By Archpriest Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel (Patrairchate of Jerusalem) Are we going to dwell in huts, booths, tents, tabernacles? or sukkot\סוכות? From Tishri 14, 5780/October 13, 2019 till Tishri 23, 5780/October 22, 2019, the Jewish Community celebrates the harvesting feast of the Booths

Days of hospitality, Autumn 2019
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A sukkah is and only can be a “sikke” and Sukkot can only be “Sikkes\סיקעס” (Soviet revised script that aimed at wiping out the Hebrew memory of Yiddish). This Shabbat will be the “Shabbat chol HaMoed Sukkot\שבת חול המועד – Shabbat of the (ordinary) weekdays of the Feast of Sukkot”, intermediate days that may occur for Pesach and “Zeman Simchatenu\זמן שמחתנו – the time of our rejoicing”, i.e. “the Feast of the Tabernacles\חג הסוכות”.

This traces back to the creation of the world: God had set up the “me’orot birkiyah hashamayim\מאורות ברקיע השמיים – lights in the dome of the sky” to distinguish as a sign “le’otot lemoadim\לאותות למועדים – for the appointed times of encounter” (Gen. 1:14). Days and years pass, “moed\מועד – moadimמוכדים” are appointed – invariant times of special encounter between God and the beings. Just as the Shabbat\שבת, Pesach\פסח – Shavuot\שבועות (Spring New Year and first harvest of Passover-Pentecost), Rosh HaShanah\ראש השנה-Yom HaKippurim\יום הכפורים  (Autumnal New Year and Day of Atonement) and Sukkot\סוכות (Feast of the Booths – Autumnal New Year Harvest).

On these Fall harvesting days that developed into the Canadian and then American Thanksgiving Days also related to the late local harvests, the Jews calculated that the season reaches out to salvation. Judaism starts New Year in accordance with the Sumerian, Chaldean and Gilgamesh computing system based on return, pardon and assembling the whole Community of Israel. There was a time when New Year started with Pesach and the Law-giving Pentecostal harvest. Curiously, it makes more sense for the South hemispheric countries, from Argentina, South Africa to Australia as they reach Springtime…

Sukkot is a good period for reflecting with insights on Jews and Judaic, Judean and Jewishness. Sukkot is also the perfect seven-day period that allows speculating upon the non-Jews, the Gentiles, the Nations of the world, the others indistinctively. The problem is that we still thoughtfully interrogate ourselves about who we are and not spontaneously consider how we are linked to others.

To begin with, it seems we hardly memorize the details of our soil produces. From the time of the exile in Babylon, we got city-addicted or compelled to reside in towns.  Still, “by the rivers of Babylon, (as) we were sitting and wept” (Psalm 137:1; cf. Blessing after Meals), we apparently forgot about the feast of the Booths and progressively got astray from hut-building, even the limited three wall sample (Succa 3a).

The produce would rather be used in the synagogues and we do have a lot of accounts written by Christians comparing the “lulav\לולב – palm branch” with the palm branches waved during the Christian Holy Week. Still, in the long periods of dispersion, the Jews forgot the taste and flavor of the produce required in Eretz Israel – Holy Land : the lulav\לולב – palm branch (strictness / flexibility in faith), etrog\אתרוג – big lemon – citrus (big heart, love to every/anybody, gentleness and delicacy/good smell), hadas\הדס – myrtle (charm and seduction, sweet heartedness but no persistency) and aravah\ערבה – willow (thirst quenching and fear to get bone dried) that should be gathered together and waved in a special way (Sukka 37b): toward the four winds, the heavens, the earth, symbolizing the overflowing wealth and prosperity, abundance of Divine love for each creature and human being as chanted during the Hallel (cf. Psalm 118:2.3.25.29).

It should be noted that the Feast of Sukkot does not exist per se in any Christian Church or denomination, contrary to all the other Jewish festivals that got included into the Christian festive calendar. The Christian scholars and traditions would endeavor to explain that all things got “accomplished” in Jesus of Nazareth. Both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic liturgies insist on the (Second) Coming of Jesus in glory, which corresponds to the two Messiahs: (the suffering) Ben Joseph and (glorious) Ben David of the Jewish tradition.

The Gospels account the conception and birth of Jesus of Nazareth. They might also suggest that he was born during the Feast of Sukkot. This is just based upon the calculation of time starting with Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, who accomplished his priestly service as a member of the Abijah order in the Temple (always in August), the visit paid by Mary to her cousin Elisabeth, Zechariah’s wife, at Eyn Karem.

Elisabeth was pregnant for five months and, in the sixth month, Mary also became pregnant (Luke 1:1-33). This allows calculating the possible birth of Jesus in the time of Sukkot. The end-time of the eschaton.

For the Jewish Community, Sukkot is not only the feast of some huts or booths. It is the festival that prolongs the journey throughout the wilderness of a world that may ignore God’s Presence. Strangely enough, it is appealing that some North American or “Protestant” (Evangelical) Christians would join Sukkot (as Shavuot) because of the strong impact of harvesting thanksgivings in the North American Christian culture. On the other hand, it includes the mitzvah of hospitality to all the ushpizin\אושפיזין (guests) from those who were the pioneers and paved the way for redemption and the end of ages (Yevamot 61b).

The Jewish prayers insist on the daily welcoming of the “guests” as it is chanted in Aramaic: “I invite to my meal the exalted guests: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David – אזמין לסעודתי אושפיזין עליין אברהם, יצחק, יעקב, יוסף משה אהרן ודוד”. And the community is warmly invited to join the sitting of the holy guests, also in a prayer uttered in Aramaic: “Sit, sit, exalted guests (for the ancestors). Sit, sit, guests in faith. Sit in the shade of the Holy One, blessed be He.”

During the Transfiguration at Mount Tabor, Jesus was speaking to Moses and Elijah. Both disappeared and Shimon-Peter asked Jesus if he could not build three “dwellings – sukkot\סוכות”: “one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Matthew 17.4); “not knowing what he said” added Saint Luke the proselyte Evangelist (Luke 9:33).

Indeed, Sukkot is the “tsel tsila\צל צילה – overshadowing shade” feast of a journey through eternity. Shades cover shades. The “fencing or wall separations” are definitely not the main focus of the festival. True, Jews can recall that they dwelt under tents in the desert. But does it only focus on a new year, portion of life?

The Jewish tradition usually adds a “megillah\מגילה – a scroll” reading to the major Festivals. These scrolls underline that Redemption and God’s reign concerns every nation. At Shavuot / Pentecost, Megillat Ruth explains how a Moabite woman and Noemi joined the community of Israel. At Kippur/Day of Atonement, the Book of Jonah described how the Ninivites turned to God and repented under ashes.

When there was a Shabbat between the beginning of the feast of Sukkot and its conclusion on Shemini Atseret\שמיני עצרת (Day of the joyous assembly), it became a custom (minhag) to read the Megillat Kohelet\מגילת קהלת, the Book of Ecclesiastes. It is considered as a scroll and it seemingly depicts a plain if not dubious attitude toward faith in God and the lack of hope in this world. Say it sounds a bit blasé.

There were long disputes as whether to include or not this scroll into the canonical Books of the Scriptures. Interestingly, Judaism and Christianity did not feel at ease with the Song of the Songs too. As if extreme love and doubt could defy God’s existence and presence. Is Kohelet a preacher, eventually the son of David, i.e. Solomon (Eccl. 1:1, 2:7,9)? Or, is it the “gathering call, the one call that assembles the faithful”? Is “hevel – vanity – hevel havalim\הבל הבלים – vanity of vanities” a worldly nonchalant and disillusioned repeated motto for empty and futile senselessness?

“Absurd” is now a common word in English as it is also in Russian… and Hebrew! On the other hand, the Feast of Sukkot is a time of rejoicing. It is possible for some people to be caught up in the dizziness of festivities, food, pleasures even when joy can be felt in the study of the Scripture. “Hevel\הבל” also means “vapor”. Latin and Greek don’t presuppose a positive interpretation of the word. Hebrew could eventually be interpreted in the sense of “a light existing spirit” that can be sustained. Sukkot digs deeply to find sense beyond turmoil and void realities, “hevel” is meaningless and humanity, as a whole, is called to gather and unveil the concealed oneness and symphony of creation.

There is more: Sukkot means encountering, dating and freely sharing the treasure we receive and can share at any minute like glimpses compared to shades that do make sense. Just as the Day of Atonement called to pardon beyond absurdity and irrationality, we can feel as a special gift to meet and welcome each other under a sukkah. There to sit and learn, reflect and eat together, feel comfy to the full. Each of us embodies something of the time & space that is limited framework of palm roofs that meet with others.

“The end of the matter; all has been heard – sof davar hakol nishma\סוף דבר הכל נשמע’” (Eccl. 12:13) induces that every divine matter and parole can be heard and thus accomplished to the fullest. Fear God and keep His Commandments for this is the whole (duty of) man – ki zeh kol ha’adam\כי זה כל האדם” (Eccl. 12:13b).

“Mah yitron\מה יתרון – what advantage is there for man (Eccl. 3:9)?” is an overall tempo that runs throughout the scroll. But the Mitzvot cannot be compared to any advantage. We have the task to question ourselves about who we are, where and with whom we go? And to put the question mark on who the other humans are. The response is – if we follow the Hebrew text of Kohelet – that all the Mitzvot embody the human beings.

The Commandments make sense and gather all humans without exclusion. It surpasses tribal identities, linguistic groups and subgroups and “nations” and this is an important feature at all periods of history. We are precisely in such an epoch of “fake legitimated rights to split for one’s own pleasure or self-comfort. It may be perilous. Jonah got angry when he saw that the Ninivites were privileged and saved by the Lord. It is quite frequent for individuals and groups to consider that they would truly represent the “true ingathering of faithful” versus the “others” whom they would reject or put aside of a society, a church body.

The feast of the Booths does not exist in the Christian traditions as separate and real celebration. This is the only Jewish feast that intends to reach out to all humanity, all human beings in order to show how tight human limbs and souls are tied up in long chains of generations. Sukkot does not allow any temptation of substitution: Jews remain who they are – the same for all creeds (Christian, Muslim and all the others). Sukkot is a puzzle to reflect on human breath and destiny, along with animal and vegetal existing creatures. The breath (“hevel”) can be long or short, infinite or restrained… it refers to the quintescence of dust.

The Autumnal celebrations are rather parallel to the Christian calendar: liturgical new year, feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on the day after the Dedication of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem (Anastasis). The Wood of Life as the Palm of the festive bouquet are waved up and down, to heaven and to Earth, to the highest and to the soil and the dust. The Eastern Church tradition call to rejoicing and not to mourning.

In the Cross as Wood of Life and life-giving substance and in the Four Species of Sukkot, the sign of joy cannot be private, personal, self-centered. It is a collective call to share joy with others, in particular if they are excluded for irrational or so-called reasonable purposes.

“Hospitality is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence” (Talmud Shabbat 127a, Shevu’ot 35b). Indeed, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels” (Hebrew 13:2).

Hospitality is at the heart of the questions and debates that affect the Orthodox Churches these days. Indeed, there are times and delays. Times to build or to destroy, to scatter or to assemble, but these show the pangs of birth of new patterns, new processes. On this Sunday of the Widow of Nain – a son is resurrected and given back to his mother (Julian cal.), the Divine Presence lauded under the Booths for eight-nine days and nights in the invisible presence of ancestors and angels reminds the Christians of the plenitude of the Hospitality that is shared when the Lord in Person is received so that the believers become His own Body and Blood, the seal of the eschaton.

I share this chronicle on this Sunday 20th / 7th of October 2019-7528. Next week, I shall publish a new series on “Words and Souls” – chronicles on the multi-faceted ways words are used in speech, writing and liturgical traditions of the East.

Dear readers,

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About the Author

Jivko Panev

Jivko Panev

Jivko Panev, maître de conférence en Droit canon et Histoire des Églises locales à l’Institut de théologie orthodoxe Saint Serge à Paris, recteur de la paroisse Notre Dame Souveraine, à Chaville en banlieue parisienne.

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