The Seventy Bulls of Sukkot

| Sukkot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 14, 2000 / 5761 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

Sukkot is the most joyous and universal of the three harvest festivals ordained by the Torah. It marks the end of the agricultural year as well as the summer harvest, and we are explicitly instructed by the Torah to rejoice with our family and community (Deuteronomy 16:17). In that spirit, the Rabbis turned the common noun, hag (festival), into the proper name of the holiday, he-Hag (the festival par excellence). They also designated Sukkot as “the season of our joy” in the prayers for the festival.

Most interesting is the unexpected manner in which the Torah gives expression to our collective joy and gratitude. The number of sacrifices to be offered at the official cult for Sukkot far exceeds the number sacrificed at any other time of the year. On each of the seven days of Sukkot the number of lambs brought to the altar was twice the complement of other festivals, fourteen rather than seven. Similarly, the profusion of bulls dwarfed the token fare for the rest of the year. No more than one bull was offered for Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur and only two for Pesah, Shavuot and the new moon festival. In contrast, the schedule for Sukkot called for thirteen on the first day, and thereafter one less for each succeeding day down to seven on the seventh and last day.

Without a doubt, the sacrificial largess connoted the generous mood of thanksgiving at the bounty of the earth. At the close of the most crucial harvest of the year and with a welcome respite from the rigors of farming, ancient Israelites swarmed to Jerusalem to celebrate at the Temple. Once in seven years on Sukkot, they were even to be treated to a public reading of the book of Deuteronomy, an act of leisure as well as fealty (Deut. 31:10-13).

But no one could have been oblivious to the precariousness of it all. The abundance of one harvest did not guarantee the bountifulness of the next. Everything in Israel depended on the quantity of the intervening winter rains. And so the Rabbis turned a presentiment into prayers for rain, tempering the joy of the festival. Janus-like, Sukkot came to face backward and forward, to mix jubilation with foreboding. In the theology of the Rabbis, Sukkot embodied a period when God would determine the rainfall humanity merited in the year to come. Long before, the Prophet Zechariah had already alluded to the connection. In his final apocalyptic message, chosen by the Rabbis as the haftarah for the first day of Sukkot, the Prophet threatened those nations that would fail to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem each year on Sukkot with drought (Zechariah 14:16-17).

In this new web of meaning, the rabbinic imagination boldly recast the significance of the festival’s sacrificial menu. Never prone to gloss over details, the Talmud noticed that the strangely decreasing number of bulls added up to a total of 70, or the equivalent, in rabbinic parlance, to the number of gentile nations on earth. For the Rabbis, henceforth, the profusion of bulls constituted a fervent prayer in behalf of the non-Jewish world. It too stood in the dock on Sukkot. The bulls were meant to atone for gentile malfeasance. Jew and gentile lived on the same planet. Jewish virtue alone would never be sufficient to assure next year’s rainfall. A common fate dictated a universal outlook, in which the Temple was the venue for an elaborate ritual not for the conversion of the gentiles but for their welfare. Thus its destruction by the Romans in the eyes of the Rabbis was a calamity for Jews and gentiles alike, except that the latter had no idea of the protection they lost (BT Sukkah 55b).

Over time the universal sentiment of Sukkot fell victim to Jewish history. The insecurity of exile darkened the midrash on the number of bulls. By the ninth century, the midrashic collection known as the Tanhuma gave the talmudic interpretation a bitter twist. The gentiles were ingrates. Instead of loving us for the seventy sacrifices offered on their behalf, they responded with hatred, an experience foreshadowed by the psalmist when he inveighed against his enemies: “They answer my love with hatred (Psalm 109:7; Tanhuma, Pinhas 15).”

And by the end of the eleventh century, Rashi, who had witnessed the eruption of the First Crusade in 1096, turned the midrash on its head. In his commentary to the Torah, he notes, in accord with the Talmud, that the number of bulls for Sukkot adds up to seventy. However, what is of import to Rashi is not the total but rather the descending order which he chooses to read as a symbol of diminution and destruction. True, the total of seventy refers to the gentiles of the world. But the pattern of daily reduction implies their eventual departure from the human stage. Under the pressure of persecution, Rashi replaced a universal theme with a particular one. The seventy bulls now yielded a bit of midrashic consolation for a tiny European Jewish community inundated by a surge of Christian fanaticism (Rashi on Numbers 29:18). Though fully understandable, the shift left Judaism diminished.

But the older texts were never discarded. They always remained part of the unending dialogue. In light of the stark tragedy engulfing our brethren in Israel at this moment, I prefer a third-or fourth-century midrash which retained the universal thrust of the Sukkot sacrifices. The seventy bulls were indeed meant for the nations of the world that they too might dwell in peace (Pesikta de-Rav Kahna, ed. by Mandelbaum, p. 421). For peace is indivisible. If not shared by all, it will not be enjoyed by anyone.

Shabbat shalom ve-hag sameah,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Sukkot 5761 are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.