Why Succot is like Halloween

A look at an unfamiliar side to next week's festival

By Dr Raphael Zarum, September 27, 2012

What is the relationship between Succot and the Days of Awe? The common perception is that while Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are spiritual festivals that remind us of our mortality (“Who will live and who will die?”) Succot is a physical festival full of vitality. We take and shake four species together which must all be fresh, and we sit in a succah to recall how our ancestors lived in huts when God saved them from Egypt, granting physical freedom.

So after beginning the new year on a religiously serious note, close to the heavenly angels, we now celebrate our tradition by enjoying a whole host of earthy mitzvot.

However, if we look up Succot in the Torah, we are faced with two big surprises: we have got the name wrong and it is at the wrong time of year. Of the five descriptions of this festival (Exodus 23:14-19 and 34:22-26, Leviticus 23:34-43, Numbers 29:12-38 and Deuteronomy 16:13-17), only two call it Chag Hasuccot, the Festivals of Huts, while all but one refer to it as a time of “gathering in the land’s produce”, or more specifically Chag Ha’asif, the Festival of Ingathering. Clearly, the Torah’s focus is much more agricultural (gathering crops) than historical (remembering post-Exodus accommodation).

Also, the Torah tells us that Chag Ha’asif occurs “at the turn of the year” (Exodus 34:22), or more specifically, “at the end of the year” (Exodus 23:16). How can this be given that it takes place 15 days after Rosh Hashanah?

To start to fathom a Festival of Ingathering at the year’s end, rather than a Festival of Huts at the year’s beginning, we need to appreciate the Torah’s use of the language of ingathering as well as the rabbinic choice of readings on this holiday. Both have a definite, if unexpected, theme of death.

Look up the death scenes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron and Moses, and you will find a similar phrase. In each case, they were ye’asef el amav, “gathered-in to their people”. Dramatically speaking, these essential souls were joined together in the national memory. Now if ingathering occurs after death then the Festival of Ingathering must too. Thus Succot marks the end of the year’s final harvest when there is no more life in the ground and all is dead as winter approaches.

In line with this, the rabbis instructed us, on Succot, to read Kohelet, the sombre book of Ecclesiastes: “The day of death is better than the day of birth. Better to go to the house of mourning, than the house of feasting... Better is the end of a thing than its beginning” (Ecclesiastes 7:1-2,8). Where is the joy in that? It seems that our rabbis, too, felt this festival’s connection with death. The haftarah on Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Succot painfully brings the point home. It describes the mass death scene after the apocalyptic battle of Gog and Magog.

All this leads to a new paradigm for Succot. It is the festival between years. It takes place after the death of the previous year but before the new year has kicked in. Metaphorically, it is out of time. Our old lives have come to an end, God has forgiven us for them on Yom Kippur, and we are about to be reborn anew, but before that happens, we celebrate Succot. This gives us the freedom to let go of what we once were without being pressured into starting again just yet. It is a period of grace, a holiday from the world of the living.

That’s how we can have the odd tradition of Ushpizin, where we invite our great dead ancestors — the ones who were “gathered-in to their people” — into the succah as guests to join us. Safe among our forbears, we can reflect on what was and what will be.

Fascinatingly, this reading of Succot has reverberations in the festival of Halloween, versions of which are celebrated in cultures around the world. Long before modern commercialisation, this was an ancient pagan festival, with possible Roman origins. This “day between years” occurred after the year’s last harvest and was considered a magical time when the dead leaders of a tribe temporarily returned and were honoured and feasted.

For me, Succot always has the feeling of an “after party”. The big event of judgment is over and we survived. But we do not go back to the work just yet. Instead we sit in a little hut, outside our house and our normal lives, to catch our breath and relax. A few days’ pause before we are thrust back into a new year and a new life.

Dr Zarum is dean of the London School of Jewish Studies

Last updated: 3:31pm, September 28 2012