This is our all-ages special for Sukkot, an excerpt from An Angel Called Truth & Other Tales From the Torah by Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and Emma Parlons, illustrated by Pete Williamson. Enjoy, and chag sameach!
~ Lit ~
Succot is the most joyous festival in the Hebrew Bible. While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, it was the occasion for a huge party, discussed in the ancient rabbinic text, the Mishnah. We’ve told our tale from the perspective of a young boy who was central to the celebrations.
I love Succot. Everyone dresses up and comes to Jerusalem, and there are mass processions with everyone holding their lulavim א and etrogim ב . The trumpets are blown and at night there are these massive parties. The whole of Jerusalem is lit all through the night and we party and sing and I … I have the best job in the world.
Before Succot, we build these fire towers, all around the central courtyard of the Temple. Each tower has four golden cauldrons in the sky, full of fire. On the night after the first day of the Festival, four young priests are chosen for the honour of lighting these massive flames. This year, I’m one of them! I’m a fire-lighter. Did I mention, I love fire?
א. Tall palm leaves, bound together with three myrtle and two willow stems.
ב. Citrus fruits, not lemons, but similar.
As the stars come out, everyone heads to the Temple courtyard. The chant of thousands of people echoes around the city, ‘vesamachtah b’chagechah’ – ‘Be happy on your festival.’ This really is our time. The harvest is complete, all the food for the winter has been brought into the house and now it’s time to say thank you to God and to celebrate.
Over the heads of the people, ladders are passed down to centre of the crowd and balanced against the fire towers. As everyone chants, I get to be the one to climb up, with a fire-torch in one hand while holding on tightly with the other. It’s a long way down. I’m going to start the flames and the fire will burn so brightly, there won’t be a courtyard in the city that isn’t lit.
There’s a time to be serious and there’s a time to party. This is our time to party.
Being religious is usually associated with being serious. Why? Why might partying also be a religious thing to do?
What might the problems of too much, or not enough partying, be? What might be the ‘wrong’ or the ‘right’ way to party?
The festival of Succot is held at the end of autumn, just before winter (in the Northern Hemisphere). Why might this time of year be a particularly good time to celebrate?
Mishnah Succot 5 talks about the celebration side of Succot, called Simchat Beit HaShoevah – or the ‘Happiness of the Water-Pouring House’. The rabbis say, ‘Anyone who has not seen this happiness, has never seen happiness in all their life.’ It describes fire cauldrons on giant pillars and flames bright enough to light up the entire city (back in the days before electricity!). Two other fun details: the wicks for the flames of these oil-burning fires were made from the worn-out trousers of the priests (you don’t just throw stuff away, and especially not if it’s been used for sacred purposes), and the Talmud also records great feats of juggling and contortion – Abaye, Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel, Levi, Shmuel are all recorded in various places in the Talmud as juggling eight cups, and even eight flaming torches.
If you enjoyed the excerpt and shared it with your whole family, you can also get the book:
Enjoy the holiday and make sure to party!