According to the rabbis, the holiday of Sukkot commemorates the 40 years of wandering in the Sinai Desert, and we eat and sleep in a sukkah — that temporary structure made with a roof of dried vegetation, such as palm fronds — because the Israelites slept in sukkot (the plural of sukkah) on their journeys.
But this contradicts the Torah. The Israelites lived in tents in the Sinai. The prophet Balaam does not praise Israel against the wishes of his patron, Balak, by exclaiming, “How lovely are thy huts … O Israel” (Numbers 24:5).
I first learned about the real origins of the sukkah on a trip to an Israeli Arab village. I was 20, taking a year off from UCLA and working as a counselor for underprivileged Israeli youth at the Ben Shemen Youth Village (a stone’s throw from Lod Airport). I no longer remember the details, but as part of a cultural exchange, we boarded a bus and went to spend an afternoon with families from the village. To my surprise, when we arrived, we sped past the village and headed out to the surrounding fields.
The village grew strawberries, and it was picking season. Smack in the middle of a rolling field, we entered what I would describe as an enhanced beach hut, complete with stucco walls and roof, a propane stove, and a generator for the lights and TV. During the harvest, the family lived in the fields.
The ancient Israelites were predominantly a farming people, and ancient Judaism was indigenous, meaning, it arose in close relation to the specific challenges of living in the Mediterranean hill country of Canaan.
Like today, the breadbasket of ancient Israel was the coastal plain, but initially our ancestors could not displace the Canaanites. They settled beyond the reach of their chariots in the steep, previously uninhabited hills between Schem, Jerusalem and Hebron. When archaeologists dig down through the layers of inhabitation most anywhere in the hill country, they find Israelite civilization at the bottom.
How did the Israelites make a living on the steep terrain? For one thing, they raised goats, especially on the dry, Jordan River/Dead Sea side of the hills. But if you have been to Jerusalem, you have seen the great innovation that allowed our ancestors to thrive on the better-watered Mediterranean side: terrace farming. They cut flat shelves out of the hills, sculpting the landscape into great, meandering staircases. Later, the Israelite kingdom expanded west to the Mediterranean and claimed the fertile plains.
Ancient Judaism addressed the needs of an agrarian economy. Farmers sacrificed the first fruits of their crops, and the three pilgrimage holidays were harvest festivals attuned to the local produce: Pesach for barley, Shavuot for wheat and Sukkot for fruit. Unlike their neighbors in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Israelites had no great river to irrigate their crops. If the rains failed, starvation followed. With the Temple ritual, the people thanked God for the previous crop and asked God for timely rains in the coming year. Nothing was more important.
In the Torah, only one holiday — Pesach — marked a historical event, but rabbinic midrash, in its creative, playful fashion, filled in the gaps. Shavuot marks the revelation at Mount Sinai and Sukkot the 40-year sojourn in the desert. As the centuries passed, the Diaspora grew and urbanization advanced, distancing most Jews from the agricultural cycles of the land of Israel. The historical dimensions of the holidays became more relevant.
The early Zionists, particularly the kibbutz movement, brought back the agricultural side of holidays. We are reminded that God’s action in the agricultural cycles of the land was a critical focus for ancient Judaism.
The main symbols of Sukkot clearly demonstrate our agricultural heritage. Like the village I visited, farming families in biblical times lived in temporary dwellings in the fields during the harvest — that is, in their sukkot. They gave thanks to God in the very place where they reaped God’s bounty: their orchards and fields. The shape of the lulav and etrog, and the way we hold them, testify that they were likely fertility symbols designed to draw God’s blessing.
Today, when climate change threatens our way of life and, as the Jewish Journal has documented, access to fresh produce for every L.A. resident is not a given, we city-dwellers would do well to remember the agricultural origins of the sukkah. The roof of a kosher sukkah is porous enough to allow one to see the stars above, reminding us of God-in-the-heavens and the moral demands that the divine source of ethics places upon us. In the coming year, may we also feel God-in-the-earth through our feet, and listen to the needs of God’s creation, both human and more-than-human, in responding to God’s call.
To support food justice in Los Angeles, check out Netiya (netiya.org). This column is based on Theodore Hiebert’s “The Yahwist Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel” (Oxford University Press, 1996).
Rabbi Mike Comins teaches the Making Prayer Real course (MakingPrayerReal.com) and directs the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality (TorahTrek.org). He is author of “Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do About It” and “A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways Into Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing).