Sukkot, Sukes, and the Spirit of Secularism:
A Harvest Holiday, Ripe for Secular Celebration

By Linda GritzLindaGritzphotocropped.jpg


Reprinted with permission of Jewish Currents.

Sukkot in modern Hebrew, Succos in Ashkenazic Hebrew, Sukes in Yiddish with standard (YIVO) transliteration—it’s a fun holiday, however you spell it.

In ancient times, Sukes (pronounced “sook-ess” or “sook-iss”) was the largest of three Jewish agricultural pilgrimage festivals: the Feast of Matses (which later became Passover), when the first sheaf of barely was offered as a sacrifice, the Feast of Harvest (which later became Shevues/ Shavuot), when two loaves of bread were offered in thanks for the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering, the fall harvest, which retained part of its original meaning through modern times as the holiday we know as Sukes.During the centuries of temple-centered Judaism, Sukes was the predominant festival of the year, so much so that it was called, simply, ha-hag, the festival.

It is likely that our ancestors borrowed the idea of this festival from the Canaanites, who celebrated the fall grape harvest with revelry. With several of our ‘religious’ holidays thus rooted in agricultural activity, secular observances actually may more closely reflect the historical origins than later religious adaptations.

Here are some of the many themes that can make Sukes meaningful to progressive, secular Jews.

  • Sukes is the second-oldest worker’s holiday (following shabes, the weekly day of rest, which is the oldest). After harvesting the fall crops, the people rejoiced for at least a week (Sukes extends for seven, eight, or nine days, depending on your period in history, geographic location, and level of observance). The focus of the holiday is a suke (sukkah in Hebrew), a temporary shelter with a partially covered roof, where one can eat, sleep, and celebrate.
  • Sukes emphasizes our connection to the earth. The original suke may have been the hut that farmers built in the fields to make it easier to gather the fall harvest. Since many of us today have little connection to agriculture, Sukes is a great opportunity for taking the time to appreciate the planting, growing, and harvesting of our food. If this makes Sukes sound like the American holiday Thanksgiving, that is not a coincidence: The Pilgrims knew about Sukes from the Bible and were inspired to give thanks after surviving their first year in the New World.
  • Sukes can also serve as a platform for considering energy conservation, global warming, and pollution issues. Recycling, carpooling, saving energy, reducing our carbon footprint, and agitating for planetary protection all take work. For a welcome change from this daily effort, try Sukes as a joyous approach to environmentalism.
  • Sukes emphasizes human interconnection. “Rejoice in your feast,” it is written in Deuteronomy, “with your family, your servants, and the stranger, the orphan, and the widow who are in your midst.” “Whoever shuts the door of his house on this festival,” says Maimonides, “and sits at table with only his own family, eating and drinking, is concerned only with the happiness of his own stomach.” In ancient temple days, seventy sacrifices were made in honor of the seventy nations known in those times, honoring the connection between Jews and other peoples.
  • Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE) taught that the suke is a reminder of poverty to those who are wealthy. In contrast, the poor can feel rich in a suke. Avrom Reisen wrote a Yiddish story about a poor man who lived in a tiny shack, to which he felt ashamed to invite his relatives—but at Sukes he would built a suke larger than his house, enabling him to invite his relatives to dinner and feel like a king.
  • Farmers in ancient times left the corners of their fields unpicked for the poor to glean. Today, when most of us take our food and our homes from granted, SukesSukes can be a time to mount a food drive to stock a food pantry, to work in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, to support migrant workers and labor rights…teaches us to rejoice and be thankful for what we have—and to think of those who are less fortunate.
  • The suke is meant to be a place of joy, but there are restrictions that keep it simple and temporary. In contrast with the wedding khupe (canopy), which represents a solid roof over the bride and groom, the roof of the suke is made of leafy greenery, with enough gaps to see the stars at night. All of us, rich and poor alike, are instructed to live in these temporary shelters, exposed to the elements, as a reminder of a more insecure time.
Sukes is a time to reflect on the impermanence of our lives and learn to value each day. Individually, each of us is as frail as a suke but in community we find strength.
Linda Gritz, of Somerville, Massachusetts, is a Yiddish cultural activist. She speaks Yiddish with her children and writes about secular celebrations of Jewish holidays for Jewish Currents, a secular progressive magazine. Linda chairs the ritual committee of Boston Workmen's Circle and sings in its Yiddish chorus A Besere Velt (A Better World).

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