Dear Jew in the City,
Why is Sukkot the holiday of happiness over other holidays?
Thanks for your question. Let’s assume you were jaded and cynical. I know that doesn’t apply to anyone here, but if you were jaded and cynical, you might think, “Well, when the Rabbis composed the prayers, they called Pesach ‘the time of our freedom’ and Shavous ‘the time of the giving of our Torah.’ Nothing happened on Succos, but they had to call it something, so they just went with ‘the time of our joy.’
If that’s what you thought, you would not only be jaded and cynical, you would also be wrong. Succos is the holiday of rejoicing because the Torah tells us so – three times.
The first of these occurrences appears in Leviticus 23:4, where we are told, “On the first day you shall take the fruit of the (esrog) tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of (myrtle) trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Hashem your God for seven days.” The other two occurrences appear in Deuteronomy chapter 16. There, verse 14 tells us, “You shall rejoice on your festival, you and your son and your daughter, your male and your female servant, and the Levite, the convert, the orphan and the widow who are in your town.” Verse 15 continues, “You shall celebrate to Hashem your God for seven days in the place that Hashem will choose, because Hashem your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall be only joyful.” These three references to being joyful on Succos are contrasted with the Festivals of Shavuos (regarding which the Torah mentions joy only once) and Pesach (regarding which the Torah mentions joy not at all). Clearly, Succos is “the time of our joy.”
We see that a lot of sources other than the liturgy acknowledge the joyous nature of Succos. For example, the refugees who returned to Israel in the time of Ezra celebrated the holiday for the first time in generations “and there was very great rejoicing” (Nehemiah 8:18). The Mishnah describes the water-drawing ceremony that was held in the Temple, telling us that one who did not witness it never saw real rejoicing in his life (Succah 5:1). The Rambam, in Hilchos Sh’visas Yom Tov (6:18) tells us that on all the Festivals we should eat and drink, women should be treated to new clothes and jewelry, and children should be given treats. He adds that Succos has traditionally had extra joy in order to fulfill the Torah’s requirement to rejoice on that holiday (Hilchos Shofar, Succah & Lulav 8:12).
So everyone acknowledges that Succos is “the time of our joy”; the question is, why?
There are two reasons, one physical and one spiritual.
The physical reason is found in Deut. 16:13. There the Torah tells us, “You shalt observe the holiday of Succos for seven days when you gather in from your threshing-floor and from your winepress.” Succos is a harvest festival, and we rejoice in our crops. Daas Z’keinim on Deut. 16:15 explains that Pesach is not a harvest festival, so it has no comparable joy. Shavuos is a harvest festival, but at that time only the grain has been harvested. Sure, we’re happy about that, but the fate of the fruits is still unknown at that time, so it’s only a partial joy. By the time Succos rolls around, all the harvesting has been done, so it’s a complete joy.
The spiritual reason is because of the proximity of Succos to Yom Kippur. You may not have noticed, but the Yomim Noraim (the “Days of Awe” or “High Holidays”) can be a little stressful. We’re in a Divine courtroom, literally fighting for our lives. We believe that by the time Yom Kippur ends, we have been cleansed of our sins. That’s certainly a relief! So we’re already feeling pretty happy about that by the time Succos rolls around a few days later. It’s just natural that this is going to show in our celebration.
But there’s something in all this joy that people tend to overlook. There’s a popular Succos song, V’samachta b’chagecha v’hayisa ach sameach – “You shall rejoice on your festival and you shall be only joyful.” These words are the start of Deut. 16 verse 14 and the end of verse 15. You know what the song leaves out? “And the Levite, the convert, the orphan and the widow who are in your town.”
Those are people who need a boost. Levites, who worked in the Temple, didn’t have hereditary land, so they relied on tithes to survive. Converts came from families who weren’t Jewish and didn’t celebrate the holiday, so they might need a place to go. Widows and orphans obviously lack support systems that most people take for granted. It’s inherent in our rejoicing that we include those whose holidays otherwise might not be as joyful.
The Rambam, in the same halacha where he tells us how to rejoice on holidays, adds, “When one eats and drinks, he must feed the convert, the orphan and the widow, as well as all other needy people. If one locks the gate of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his family without providing food and drink for the needy and the downtrodden, this is not the joy of a mitzvah. Rather, it’s just the joy of stuffing his face” (Hilchos Sh’visas Yom Tov 6:18 again, though that last bit is rather freely translated). He goes on to say that such “joy” is actually disgraceful.
Succos is a holiday of exceptional joy because the harvest is done (so we know where we stand physically) and Yom Kippur is past (so we know where we stand spiritually). But if you want to experience true joy, reach out to those who could use a hand rather than just filling your stomach.
In other words, instead of just treating ourselves in our joy, we should strive to “serve Hashem in joy” (Psalms 100:2) by including others.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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