“But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of the Lord for a seven day period; the first day shall be a rest day, and the eighth day shall be a rest day. On the first day you are to take the product of majestic trees-palm fronds, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook-and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven-day period. And you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord for seven days in the year. (It is) an eternal statute throughout your generations (that) you celebrate it in the seventh month. For a seven-day period you shall live in sukkot. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in sukkot, in order that your (ensuing) generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in sukkot when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.”
Sukkot is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three holidays when Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) is commanded to ascend to the Beit HaMikdash (Temple). Sukkot has two unique mitzvot, taking the four species and leaving one’s home to dwell in a temporary home, the sukkah. The mitzva to sit in a sukkah is one of only two mitzvot which a Jew fulfills with his entire body, the other being living in Eretz Yisrael.
In addition, there is a unique aspect to the sacrifices which are offered during Sukkot, when Am Yisrael is commanded to sacrifice seventy bulls, with the number diminishing each day of the seven days of Sukkot. The Gemara [Sukkah 55b] teaches that the seventy sacrifices of Sukkot correspond to the seventy nations of the world (in our Sages’ writings, “seventy nations” represents all nations of the world).
We may ask: Why was Am Yisrael commanded to offer sacrifices on behalf of the nations of the world and why specifically during the holiday of Sukkot?
We shall begin with a general clarification of the mitzva of sitting in a sukkah, which will also explain the obligation to offer seventy bulls on behalf of the seventy nations.
The Mitzva of Sukkah – the Mitzva of Faith
As noted, the mitzva of sukkah encompasses a person entirely, from head to foot. The mitzva includes eating, sleeping and sitting in the sukkah. Additionally, the mitzva requires an extreme act – leaving one’s home for a full week to live in a temporary home. Fulfillment of the mitzva requires the Jewish trait of faith. In fact, Zohar [Parashat Emor 103a] refers to the sukkah as “The shade of faith.” The sukkah is the place in which we rest in the shade of the Creator of the World.
Leaving one’s home exposes him to the elements, and the sukkah provides less protection than one’s permanent home. The ability to sleep well in the temporary dwelling of the sukkah is the result of faith that the Creator protects us. Willingness to sit (and sleep) in the sukkah expresses acceptance of God’s will with love and in faith that fulfilling His will is the proper and best thing to do.
Zohar’s full comment in using the phrase “The shade of faith” is: “One who is from the stock and the root of Israel sits in the sukkah in the shade of faith.” This comment teaches that there is a special connection between the sukkah and Am Yisrael.
The concept of the sukkah as expressing faith in God is found more powerfully in connection with Eretz Yisrael – “A Land the Lord your God cares for His eyes are always on her, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” [Devarim 11:12]. Faith in God is strengthened in Eretz Yisrael because His providence is more evident within her. In the holiday of Sukkot, we find an additional point in which God’s providence is more evident than elsewhere –
During Sukkot the World is Judged for Water
The Mishna [Rosh Hashana 1:2] teaches: “On Sukkot, judgment is passed regarding water (rain).” Based upon what we have written above, we can understand why passes judgment regarding water specifically during Sukkot. Rain is especially connected to faith and to prayer, in particular in Eretz Yisrael which is dependent upon rainwater. The prerequisite to truly and sincerely pray for God to provide rain for the world is the belief that it is He Who causes it to rain. This faith in God as the rainmaker allows us to pray and present our supplications that we have a year blessed with adequate rain. In Egypt, the individual is not forced to maintain a personal relationship with God; whether the Egyptian believes in God or not, whether he prays or not, the Nile provides water. In contrast, in Eretz Yisrael, dependent as she is on rain, which is dependence upon He Who brings down the rain; the farmer is able to see how his prayers and good deeds bring rain, while his sins cause drought. This realization strengthens the Israelite’s faith in God, and it is unique to Eretz Yisrael.
There is a wonderfully story which stresses the understanding of the greatness of Divine providence within the Land. Rabbi Yitzḥak Arieli, one of Rabbi Kook’s close students (born in the Old City 1896 – died there 1974), fought in Israel’s War of Independence and miraculously escaped death. After the war, Rabbi Arieli met the Brisker Rav (Rabbi Yitzcḥak Ze’ev Soloveitchik) and related to him his adventures in the war and the miracles which he personally experienced. Seeing that the Brisker Rav was happy, Rabbi Arieli commented that it is written that one who experiences a miracle has half of his merits deducted and asked how the rabbi could be happy for him. The Brisker Rav responded “That is true outside Eretz Yisrael, in the diaspora, however the entire management of Eretz Yisrael is spiritual and miraculous; therefore, one who experiences a miracle within her does not have any of his merit deducted.”
The Nations of the World and the Holiday of Faith
Chazal (Our Sages) present a most fascinating comparison between the Nations of the World and Am Yisrael concerning Sukkot, and especially the mitzva of sukkah:
The nations will then plead with God: “Offer us the Torah anew and we shall obey it.” The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to them, “Fools of the world, he who took trouble (to prepare) on the eve of Shabbat can eat on the Shabbat, but he who has not troubled on the eve of the Shabbat, what shall he eat on the Shabbat? Nevertheless, I have an easy mitzva which is called Sukkah, go and carry it out.” But how can you say so: does not Rabbi Yehoshua bar Levi say: “What is (the meaning of) the posuk (verse), ‘The ordinances which I command you this day to do them?’ [Devarim 7:11] It is that this day only (the present) is the time to do them,’ they cannot be done tomorrow (in the World to Come); this day is the time in which to do them, but not in which to be rewarded for them. (Why then should they be offered this observance in the World to Come?) — Because the Holy One, blessed be He, does not deal harshly with His creatures. And why does He term it an easy command? — Because it does not affect one’s purse (i.e. it does not require significant expenditure). Immediately every one of them takes the opportunity and goes to make a sukkah on top of his roof; but the Holy One, blessed be He, will cause the sun to blaze over them as at the Season of Tammuz (summer), and every one of them will kick his sukkah and leave it.” [Avoda Zara 3a]
In order to test the nations’ willingness to fulfill mitzvot, God will choose the mitzva of sukkah, which He defines as “an easy mitzva.” The nations will attempt to fulfill the mitzva, but when they are challenged by the heat each will kick his sukkah and return to his home.
Why will God specifically choose the mitzva of sukkah to test the nations? We suggest that the reason is connected to what we have presented. As we have suggested, Sukkah, more than other mitzvot, symbolizes great faith in the Creator. Observance of all mitzvot is rooted in faith, commencing with the belief that all mitzvot are God given and concluding with the belief that God rewards those who fulfill mitzvot. The litmus test of the nations’ desire to fulfill mitzvot is faith in God, and the mitzva of sukkah can be seen as the greatest expression of this faith.
Why will God test the nations by causing the sun of Tammuz to blaze? We think that this conveys a significant concept. Beyond the simple idea that God tests the nations to see if they will fulfill the mitzva even under difficult circumstances, the deeper significance of testing the nations with the sun of Tammuz is a matter of determining their attitude towards nature. The forces of nature originate with the Creator. (The numeric equivalent [gematria] of the word “hateva” [nature] is “Elokim” [God].) God is hidden in nature and finding Him there requires faith. Thus, the test of the nations is if on an unusually hot day, a day on which natural makes it onerous to sit in the sukkah, will they abandon the sukkah and not fulfill God’s command. One who sees nature as being separate and disconnected from God will no doubt choose to abandon the sukkah. However, one who sees God’s providence in all things perceives that it is He Who guides nature, and therefore that particular day is not unusually hot by chance, but by Divine choice. The element of faith makes it much easier to fulfill mitzvot, but this trait is unique to Am Yisrael.
Sefat Emet [Sukkot 5635] sees the matter of faith as an indication that every Jew has a positive internal point which facilitates his ability to sit in a sukkah with great faith:
Sukkah is testimony that Am Yisrael has been purified of its sins, as the Gemara teaches, in the days to come, the nations of the world will wish to repent (their refusal to accept Torah) and God will present them with the mitzva of sukkah … The meaning of the Gemara is that God extends His hand to receive all penitents (ba’alei teshuva), beyond the strict measure of justice. One who possesses the positive internal point but is unable to express it in practice will receive Divine assistance. The ability to be under God’s shade indicates that one has this internal point of truth, as Zohar states “One who is from the stock and the root of Israel sits in the sukkah in the shade of faith.” Wicked ones cannot sit in the sukkah, as the posuk states “The wicked cannot dwell with You” [Psalms 5:5]. For this reason, the mitzva of sukkah follows the judgment of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, since it is testimony to true judgment.
The Nations of the World in the Days to Come
The test of the nations’ faith is part of a process which is reflected in offering the seventy sacrifices on behalf of the seventy nations. The Avnei Shoham explains offering seventy sacrifices (in a descending order during the seven days of Sukkot) is to rectify the division and disunion of the nations by uniting them. The process of uniting the nations is the beginning of repairing the crisis the nations of the world experienced in the generation of the Tower of Bavel, when God separated them into seventy nations because they had rebelled against Him [Bereishit 9:1-9]. In the times to come, the faith of the nations will be fortified, and they too will ascend to the Beit HaMikdash to bow to God and to offer sacrifices to Him.
This is the message of Zachariah’s prophecy:
And it will come to pass that everyone left of the nations who came up against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to prostrate himself to the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. And it shall be that whoever of all the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to prostrate himself to the King, the Lord of Hosts – upon them there shall be no rain. And if the family of Egypt does not go up and does not come, it shall not (rain) upon them. The plague (on Egypt) will be (the same as) that with which the Lord will plague the nations who do not go up to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles. Such will be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations who do not go up to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. 14:16-19
Meanwhile, in our times, we pray that we reach this end of days, in which the entire world will be of a single heart to worship God and not idols.
In order to reach such a lofty time, we must be in Eretz Yisrael, because the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) can stand only within the Land and it is through the Beit HaMikdash that we will be able to bring the nations close to God by making the seventy sacrifices on their behalf, just as Israel comes close to our Father in Heaven though offering sacrifices. (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch bemoans the translation of “korban” as “sacrifice” and notes that the root word means to come close; thus, the true meaning of the word “korban” is achieving closeness to God.)
We began with the question of why seventy sacrifices are offered during Sukkot on behalf of the seventy nations. We explained that the sukkah represents faith, which is a particular trait of the Nation of Israel, whose responsibility it is to impart faith to the nations of the world, so that in the days to come all nations will share in the great faith in God. To stress this point, we quoted Chazals’ comment that God will test the nations with the mitzva of sukkah and explained that the nations’ faith was not strong enough to be infused with the belief that nature is a Divine manifestation. Am Yisrael has this faith, which is expressed particularly during Sukkot. Thus, the holiday of Sukkot is testimony that every Jew has the internal positive point and this is the basis for Am Yisrael’s ability to influence the nations of the world and teach faith to all. We further explained that expression of faith is easier within Eretz Yisrael, and that therefore the ultimate rectification of the world, where all nations will believe in the Creator of the World requires Eretz Yisrael.
May we merit, with God’s help, having true faith and complete joy and the ability to influence the entire world and to “perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty.” [From the Aleinu prayer]