Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) declared: Mitzvah gedolah lee'yoht b'simcha tamid -- "To always be happy is a great mitzvah." The commandment to be happy is not included among the positive commandments of the Torah except during the holiday of Sukkot.
The Feast of the Tabernacles, as Sukkot is called in English, is a seven-day holiday in which the Jewish people are commanded to live in temporary dwellings with thatch-like roofs and wave four species. One might ask why the command to be happy is associated with Sukkot rather than Passover, when Jews celebrate being redeemed from slavery in Egypt, or Shavuot, when Jews celebrate receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.
The holiday of Sukkot is celebrated at the time of the harvest, when farmers bring in the fruits of their labor, and everyone prepares for the onset of winter. This, too, serves as a spur for people to be thankful that the ground brings forth such delights and that trees bear such bountiful fruit. There is no question that, as a result of witnessing the miracle of growth in the field, people are moved to be thankful to the Creator of all things.
But what of the years when the harvest is not good? If Sukkot were purely an agricultural holiday, it would be cruel to command the farmers to rejoice on years that the crops failed. In fact, many commentators have associated the directive to live in the sukkah as a reminder to humankind that the success of their own handiwork is, and always will be, dependent upon Divine will.
Sukkot is celebrated on the 15th of Tishrei, less than one week after Yom Kippur and two weeks after Rosh Hashana. During the High Holidays, every man and woman approaches the Divine throne to beseech God to be forgiven for the sins they may have committed and to be cleansed of their misdeeds. At the end of Yom Kippur, it is assumed that the prayers for atonement have been accepted and that we enter the new year with a clean slate. Sukkot is known as Z'man Sim'chah'tay'nu -- the time of our rejoicing -- because the Jewish people are especially joyful knowing that the world has just been judged and, please God, their prayers for atonement have been accepted.
Although the mitzvah to rejoice in one's feast is emphasized on the holiday of Sukkot, it is a mitzvah that applies to all the Jewish "feast" days. As with all of the mitzvot, the details of the mitzvah are elaborated on in the Talmud:
Our Rabbis taught: A man is duty-bound to make his children and his household rejoice on a festival, for it is said, 'And you shall rejoice on your feast, [you and your son, and your daughter, etc.]' With what does he make them rejoice? With wine. Rabbi Judah said: Men with what is suitable for them, and women with, what is suitable for them. 'Men with what is suitable for them' -- with wine. And women with what? Rabbi Joseph recited: in Babylonia, with colored garments; in the Land of Israel, with ironed lined garments (Pesachim 109a).
According to Jewish tradition, the key to a man's heart really is through his stomach! More specifically, through meat and wine. For women, it seems that "retail therapy" is not as new a concept as one might think.
In the days of the sages, and, in truth, for much of history, both a fine cut of meat and a new dress were luxury items. Today, although many of us still enjoy an attractive gift or a juicy steak, it is harder to connect these items to rejoicing. So how can one rejoice on the holidays in the 21st century?
The presence of meat at an ancient meal represented a vast upgrade in menu. Whether one is able to fulfill the mitzvah of eating in the sukkah or not, one can, nevertheless, enhance the festival week by setting the table with attractive china (or nice dishware) and serving a favored delicacy.
The gift of a new garment (whether given or purchased for oneself) represents another means of setting the festival days apart. It is commonly understood that the way one dresses influences the way one feels and acts. Wearing something new, or something which is usually reserved for special occasions, during the days of the festival is one more way of elevating the holiday and of keeping oneself in a festive spirit.
Wine represents our ability to take the mundane and elevate it to the holy. This is an opportunity that we have every day of our lives, but all the more so on the Jewish festivals when we use wine to sanctify the day.
This article is an excerpt from Jewish Treats Complete Guide to Celebrating Sukkot, a free copy of which may be download by clicking here.
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