Home October 2012 Sitting in Booths

Sitting in Booths

Living in Israel does not just make traditional Judaism come fully alive.  It makes scholarly criticism of that tradition come alive as well.  An excellent example of this may be found in the tradition of sitting in “booths” for the week-long holiday of Sukkot, which falls this year between September 30 and October 7.
Scholars view the agricultural underpinnings of the major festivals in Judaism as key to the origin of each holiday.  Like many peoples, the Jews depended on agriculture for their sustenance, and it thus comes as no anthropological surprise to find that the Jews, just like other peoples, tied their ethnic celebrations to the agricultural calendar.  Passover is the Jewish spring holiday, Shavuot is the early harvest holiday and Sukkot is the late harvest holiday.  What makes each holiday particularly “Jewish” is that, according to scholars, at a certain point in time, religious-historical meanings were overlaid onto the national agricultural holidays.  Thus, the spring holiday also became the holiday to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, Shavuot also became the holiday to commemorate the giving of the Torah and Sukkot also became the holiday to commemorate wandering in the desert.
In graduate school, where I first learned of the scholarly approach to religion, I learned that the tradition of the booths on Sukkot had an agricultural origin: farmers would build little shacks in order to afford themselves some shade when they rested from their work in the fields.  Back when I studied this, such an explanation seemed about as remote from my life as a people wandering in the desert for 40 years.  Since I moved to Givat Ze’ev, however, this agricultural custom has come alive for me.  Arab-worked fields that I pass on the way to and from Jerusalem are a throwback to ancient times (I recently saw a farmer irrigating his crops by carrying buckets of water and pouring the water out by hand).  And wouldn’t you know it, there on those Arab fields, a sukkah occasionally appears.  The whole thing now makes perfect sense.  There are few trees around, the sun is scorching and any small amount of shade provides welcome relief.
The Arab huts look to be pretty ramshackle, made out of any number of materials: stone, wood, cloth, tarp.  The huts are not meant to withstand storms, since the year’s farm-work will be over by the time the rainy season comes.  The main thing is that the huts produce shade (interesting side point: according to Jewish law, one of the key requirements for a sukkah is that it must contain more shade than sun).  After viewing these ancient-yet-contemporary huts, one is urged toward the following conclusion: just as great novelists often make stories out of the raw fabric of their lives, so the Jews utilized their lives as farmers as a basis for their religious imagination.
The scholarly theory of the sukkah’s origin cannot be proved.  But it’s important to note that a person can accept this origin and still keep the tradition religiously, since one thing is in fact clear: unlike the “historical” origin, the conception of Sukkot as “harvest holiday” (a traditional name for this festival) is open to all.  Because let’s not forget: it is only through religious belief that one can imagine the booths of the Children of Israel wandering in the desert some 3,300 years ago.  Yet when going home to Givat Ze’ev, no belief is required to see the importance of the sukkah.  You just have to open your eyes and look around.  Happy Holiday!

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