'There is no joy save in meat and wine'

That’s what the rabbis said but, of course, there’s more to celebrating Succot than that

By Dr Ben Elton, September 18, 2013

Succot is the Festival of Joy. The word simchah is used more often in the Torah in relation to Succot than any other Yomtov. In our prayers we call it zeman simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing. Joy is the leitmotif of the holiday. The Mishnah tells us that no one experienced true joy until he beheld the simchat beit hasho’eivah, the water-drawing ceremony in the Temple that took place on Succot. The question is why Succot should be the time of simchah beyond all others.

It cannot be simply because Succot was the time of harvest. It is true that some crops were collected around the time of Succot, and it is called the Festival of Ingathering, the Chag Ha’Asif, But Pesach and Shavuot are also agricultural festivals, marking the barley crop and then the wheat crop. That may be why all the festivals have an element of simchah, but the question remains as to why Succot stands out.

Perhaps it is because Succot is the time when two elements come together: the joy of the harvest and the spiritual purification that took place on Yom Kippur. The full power of simchah can be released, because on Succot, it will not simply be joy, it will be sanctified joy.

The farmer in ancient times could take the happiness he felt at the natural bounty he had collected, combine it with the increased religious sensitivity he had achieved during the Days of Awe, and channel it into the service of God. There was no danger that his material prosperity would lead to the unrestrained and licentious indulgence that characterised pagan cults. Joy and reverence could walk together.

We learn this balance from the laws of Yomtov. The mitzvah of simchat Yomtov, rejoicing on festivals, takes the form of eating meat and drinking wine, because the Gemara tells us that there is no joy except in meat and wine. This sounds deeply, exclusively physical. But what is the meat and wine the Gemara is talking about? The festival sacrifice and the wine used in the Temple libations. This is not simply a juicy steak and a good bottle, but meat and wine used for sacred purposes.

Likewise, we see that every moment of spontaneous human joy was given mitzvot so we can elevate and direct our simchah. The birth of a boy brings a circumcision with its festive meal. For the birth of a daughter, the father is called to the Torah and there is a public naming; in traditional circles the family makes a kiddush and in more modern communities there is the ceremony of the simchat bat. Coming of age brings bar and barmitzvah. Marriage brings sheva berachot. Every positive event requires the saying of the blessing of shehechiyanu. Even to switch from an inferior to a superior wine at a meal brings the blessing of hatov vehametiv, when we bless God “Who is good and Who does good”.

The corollary is also true. We worship God best when we are happy. We are told to “serve the Lord with joy”. Cold, austere Judaism has never prospered. At the Red Sea the Israelites broke spontaneously into song. David danced before the Ark as it was brought to Jerusalem. Mordecai instituted Purim as a day of feasting.

It was easy to forget this strain in Jewish thought in the harsh life of the exile. That is why Chasidut had to be created in the 18th century. Eastern European Judaism was in crisis because it had become so rigid and intellectual that the warmth had gone out of it. Jews were deserting traditional life in droves until the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples reintroduced the concept of joy.

The yeshivah world is prospering today because it has integrated that lesson and now even Litvaks dance. The Chasidim were simply reviving an old principle that had fallen into neglect. Maimonides is sometimes thought of as coldly rational, but at the end of his Laws of the Lulav, he turns to the simchat beit hasho’eivah and from there to the central role of simchah in Jewish practice. He calls joyful worship an avodah gedolah, a great service and the very definition of the love of God, which is the peak and aim of the religious life. The best Maimonidean would be found in the thick of the dancing.

The practice of simchah is an essential part of Judaism, without which it cannot survive. That is why Succot is the climax of the Days of Awe. The judgment for the coming year is not finalised until the final day of the festival, Hoshana Rabba. We have worked on repentance, the process of repairing our relationship with God and returning to Him, through fear and trembling. Now we do so through joy and thanksgiving.

The first Gerer Rebbe taught that depression is a hindrance to repentance, indeed it is paralysing and its antidote is simchah. Succot is the essential final stage in our process of return. Through joy we are able to transcend our past and move to a closer relationship with God. Dealing with our sins one by one is cleansing, but the joyful reconciliation with our Father in Heaven is transformative.

Last updated: 10:45am, September 18 2013