Shaking the Lulav
(iStock)

The holiday that celebrates the culmination of work in the fields is itself quite labor intensive.

“You know, I heard Sukkot is an agricultural holiday. Is that true?” 

So began a conversation I’ve thought about for years. The answer to the question is, of course, yes. But the answer to the challenge posed by my friend’s question is more nuanced. 

My friend is a decidedly modern woman, educated, with a high-powered career in the financial world. She was also raised in the former Soviet Union, and risking her life as a Refusenik didn’t necessarily change the secular bent of her thinking. Surrounded now by friends who were fairly observant, her question was staking a claim, planting a flag in the Land of the Practical. 

Denise Berger
Denise Berger

An agricultural holiday is a practical thing. It celebrates food. There’s nothing more practical than food. Around the globe and across the millennia, humans have held harvest festivals. They persist to this day, though largely as a quaint nod to the past. There’s a unique aspect though when it comes to Sukkot. To paraphrase another holiday question, something about this harvest festival differs from all others…

Sukkot is held in the middle of the harvest season. The Hebrew date is the 15th of Tishri, which can fall anywhere from mid-September to mid-October. There’s no guarantee that all the work will be done by that date. 

Also, unlike the majority of harvest festivals, Sukkot lasts for a full week, with an extra eighth day of celebration tacked on at the end. And somewhat ironically, the holiday that celebrates the culmination of work in the fields is itself quite labor intensive. The people are commanded to build a small hut — the sukkah — and dwell therein for the duration of the holiday. This means that field hands would be occupied gathering materials and constructing the sukkah prior to the festival, setting up whatever might be required for “dwelling” (different traditions have different interpretations) and then taking it all down afterwards. 

Palm fronds, myrtle and willow branches had to be gathered and bound together as a lulav, and together with a citron fruit/etrog there would be daily processions and blessings. This involves still more logistics, more time away from the fields. If that were not enough, the last mention of Sukkot in the Torah includes a directive to be all together joyful. Even the Talmud recalls the incredible festive atmosphere. None of this sounds especially practical or even rational. 

To get a sense of what this means in modern terms, imagine if all the accountants were legally required to take a full week off from work just at the peak of tax season with no option for filing an extension. Imagine how stressful that would be, not just for the accountants but for all the clients depending on them. It would seem entirely crazy to do that.  

Even when to outside observers a behavior appears completely nonfunctional, a deep need in the individual is being filled by that behavior. We can apply this concept to society as well. 

Traditional observance of Sukkot could have appeared to be nonfunctional. And yet clearly people functioned and even thrived. This counterintuitive fact might just be the point of the holiday. In the middle of difficult, crucial, time-sensitive work, we are compelled to drop what we’re doing, leave our comfort zone, engage in religious ceremonies and revel with family and friends. 

In his TED Talk “Start With Why,” Simon Sinek asks, “What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning, and why should anyone care?” 

It might just be that this very impractical holiday has a very practical lesson to teach us. 

Denise Berger brings an anthropologist’s view to her writings on culture, religion and the arts.

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