Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret— Israeli style

Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret— Israeli style

In the Book of Leviticus, Moses tells the Israelites that beginning on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (counting from the month of Passover), “You shall live in booths [sukkot] seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God” (23.42-43). The most remarkable aspect of Sukkot in Israel, for someone who observed the holiday in a variety of locations in the States before making aliyah, is that the idea of obeying Moses can seem like a pleasant one.

Whether Sukkot comes out at the end of September or during October, the climate in Israel is perfect for being outdoors, especially at night. You never have to worry about rain, and even if the sun is still hot during the day, there usually is enough of a breeze to make a meal inside the sukkah (which by Jewish law must contain more shade than sun) seem more like a picnic than an onerous religious ritual.

Jews in the States usually are not so lucky. In Miami, for example, where I lived for six years before making aliyah, Sukkot occurs in the middle of summer (summer in Miami goes from mid-April through early November). Daytime Sukkot meals in Miami leave you drenched in sweat, and many families eat part of these meals indoors. At the other extreme there are my cousins in Chicago, whose most vivid memories of Sukkot are of eating soup with gloves on, hovering over their steaming bowls for warmth. And it often happens that in many parts of the States the rabbi’s brief remarks on erev Sukkot sound more like “Notes From the Rain Bunker,” covering such topics as “Kiddush in drizzle” and “when to throw in the towel.”

In Israel, the weather is so nice (and the perceived danger from gentiles nonexistent) that it is indeed much more common to find people doing what Moses had intended: living in the sukkah. There are people who move their dining-room tables and chairs into the sukkah, along with their china-laden buffet. At night, these people will not make do with sleeping on air mattresses. They will move their whole beds outside to their sukkah.

There is just one problem with the pleasant weather in Israel on Sukkot – it ruins a popular rabbinical teaching. Remember the reason given for the booths in Leviticus? The sukkot are reminders of the temporary booths used in the Exodus from Egypt. A classic rabbinical question, therefore, is: if so, if the booths are connected to the Exodus, then why was the Sukkot holiday not assigned to one of the months more immediately following Passover? Here is the traditional answer: Celebrating Sukkot in the late spring or early summer would not demonstrate a Jew’s commitment to Judaism. After all, the whole world enjoys going outside at that time. But when Jews build their temporary huts in the fall and must fight the elements, they show that they are doing so not for pleasure but because they are following God’s commandment.

What are we to say, then, about Sukkot in Israel? Given that September and October are just as mild as May or June, perhaps we should move Sukkot there to its proper historical place in the year? Aside from the fact that I believe the chief rabbinate would tend to give a little more weight to centuries of Jewish custom than to the arguments of this column, I like to think of this situation as our chance in Israel to show solidarity with you in the diaspora. Happy Sukkot!

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“On the eighth day you shall hold a solemn gathering” Numbers 29.35.

Growing up in America, I always knew about the concept of “yom tov sheni shel galuyot.” According to this tradition, for each holy day of a festival, two are celebrated by Jews who live outside Israel. I always wondered, however, about Simchat Torah. On the other festival holy days (the first day of Sukkot, the first and last days of Passover, and Shavuot) it was clear to me that the second day outside Israel basically was a duplication of the first. But after the seven-day holiday of Sukkot (one holy day plus six days of festival in Israel, two holy days plus five days of festival outside of Israel), we Jews in the diaspora celebrated Shmini Atzeret (“the eighth day of assembly”) and Simchat Torah on the eighth and ninth days, respectively. Unlike the other “second days,” this seemed to be an example not of mere duplication but of a separate “second day” holiday – Simchat Torah. What then, I wondered, went on in Israel? If Israelis did not have two holy days at the end of Sukkot, when did they celebrate both Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah?

Since I will be celebrating my 16th Simchat Torah in Israel this year, I think I finally have grasped what goes on here during this holiday. (Believe it or not, the process took me a few years.) For the ritually curious, all of the rites that are celebrated in the diaspora over two days are packed into one day: the special prayer for rain, the Yizkor memorial prayer and the hakafot (“circuits”) with the Torah scrolls all occur on the one day of Simchat Torah in Israel. Yes, for all intents and purposes there is no Shmini Atzeret in Israel. There is only Simchat Torah. It’s true that the liturgy speaks not of “Simchat Torah” but of the “holiday of the eighth day of assembly,” but the central rite of the holiday, the completion of the Torah cycle with the reading of the end of Deuteronomy and the renewal of the cycle with the reading of the beginning of Genesis, carries the spirit of the day.

An interesting aspect of Simchat Torah is that it provides the only case where Israel alone repeats a major holiday rite. I am talking here about “hakafot shniyot,” a second night of dancing with the Torah, that has come into vogue throughout Israel. Hakafot shniyot take place this year on Monday, Oct. 8, the evening after Simchat Torah in Israel, a time that technically is weekday here. Because of this, the hakafot are accompanied by live music. The custom is helped by the fact that children do not have school the next day (and thus many people take off from work). In Givat Ze’ev, the music is provided by a local professional keyboard player, accompanied by a number of other musicians. (The number is dependent both on the municipality’s financial situation and on whether a mayoral election is approaching).

I have no idea exactly what percentage of Israeli Jews celebrate Simchat Torah. I do know that as a religious person, it’s nice for me to live in a country where my local town government sponsors hakafot shniyot. Yet, as usual, I will be bothered by the fact that practically all of the people who will be celebrating hakafot shniyot will be religious. There are both religious and cultural reasons to dance with a Torah, and indeed, in the State’s early decades, secular and religious Israelis danced together at hakafot shniyot. I look forward to a return to this tradition.

Happy holidays.