Oct 172016


Today is the first full day of Sukkot or Succot (סֻכּוֹת), commonly translated into English as the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), a biblical Jewish holiday celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei (varies from late September to late October). During the time of the Jerusalem Temple it was one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (שלוש רגלים‎‎, shalosh regalim) on which the people of Israel were commanded to perform a pilgrimage to the Temple (the others are Passover and Shavuot). I have not covered Passover yet, but Shavuot is here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/shavuot/ Looking at these three festivals as a secular anthropologist provides a different view of them from the way they are interpreted religiously – going all the way back to Temple times. I am very reluctant to talk about the “origins” of festivals, because in doing so we strip away all of the accumulated history associated with those festivals – which is not a reasonable thing to do. Festivals evolve over time and are continuously overlaid with new meanings on top of the old ones. So, what I have to say about the history of these festivals, especially Sukkot, is not meant to suggest that the birth of them represents the one true meaning of them. Birth is one strand in the complexly layered and continuing evolution of these festivals.


When I look at the symbolism of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot I see embedded in them three separate land-based traditions, pastoral and agricultural. Passover is about lambs, Shavuot about wheat, and Sukkot about fruit. I’ll leave aside my thoughts about the merging of pastoral and agricultural traditions for the moment. Let’s just focus on the clear symbolism of Sukkot. The two most important elements of Sukkot are the building of a Sukkah and the daily waving of the Four Species. The Sukkah is meant, deliberately, to be a temporary shelter, made of natural products and with the roof open partially to the elements. The faithful are supposed to eat their meals in the Sukkah, to entertain there, and some people even sleep there for the week of the festival. In modern times this can be a challenge, first in finding the natural materials to build the Sukkah with, and second, finding a place to build it. The whole point is to be out in the open, which is not exactly easy if you live in an apartment in a high-rise building in the midst of a teeming city.


The tradition of the Four Species comes from Leviticus 23:40 –  “And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.” This commandment is interpreted in various ways by different sects. The four elements are 1. Fruit  2. Palm branches 3. Leafy boughs 4. Willow boughs. Contemporary Jews keep a spray of the Four Species in the Sukkah and wave them ritually each day for seven days. Talmudic tradition interprets these as a citron, a date palm frond, a myrtle branch, and a willow branch.

There are two strands to Sukkot in the Torah, one in Exodus 34:22, the other in Leviticus 23:42-43. Talking about the books of the Torah is a very long discussion indeed. This is just a quick overview of my thoughts based on decades of study. Exodus is a complex document stitched together out of old sources. It is an historical narrative based on a defining moment for Jewish identity – the departure from bondage in Egypt and subsequent wandering in the desert. Its primary focus is Passover which is clearly a pastoral (animal herding) festival. But stitched into the fabric of this narrative are laws and obligations that derive from agricultural (farming) as well as pastoral traditions because the book was written for a society where there were both pastoral and agricultural regions and ethnicities that needed to be united. The book was probably started around 600 BCE when scholars and rulers were creating a national identity for the Judeans (Jews). They used history (as they knew it) to establish the meaning of laws and rituals. Leviticus is entirely about law and is a product of the Temple priests. It too was started around 600 BCE but with a different purpose. It assumes all of the history in Exodus and so is simply a tabulation of laws governing every aspect of life, including ritual, but adds an element of holiness, explaining why certain laws and traditions exist (usually more than just “God commands it”).


Exodus gives rules for observing Sukkot which make it clear that it is a fruit harvest celebration. A Sukkah is meant to resemble the temporary lodgings that the fruit harvesters built in the fields during harvest time so that they did not have to return to their city homes at night during an intense period when every hour of daylight was precious to secure the harvest as quickly as possible. Leviticus steps in and adds a layer that seeks to bring ALL celebrations in line with the founding narrative of the exodus and desert wandering. So it says that the Sukkah is meant to be a reminder of temporary dwellings whilst wandering in the desert. On the face of it this is patently absurd. Desert pastoralists don’t live in structures – temporary or permanent – made of wood. They live in tents. People who pick fruit in orchards have spare wood, desert nomads don’t. Yet Leviticus does not care about such anomalies – it wants a united nation, so logic takes a back seat.


If you are Jewish, you know what foods to celebrate Sukkot with. Different traditions have traditional favorites. If you have a Sukkah in your garden, all that is necessary is to cook in the kitchen and bring it out to the Sukkah to eat. Since citron is one of the Four Species it is a good ingredient to work with. Citron is one of the four original citrus fruits (the others being pomelo, mandarin, and papeda), from which all other citrus types developed through natural hybrid speciation or artificial hybridization. It is not always easy to find because it is difficult to work with. Unlike common modern citrus fruits, the pulp of the citron is not useful, but it has a thick rind that can be used for cooking – usually with sugar. Candied citron is its most common usage. It can be eaten as is, or incorporated into other recipes.


Candied Citron


2 citrons
3 cups sugar (600g), plus 1 cup (100g) for tossing the finished fruit
2 cups (500ml) water


Wash and dry the citrons. Cut them in half and remove the pulp, then cut them into 1/2-inch (2cm) cubes. Put the pieces in a large saucepan, cover with a sufficient amount of water so it won’t boil away, and blanch the citron pieces in barely simmering water for 30 to 40 minutes.

Drain the citron pieces. Put them back in the pot with 3 cups (600g) of sugar and 2 cups (500ml) of  water.

Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pot and cook the citron until the temperature reaches 230ºF. (110ºC)

Turn off the heat and let the citron pieces sit in the syrup for one hour.

The candied citron will stay preserved in the syrup in the refrigerator for at least one year. To use the citron, let the peel sit in a strainer for a couple of hours, stirring it occasionally, to let as much of the syrup drip away as possible. The syrup should be reserved for other uses.

When drained, toss the pieces of citron in sugar and let them sit on a wire rack overnight to dry out. Shake off the excess sugar, which you can reserve for other uses and store the citron in an airtight container.