sukkot we celebrate the spiritual level we have achieved – the state of closeness we have now earned with God – and we do so in the fall, when we correspondingly celebrate the fruits of our physical efforts (based on Maharal Gevuras Ari 46, ArtScroll Succos pp. 9-17).

(6) Sukkot can also be related to the High Holidays it immediately follows (see e.g. Yalkut Shimoni Emor 653). On the High Holidays we achieve a strong bond of closeness with God. We repent our past failures and God lovingly accepts us. But this is undeniably accompanied with a heavy sense – the fear of God’s judgment, the owning up to our past mistakes. As close as we become to God during the High Holidays through our repentance, we cannot escape the underlying sense of awe inherent to that time of the year.

Sukkot continues this closeness to God, but on an entirely different plane. God has accepted our repentance. The time of fear has passed. And God now invites us to dwell together with Him in the sukkah. We maintain the very same closeness our return to God has engendered, but with a sense of love rather than fear.

Here is an article where I discuss this notion at length.

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