The Sukkah in Tradition and Archeology

Many of you may know the old joke about the young Rabbi who goes into a new congregation. While running the service, some of the congregants rise for the Hatzi Kaddish and some do not. This by itself would have probably not been a problem, but the two groups started arguing and yelling at each other about what was the proper traditional way. The Young Rabbi went to the Emeritus Rabbi to solve the problem. He asks him: "So and So claim that standing during the Hatzi Kaddish is the congregation's tradition - is that so?. To this, the Emeritus Rabbi answers: "That is not the Tradition". The Young Rabbi, relieved to have an answer, tells the older Rabbi "So the Tradition is to remain seated!". The older Rabbi suprises him by saying "That is not the Tradition". Confused by the answer, the Young Rabbi say "But they argue and yell at each other"! - to this, the older Rabbi answers "THAT's the Tradition"

We normally take for granted that we know everything there is to know about Jewish traditions, simply because that's the way our grandparents did it. We may have some modern variations or adjustements to Tradition, but by and large we know that's the way it was done... Sometimes, however, scientific discoveries do throw a monkey wrench into our assumptions.

Tradition tells us that the Sukkah is a symbolic representation of the temporary dwellings the Israelites lived in during ther 40 years in the desert following the Exodus from Egypt. So each year, we build the Sukkah and dwell in it as our ancestors did in the days of old. At the end of the Holiday we have attached the Holiday of Simchat Torah ("Rejoicing in the Torah"). Tradition tells us that while we received the Torah from Moses on Shavuot, it was only in Sukkot - after having had time to study it - that our ancestors truly rejoiced in the Torah.

Archeologists put fore a different explanation. Sukkoth was one of the three pilgrimage holidays during which the children of Israel were commanded to gather in Jerusalem and bring their offerings to the Temple. But imagine an ancient city that needed to house a population 4, 5 or even 6 times its normal population. Dwellings would be at a premium. It is not like the Jerusalemites could rent their houses out to the pilgrims and get out of the city, like many in Augusta do during Masters' Week... they were also suposed to be there.

Most people were forced to build temporary dwellings for the duration of the Holiday, which was 7 days. Then, they stayed an extra day to finish their businesses in the city ("Shemini Atzeret" means the eight day of the gathering). Then, along came King Josiah and after discovering a copy of the Deuteronomy in the Temple he gathered the people, already there for Sukkot, to read the book in public to the whole Israelite gathering. This event from Josiah's times might be the origin of Simchat Torah according to the archeologists.

Is one explanation better than the other? Historically, I'm inclined to accept the archeological explanation - but Jewishly, I appreciate how the Traditions around Sukkot and Simchat Torah shaped my heritage over the centuries and provided additional meaning to those holidays. And like in the story at the beginning of the blog, we might argue about what explanation is correct - after all, "That is the Tradition"!!


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