Yom Rishon, 16 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 28 February 2021
Sukkot 2013

Rabbi Pete Tobias

14 September 2013

The High Holydays are behind us now. The final blast of the shofar has faded along with the tenth day of the month of Tishri, the month that was announced with repeated notes from that same ancient instrument.· The ten day period of repentance that began with Rosh ha-Shanah has now ended with the conclusion of Yom Kippur. All the preparation and upheaval – emotional and spiritual – have now concluded, as has the physical upheaval which every congregation is obliged to undergo as preparations are made to accommodate congregations several times larger than those who attend regular weekly and other services at their synagogues.

Five days after Yom Kippur the festival of Sukkot begins. By the time the full moon of Tishri appears in the sky, the Torah scrolls are once more wearing their normal covers, having briefly been bedecked in white. Attendance at services – on Shabbat and, more significantly, on the festival day of Sukkot – reverts to more manageable proportions: no marquees or relocations to larger halls are required for the celebration of this biblical event.

It was not always like this. Indeed, the fifteenth day of the seventh month was, for centuries, or millennia perhaps, the most significant moment in this month. Our ancient Israelite ancestors, and numerous other tribal groups and communities, having counted six full moons since the first full moon of the spring, recognised this full moon as one that marked a crucial moment in agricultural the cycle of the year. It was a turning point in the earth’s seasonal patterns: in the northern hemisphere summer would give way to autumn and the earth’s bounty was ready to be gathered. This was a moment of joy for a society entirely dependent on nature for its survival and wellbeing, and their celebrations began once the full moon of the seventh month was sighted.

In the land where our ancient ancestors dwelt, those celebrations were tinged with anxiety. Following the hot summer, there was no chance of planting seeds for the following year’s harvest in land that was hard and parched. Rain was urgently needed to soften the cracked ground – but not too much! A further period of dry weather was necessary to enable the ancient farmers to sow those seeds after which, ideally, the winter rains would fall steadily to enable another year’s crops to grow. For those familiar with the Middle Eastern climate, that is exactly what occurs at this time of the year: at around this time there is rain for several days, followed by a dry period of two or three weeks before the rain begins to fall steadily through the late autumn and winter months. These periods of rain are known as yoreh u-malkosh – erroneously translated in some prayerbooks as ‘autumn and spring rains’ – the actual meaning is ‘early’ and ‘late’, referring specifically to the ideal timing of the precipitation that the Israelite farmers needed.

The full moon of the seventh month was, then, for our ancient ancestors, the most important month of the year. The shofar was sounded when the new moon of that month was sighted to alert the people that they had just fifteen more days to bring their harvest offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. As they gained a greater understanding of the connection between the growth of crops from the land and the fall of rain from the sky, those who introduced and organised the rituals associated with these celebrations established a connection between the worship offered and the awareness of a need for rain to fall. The symbolism of the lulav which, when shaken, makes a sound like rain (if that is true of the single lulav waved, how much more so in a confined space where hundreds or thousands were shaken in unison?) has clear resonances with the needs of our ancient Israelite ancestors, even if they are rather less to us in the UK in September.

A further ancient theological development was the emergence of an idea that a delay in the arrival of this early autumn rainfall was a form of divine punishment. Once this concept had entered the religious psyche, a ceremony of atonement was introduced to apologise to the Almighty for any misdemeanours and ‘clear the slate’ in order for an appeased Divine power to send the rain at the required time.

Thus the sounding of the shofar on the first day of the seventh month became more than just an announcement that the next full moon was the occasion for the autumn harvest celebration. It also urged the people to be present at their place of worship in ten days’ time to seek atonement for any sins that had been committed in order to guarantee the rain that would ensure that the seeds for next year’s harvest could be planted in soft, freshly watered ground.

We are disconnected from that dependence on and association with the land and the cycle of the seasons. Our ancestors’ religious needs were primarily agricultural; ours, it would seem, are more personal and spiritual. That reality is demonstrated by the emphasis we place on Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippurwhile we pay significantly less attention to the festival of Sukkot. Perhaps, in an age where our relationship with the Earth is becoming more strained, the observance of this ancient harvest festival might remind us of the appreciation we should show to the planet that supports us.

‘The Secret of the £5 Etrog’, a Sukkot story by Rabbi Pete, is available from www.liberaljudaism.org