One would be forgiven for comparing yamim tovim to English buses; ‘you wait ages for one to come and then three come at once!’ In fact, the midrash[1] tells us that it was not meant to be this way. Originally, the plan was to give us one festival each month; Rosh HaShanah was to be in Tamuz, Yom Kippur in Av, Sukkos in Elul, with Shmini Atzeres the sole yom tov in Tishrei.[2] However, continues the midrash, Bnei Yisrael sinned with the golden calf (17th Tamuz) and HaShem cleared the next three months of yamim tovim, only to pay them back to us in Tishrei [the month we were properly forgiven for the sin of the golden calf[3] and the protective ‘clouds of glory’

returned to us[4]]. Hence the Tishrei ‘festival pile-up’ of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkos. However, despite the fact that the original plan was to space these three festivals out, we can see a clear interrelationship between the three in their current standing.

One example is that the midrash[5] reveals that our brandishing of lulav during Sukkos is a sign of victory and success in the judgment of Rosh HaShanah. Similarly, the custom is to say ‘ledavid HaShem ori’ throughout the period from Elul to Shmini Atzeres, indicating some form of underlying theme, sequence, and connection between the festivals within this period. We are going to deal with the three yamim tovim of Tishrei; what is the sequence here? We shall begin the issue with a question on a midrash. The midrash[6] relates that HaShem told Avraham Avinu ‘I am One and you are one. I will give your descendants a special day to atone for their sins; and this is Hoshana Rabbah (the last day of chol hamoed sukkos).’ [See footnote 6 for question ‘what about Rosh HaShanah/Yom Kippur?’] Now Hoshana Rabbah is not a yom tov in the normal sense of a ban on work, nor is it a day when we say multitudes of slichos to gain forgiveness. What is the greatness ascribed to Hoshanah Rabbah here? In order to answer this, we shall digress a little first. There are 248 positive mitzvos and 365 negative mitzvos, which correspond to the 248 limbs and 365 sinews of the body. In fact, the sefer chareidim[7] orgnises the 613 mitzvos according to the organs of the body. The yamim tovim, too, correspond to/centre around different parts of the body. Rosh HaShanah is focussed on the ears - the mitzvah of the day is to hear the shofar. On a deeper note, the ears are the organ which allows us to connect to something outside of ourselves. We do not express anything of ourselves via our ears; all we can do is hear others and their views - to get away from being trapped in only our views and focussing purely on one’s self. Without any ears one’s head would be perfectly round and self-enclosed. It was the addition of the protruding ears that remove that self-enclosure and connect us to that which is outside of us.

This matches well with Rosh HaShanah, a day when we look past our personal ego to the bigger picture of crowning HaShem as King over us all. What about the organ of Yom Kippur? Yom Kippur’s main organ is the mouth; the mitzvah of verbal confession of sin (viduy) and verbal repentance. Thirdly, the body part of Sukkos is the hands (shaking lulav) or the entire body; the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah is part of a unique few mitzvos that one does with their entire body. In fact, the midrash[8] comments on how the four species themselves allude to the entire human body. In short, the order is ears (RH), mouth (YK), hands/whole body (Sukkos). Within this function of speech, the ears and mouth serve opposite functions. The ears are passive connectors to that which is going on outside; one can only hear with them - one cannot express themselves via ears. The mouth, on the other hand is wrapped up in expressing oneself. When talking through the mouth, one communicates one’s thoughts to the outside world. Therefore, the progression from Rosh HaShanah through Sukkos is on one level from passivity (hearing) to increased activity (speech on Yom Kippur and the more active level of physical actions on Sukkos). But the progression can be identified a bit more accurately than that. In halacha (and life generally), there are three levels of creating significant results/effects; via thought (da’as), via speech (dibbur), and via physical action (ma’aseh). For example, terumah can be separated from one’s field via mentally deciding which crops are going to be terumah, oaths can be made via speech alone [as can some monetary acquisitions], and the vast majority of monetary acquisitions require a physical action to be effective, eg lifting up the object that is being acquired. Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch[9] comments that this is the progression in the first five [the between man and G-D section] of the ten commandments. The first two are rooted in da’as/mindset - belief in HaShem and not worshipping/creating any other gods. The next two move on to the facet of speech - not saying HaShem’s Name in vain and the zachor part of Shabbes; kiddush. Whilst the shamor part of Shabbes is a reference to one’s actions, as is the fifth commandment of honouring one’s parents.[10] This is the sequence from Rosh HaShanah to Sukkos as well.

It is from changing one’s mindset and priorities on Rosh HaShanah via passive listening to the shofar and bringing its ideas into one’s conscience. Yom Kippur is this second realm of dibbur, and Sukkos is the final and most significant level of action; shaking the arba minim and sitting in the sukkah. Just like the ten commandments are the DNA of our entire religious way of life, so too in this sequence of Rosh HaShanah to Sukkos we are trying to recreate, refashion, and dust up our ways of life. Thus, just as the ten commandments prescribe the sequence of religious growth as first acquiring a clear mental concretisation of goals, then moving onto acting this out in speech and then action, so too do we in the period from Rosh HaShanah through to Sukkos follow the same pattern of mental prioritisation (RH), reflection and commitment to follow this in speech (YK), and reflection of this is one’s actions (Sukkos). Therefore, Sukkos is the acting out of everything we said and committed on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It is the beginning of leading the religious life that we proved that we are fitting to lead during the yamim nora’im, and a time where we are consequently surrounded by mitzvos in the sukkah. Perhaps this is the explanation of the above midrash that taking the lulav is the sign of victory in judgment of Rosh HaShanah, for we are showing that our prioritisation of HaShem’s path, our commitments, and our repentance were real and have taken root, for we are acting on that momentum by bringing these mental and verbal commitments into the realm of action; the mitzvos of sukkah and lulav. And if they were genuine commitments then we were surely successful in judgment. Moreover, perhaps this is the meaning behind the halacha that one should start building his sukkah immediately after Yom Kippur and preferably have it finished by the next day[11], to be quick to prove one’s Yom Kippur commitments as founded and genuine, and showing a willingness to be enveloped in mitzvos in the sukkah. According to all we have said, perhaps we can suggest that part of the greatness of Hoshana Rabbah as a time of forgiveness [despite not saying any slichos] is that it is the last day of our time in the sukkah,[12] and thus the end of a seven-day period of acting out our commitments to be new people committed to HaShem’s regime.

But there is more; the actions of Sukkos are not limited to acting out the commitments of the yamim nora’im, but even if we did not commit as we should have on Yom Kippur, the Teshuva via actions of Sukkos-Shmini Atzeres can see us ‘released.’ This is seen by the parable of Chazal[13] of a king sending his messengers to fetch a certain person who has been convicted for the crime of disobeying the king. When the messengers arrive, they see a man who is happily fulfilling the king’s decrees and return to the king saying that the king must have got it wrong; this cannot be the convicted person, and the king agrees. So too, continues this Chazal, that even if we are convicted in the judgment of Yom Kippur, the fact that we have acted as we should have throughout Sukkos and Shmini Atzeres makes us new people and we escape conviction. It is a Teshuva via action. In summary, we have said that Sukkos is the time of action in mitzvos; a time where we put ourselves into a sukkah and are surrounded in mitzvos; hence the extra simcha. It is a time to solidify and prove the commitments of the yamim nora’im and a time to begin afresh via action too. The practical point to take from this is to make an extra effort to spend every possible second in the Sukkah, for each moment is a mitzvah. We tend to think of the sukkah as a place where we must go to eat bread/cake, but it is actually supposed to serve as our homes for the days of Sukkos. This means that we should treat the sukkah as our homes and be there as much as is practically possible - each second there is precious. [I am in the sukkah now writing this!]. After all, if the sukkah shows our Teshuva in action, then we want to be in action as much as possible, Merry Sukkos!

[1] Yalkut Shimoni Parshas Pinchas - Bamidbar 29;50 [2] Shmini Atzeres would thus be fifty days after Sukkos, just like Pesach and Shavuos are separated by fifty days. I heard Rav Moshe Shapira speak about this midrash and how the Rosh HaShanah of Tamuz would have been a different Rosh HaShanah, and the same for the proposed Av Yom Kippur and Sukkos in Elul, but that is not for now. [3] Gemarra Ta’anis 30b, Rashi Shemos 33;11 [4] Vilna Ga’on (apparently on Shir HaShirim 1;4) [5] Midrash Rabbah Vayikra 30;2 [6] The midrash is quoted in Matteh Moshe 957. He explains this Chazal as saying that if there is no atonement on Rosh HaShanah, it will be on Yom Kippur, and if not on Yom Kippur it will be on Hoshanah Rabbah. [7] 16th century. Written by Rabbi Elazar Azkari, the composer of yedid nefesh. [8] Vayikra Rabbah 30;14 [9] 1808-1888 [10] As Rav Hirsch points out, the next five, the between man and man commandments, go in the reverse order from action to speech, to thought. But that’s not our subject. [11] Rema Orach Chaim 624;5 and 625;1. Mishna Brura 625;1 se’if kattan 2 [12] There are different customs about residing in the sukkah in Shmini Atzeres in Chutz La’Aretz, but certainly in Eretz Yisrael the final day of the sukkah is Hoshana Rabbah. [13] I saw it in quoted in The Book of Our Heritage, page 192-3

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