Desert Dwelling: What Was a Sukkah?

Date: Thursday, October 6, 2022

We all know what a “Sukkah” is, but what does “Sukkah” mean? The Sukkot you’ve likely seen around town are typically rectangular in shape, have some sort of fabric or other sturdy material for their four walls, and roofs made from branches of some kind. If you look up the word “Sukkah” in a concordance like Strong’s, you will see it is defined as a “thicket, booth.” In other words, the modern day application of “Sukkah” aligns with our definitions, especially when taken in combination. But it isn’t that easy! In the Talmud (Sukka 11b) a debate is recorded between two rabbis: what were the biblical Sukkot referenced as the cause for this holiday ‘to remember as God made the Israelites sit in Sukkot when they came out of Egypt (Leviticus 23)’ actually made from?

Perush ha-Torah, Ibn Ezra

ibn ezra 1488 ibn ezra 1488 Perush ha-Torah, Ibn Ezra, (1488, Napoli)

According to Rabbi Eliezer, the Sukkot of the wilderness were actually God’s clouds of glory. According to Rabbi Akiva, God made them booths. How did God “make” them booths? Rabbi Abraham In Ezra, the 11th century commentator, explains in Exodus (25:5) that when the Israelites camped near Mount Sinai there was a forest of Acacia trees which they felled, and then used as materials for their booths.

While the Ibn Ezra’s explanation would seem to give weight to Rabbi Akiva’s opinion, Rabbi Alex Israel points out that in every passage throughout the Pentateuch, descriptions of the Israelites’ desert dwellings are referred to as tents – “Ohel.” It is only with regard to the Sukkot holiday that the term “Sukkah” is used. Why would the biblical text keep referring to their dwellings as tents if the special dwellings God provided for them were wooden Sukkot? Rabbi Israel goes on to solve this dilemma with further investigation of the word “Sukkah.” The grammatical root of the word “Sukkah” is actually “Sakhakh” (note this is also the word used to describe the roof of our Sukkot). The first biblical instance of this word “Sakhakh” is in the description of the cherubim that adorned the Ark of the Covenant. The verse describes how the angels’ wings were spread out over the ark using the verb “Sokhakhim.” Other instances throughout the bible clearly convey that this word evokes God’s protection (literal or figurative) in some way.

Perush ha-Torah, Ibn Ezra

ibn ezra 1488 ibn ezra 1488 Perush ha-Torah, Ibn Ezra, (1488, Napoli)

The “Sukkot” of the biblical wilderness may have been an abstract idea of God’s very real protection of the Israelites throughout their journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel, in whatever dwellings they had available during the various phases of their travels, be they tents, wooden booths, or an open sky filled with God’s clouds. The feeling of closeness to God that we try to capture during Sukkot is bound to the practice of temporarily dwelling in Sukkot, and in this way we can satisfy both Talmudic opinions, sitting in actual booths while embracing God’s protection.

Wishing everyone a Chag Sameach, a joyous Sukkot holiday!

Depiction of Sukkot in Johannes Leusden's Philologus Hebraeo Mixtus



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