The Fruits of Close Reading

Robbie Harris
| Sukkot By :  Robert Harris Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On Sep 16, 2013 / 5774 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

“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” (Lev. 23:43).

There is an old rabbinic debate whether this verse refers to real, true-to-life sukkot or “Clouds of Glory” provided by God; that is, only figurative sukkot. As one might expect, the talmudic debate between Rabbis Akiva and Eliezer (Sukkah 11a) continues into the Middle Ages, with Rashi and Ramban squaring off against Rashbam and Ibn Ezra. Lest you think it is clear that the Rabbis are arguing between fanciful and reasonable interpretations, check out Isaiah 4:5–6 along with Exodus 40:38 (if you’re scoring at home), and see if that doesn’t persuade you that there is at least somemerit on both sides of the question. However, I prefer that we focus on the “plain sense” interpretation, and see where a close reading of the text might lead. Let us step back, and consider Leviticus 23:43 in both literary and historical context.

Of all the Torah’s festival calendars, the one in Leviticus 23 is the most complete. It begins with a kind of preamble: “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the LORD, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.” Following these two verses, the Torah addresses Shabbat; Pesah/Matzot, including the commandment to count the Omer; Bikkurim / First Fruits (the festival that is elsewhere called Shavu’ot); Teruah (the Holy Day that the Rabbis called Rosh Hashanah); Yom Kippur (actually called here Kippurim); and finally, Sukkot, the Festival of Booths.

At the conclusion of this long list of festivals, the Torah offers a peroration, as it were:

Those are the set times of the LORD that you shall celebrate as sacred occasions, bringing offerings by fire to the LORD—burnt offerings, meal offerings, sacrifices, and libations, on each day what is proper to it—apart from the sabbaths of the LORD, and apart from your gifts and from all your votive offerings and from all your freewill offerings that you give to the LORD. (Lev. 23:37–38)

Following this “conclusion” of the festival calendar, the Torah surprises us by stating an additional set of laws about Sukkot (Lev. 23:39–43)—laws that are mentioned nowhere else in the Torah:

Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the LORD to last seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. 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 the LORD your God seven days. 41 You shall observe it as a festival of the LORD 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 the LORD your God.

Readers accustomed to rabbinic practice will see in this paragraph the two central commandments of the holiday: “taking the Four Species” (i.e., the lulav and etrog) and dwelling in Sukkot during the festival. But readers attuned to the “plain sense” approach to Scripture, or “reading in context” (peshat), will likely see this section as a kind of addendum, an added section meant to fill out the observance of the festival with prescriptions that were not contained in the section originally devoted to Sukkot (look up verses 33 to 36 in a Bible).

In fact, the Bible itself bears witness to this possibility. The community that returned to Israel after the decree of King Cyrus of Persia (some time in the mid-6th century BCE), and that paradoxically called itself “the Exile” (golah), gathered under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah some 100 years later to hear the Torah read and expounded. The Bible records this scene (Neh. 8:1–3, 13–17):

The entire people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Teaching of Moses with which the LORD had charged Israel. 2 On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding. 3 He read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday, to the men and the women and those who could understand; the ears of all the people were given to the scroll of the Teaching.

On the second day, the heads of the clans of all the people and the priests and Levites gathered to Ezra the scribe to study the words of the Teaching. 14 They found written in the Teaching that the LORD had commanded Moses that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month, 15 and that they must announce and proclaim throughout all their towns and Jerusalem as follows, “Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” 16 So the people went out and brought them, and made themselves booths on their roofs, in their courtyards, in the courtyards of the House of God, in the square of the Water Gate and in the square of the Ephraim Gate. 17 The whole community that returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths—the Israelites had not done so from the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day—and there was very great rejoicing.

From this passage it seems clear that Ezra understood the Torah to command here, not two distinct commandments, but one only: the Judeans were to take the various branches, etc. (admittedly, the list is not identical with the one in Leviticus 23:40), not as lulav and etrog, a separate ritual. Rather, as Jacob Milgrom explains in his Anchor Bible Leviticus commentary (volume 3, 2063–2067), Ezra connects Leviticus 23:40 with 23:42, and determines that the Judeans should use the branches as building materials to build the sukkot that the Torah requires. Moreover, the Bible seems to state that the Israelites (remarkably, from the time of the Israelite settlement of Canaan under Joshua, and continuing through the whole period of the Judges and Israelite and Judean kingdoms) had neverfulfilled the Torah’s requirements to celebrate the festival of Sukkot in precisely the way that Ezra and Nehemiah taught, i.e., by building sukkot! But whatever the exact intent of Nehemiah 8:17 (“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear”), it looks as though Ezra is trying to build a practice through close reading of the text.

We began with a talmudic debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer about whether the Torah’s description of sukkot should be understood literally or figuratively. It seems that Ezra provides an early example of how someone might institute a ritual practice that is rooted in a literal understanding of the Torah (here, of the relationship between Leviticus 23:40 and 23:42). Ezra’s ruling did not stand the test of time, however, and since antiquity rabbinic Jews have “discovered” two distinctive commandments in Leviticus 23:39–43. May we rejoice in this festival of Sukkot, shake our lulav and etrog, and dwell in our sukkot—however we build them. Hag sameah!


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.