Why Sukkot is Called Z'man Simchateinu

In our liturgy, Sukkot is referred to as Z'man Simchateinu, the Season of our Rejoicing. Each of the pilgrimage festivals has its own liturgical name: Passover is Z'man Heiruteinu, the Season of our Freedom, and Shavuot is referred to as Z'man Matan Torateinu, the Season of the Giving of our Torah. The name attributed to Sukkot in the prayer book is the only one that comes from the Bible; it is derived from the Torah portion for the first days of Sukkot in which we are commanded "to rejoice" before the Lord during the week of Sukkot. While simchah, rejoicing, is understood to be part of all three festivals, there appears to be an added dimension of simchah on Sukkot. What is it about Sukkot that makes it different from the other holidays in the Jewish calendar? Why are we told to 'rejoice' specifically on this holiday? And how does one 'rejoice?' For contemporaries, joy and happiness are externally produced qualities; we have an entire industry whose purpose is to make us laugh and happy. It seems to me that the nature of simchah, as it is described in the Bible in later Jewish literature, is different. Let us see what we can learn about simchah from the sources below.

(מ) וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַעֲנַ֥ף עֵץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃ (מא) וְחַגֹּתֶ֤ם אֹתוֹ֙ חַ֣ג לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים בַּשָּׁנָ֑ה חֻקַּ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם בַּחֹ֥דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖י תָּחֹ֥גּוּ אֹתֽוֹ׃ (מב) בַּסֻּכֹּ֥ת תֵּשְׁב֖וּ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים כׇּל־הָֽאֶזְרָח֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֵשְׁב֖וּ בַּסֻּכֹּֽת׃ (מג) לְמַ֘עַן֮ יֵדְע֣וּ דֹרֹֽתֵיכֶם֒ כִּ֣י בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃ (מד) וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־מֹעֲדֵ֖י יְהֹוָ֑ה אֶל־בְּנֵ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ {פ}

(40) On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days. (41) You shall observe it as a festival of Adonai for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. (42) You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, (43) in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I Adonai your God. (44) So Moses declared to the Israelites the set times of Adonai.

(יג) חַ֧ג הַסֻּכֹּ֛ת תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בְּאׇ֨סְפְּךָ֔ מִֽגׇּרְנְךָ֖ וּמִיִּקְבֶֽךָ׃ (יד) וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֖ בְּחַגֶּ֑ךָ אַתָּ֨ה וּבִנְךָ֤ וּבִתֶּ֙ךָ֙ וְעַבְדְּךָ֣ וַאֲמָתֶ֔ךָ וְהַלֵּוִ֗י וְהַגֵּ֛ר וְהַיָּת֥וֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר בִּשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃

(13) After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. (14) You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities.

Compare the two descriptions of Sukkot above. How are they different from one another? Does "Joy" have the same meaning in both of them?

שִׁבְעַת יְמֵי הַפֶּסַח וּשְׁמוֹנַת יְמֵי הֶחָג עִם שְׁאָר יָמִים טוֹבִים כֻּלָּם אֲסוּרִים בְּהֶסְפֵּד וְתַעֲנִית. וְחַיָּב אָדָם לִהְיוֹת בָּהֶן שָׂמֵחַ וְטוֹב לֵב הוּא וּבָנָיו וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וּבְנֵי בֵּיתוֹ וְכָל הַנִּלְוִים עָלָיו שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים טז יד) "וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ" וְגוֹ'. אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהַשִּׂמְחָה הָאֲמוּרָה כָּאן הִיא קָרְבַּן שְׁלָמִים כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָנוּ מְבָאֲרִין בְּהִלְכוֹת חֲגִיגָה יֵשׁ בִּכְלַל אוֹתָהּ שִׂמְחָה לִשְׂמֹחַ הוּא וּבָנָיו וּבְנֵי בֵּיתוֹ כָּל אֶחָד כָּרָאוּי לוֹ:

The seven days of Passover and the eight days of Sukkot along with the other holidays are all forbidden for eulogizing and fasting. And one is obligated to be joyful and of a good heart on them—he, his children, his wife, the members of his household and all who accompany him. As it is stated (Deuteronomy 16:14), "And you shall rejoice in your holiday, etc." Even though the joy that is mentioned here is [referring to] peace offerings—as we explain in the Laws of the Festival Offering—included in that joy is for him, his children and the members of his household to rejoice—everyone according to what is fit for him.

(יח) כֵּיצַד. הַקְּטַנִּים נוֹתֵן לָהֶם קְלָיוֹת וֶאֱגוֹזִים וּמִגְדָּנוֹת. וְהַנָּשִׁים קוֹנֶה לָהֶן בְּגָדִים וְתַכְשִׁיטִין נָאִים כְּפִי מָמוֹנוֹ. וְהָאֲנָשִׁים אוֹכְלִין בָּשָׂר וְשׁוֹתִין יַיִן שֶׁאֵין שִׂמְחָה אֶלָּא בְּבָשָׂר וְאֵין שִׂמְחָה אֶלָּא בְּיַיִן. וּכְשֶׁהוּא אוֹכֵל וְשׁוֹתֶה חַיָּב לְהַאֲכִיל לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה עִם שְׁאָר הָעֲנִיִּים הָאֻמְלָלִים. אֲבָל מִי שֶׁנּוֹעֵל דַּלְתוֹת חֲצֵרוֹ וְאוֹכֵל וְשׁוֹתֶה הוּא וּבָנָיו וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֵינוֹ מַאֲכִיל וּמַשְׁקֶה לַעֲנִיִּים וּלְמָרֵי נֶפֶשׁ אֵין זוֹ שִׂמְחַת מִצְוָה אֶלָּא שִׂמְחַת כְּרֵסוֹ. וְעַל אֵלּוּ נֶאֱמַר (הושע ט ד) "זִבְחֵיהֶם כְּלֶחֶם אוֹנִים לָהֶם כָּל אֹכְלָיו יִטַּמָּאוּ כִּי לַחְמָם לְנַפְשָׁם". וְשִׂמְחָה כָּזוֹ קָלוֹן הִיא לָהֶם שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (מלאכי ב ג) "וְזֵרִיתִי פֶרֶשׁ עַל פְּנֵיכֶם פֶּרֶשׁ חַגֵּיכֶם":

(18) The children, for example, should be given parched grain, nuts, and sweetmeats; the womenfolk should be presented with pretty clothes and trinkets according to one's means; the menfolk should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no real rejoicing without the use of meat and wine. While eating and drinking, one must feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and other poor unfortunates. Anyone, however, who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks along with his wife and children, without giving anything to eat and drink to the poor and the desperate, does not observe a religious celebration but indulges in the celebration of his stomach. And about such is it stated (Hosea 9:4), "their sacrifices are like the bread of mourners, all who eat it will be contaminated; for their bread is for their own appetites." Such joy is a disgrace for them, as it is stated (Malakhi 2:3), "I will spread dung on your faces, the dung of your festivals."

Is Rejoicing a physical or a spiritual concept according to Maimonides? In what way is it expressed through moral behavior?

P’shat – Understanding the plain sense meaning of the text

You shall rejoice before the Lord your God: This is the only festival prescribed in chapter 23 on which rejoicing is explicitly commanded. In the festival calendar of Deuteronomy 16, rejoicing is also mentioned in connection with the Feast of Weeks. Elsewhere we read that sacrificial worship in the Temple is an occasion for rejoicing. It is not clear just why the Sukkot festival is singled out here, although it may be because Sukkot was the most prominent of the ancient pilgrimage festivals. (Baruch Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary, Leviticus)

How is the joy we experience on Sukkot different from other holidays such as Passover, Chanukah or Purim? Do most Jews associate Sukkot with rejoicing - why or why not?

Remez: Allusions

The Kotzker Rebbe maintained that joyfulness follows as a by-product of holiness. It is therefore natural after Yom Kippur, when we are cleansed of sin and sanctified to celebrate Sukkot, which is called “Season of Our Rejoicing.” (from the Sukkot and Simhat Torah Anthology by Philip Goodman)

In many ways, Sukkot has become the model for this worldly enjoyment, which is why it is called the time of rejoicing. The depth of the joy also grows out of its relationship to Yom Kippur. Sukkot comes just four days after Yom Kippur, the most ascetic, self-denying, guilt-ridden, awesome holy day of the Jewish year. On the Day of Atonement, Jews reenact their own death, only to be restored to life in the resolution of the day. Only those who know the fragility of life can truly appreciate the full preciousness of every moment. The release from Yom Kippur leads to the extraordinary outburst of life that is Sukkot. On this holiday, Jews are commanded to eat, drink, be happy, dance, and relish life to the fullest in celebrating the harvest and personal wealth. But making joy holy means being selective in the enjoyment of God's gifts, not worshiping those gifts or those who own them. The first and foremost expression of this insight is to share the bounty and the joy. Gifts from the harvest were given to the poor: "You shall rejoice before the Lord, you, your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, the widow in your community." (Deut. 16:11). (Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays)

Sod – The Meaning and Mystery of Faith

The story is told of a man who was deeply depressed. He went to see his doctor and after describing his despondency, the doctor said to him: "I can’t solve your problems but I might be able to ease your pain. I prescribe that you go to the circus to see Grimaldi the Clown. If nothing, else, for the brief few hours that you are there, Grimaldi will make you laugh and allow you to forget about your troubles." A solitary tear dropped from the man's eye as he sighed "I can't, Doc....you see, I am Grimaldi."

At the risk of sounding a bit preachy, I have to say that happiness is overrated. I often hear people say, “I just want my children to be happy,” or “I just want a little happiness out of life; is that too much to ask?” Even our Declaration of Independence focuses on this difficult: we are guaranteed, ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Happiness is something we constantly pursue but don’t often catch. In our Torah portion this holiday we learn that happiness is commanded. We are to “rejoice before the Lord.” No matter one’s state of mind, we are to celebrate the holiday with joy: through song, by giving thanks for life’s blessings, by enjoying the simple pleasures of life and sharing them one’s family and with the needy, by taking stock of life and by cleansing ones’ soul. What we learn above is that happiness is not something we get but a product of how we live. It is also a goal that we can strive for not simply by self-gratification but finding a balance between satisfaction and aspiration. It is also a product of seeing the world in context. Maybe that is why Sukkot is Z’man Simchateinu. It is the beginning of the year but also the end of the year. Although it follows soon after Rosh Hashanah, it also marks the end of the harvest and the coming of winter. We can sit back and enjoy of the product of our labor. We can give thanks for the goodness of God’s earth. Greenberg describes Sukkot (and Shemini Atzeret) as the coda, life’s postscript of joy. We have not spent the year pursuing happiness, but looking back we have gained it by choice and by the grace of God. I suspect that if happiness is what we set out to gain, we never would have found it.

Questions to Ponder

  1. Why are we told to rejoice on Sukkot and Shavuot but not on Passover? What is it about Sukkot that makes it different from the other holidays?

  2. What is the connection between Israel’s wilderness sojourn and happiness? What is the connection between happiness and the harvest?

  3. Why are most Jews more likely to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which are somewhat somber holy days rather Sukkot which is a celebration of joy?

  4. How is Sukkot connected to the High Holy Days and how is it connected to the larger Jewish calendar?

  5. What makes you happy? How do you experience happiness on the festival of Sukkot?