Monday, October 17, 2011

On the Samaritan Sukkah, Nehemiah's Sukkah and the "taking" of the arbah minim

Its kind of neat. As you can see in the images that follorw, the Samaritan practice is to create an indoor sukkah, with a roof made from fruit. They have no walls.

You can't see it when looking from below, but above the hanging fruits are bundles of lulavim, aravot and hadassim. Samaritan apply these items to their sukkot because of the command in Leviticus 23

וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיֹּ֣ום הָרִאשֹׁ֗ון פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַעֲנַ֥ף עֵץ־ עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־ נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃

40 And ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees [DB: Or the foliage of a majestic tree], branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.
which Samaritans say means that the arba minim are to be used for the purpose of building the sukkah and indeed on BT Sukka 36b we have Rabbi Yehuda saying that a Sukka should be built exclusively from the arba minim. 

The Sages disagreed with Rabbi Yehuda, and on Lev 23:40 Ibn Ezra denounces a Karaite practice which seems to have been similar to the Samaritan approach. The fly in the ointment, however, remains Neh 8-13-18 where the people, having been reminded of the holiday by Ezra, went out and built Sukkot from the arba minim. in short, they saw a verse ordering us to "take" the arbah minim, so take them they did, but for the purpose of building a sukkah, and not for th epurpose of waving them around.

It would seem from this reading of the account in Nehemiah (which by the way is not my reading; Lurker shared it here first) that Jews at one time understood the verse in Leviticus in the same way that Karaites and Samaritans understood it, which, of course, raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions about the origins of Rabininc interpretations, however binding those interpretations might be.

Those who reject this reading of Neh 8-13-18 are, I think, guilty of reading through a pre-existing set of spectacles. Where does Nehemiah mention an esrog they complain?  However, once the spectacles are removed, the answer is plain. Here is the passage from Nehemiah:
On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the teacher to give attention to the words of the Law. 14 They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in temporary shelters during the festival of the seventh month 15 and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: “Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make temporary shelters”—as it is written. So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves temporary shelters on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim.
Its all very simple , isn't it? After hearing a verse read, the people go out for the express purpose of fulfilling that verse, collect specific items, and use those items to build their succot. Three of the items correspond directly to the items from the list in Leviticus 23:40  The missing item - the etrog - is not named  in Leviticus. Instead, what we're told to do it take the foliage of a goodly (or majestic, or gorgeous) tree.  In Nehemia these are the olives boughs.

This isn't how we practice, nor is it how our Rabbis read Nehemiah or Leviticus, but does this reading seem unreasonable to you?

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