Thou shalt keep the feast of tabernacles seven days, after that thou hast gathered in from thy threshing-floor and from thy winepress.
Seven days shalt thou keep a feast unto the LORD thy God in the place which the LORD shall choose; because the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the work of thy hands, and thou shalt be altogether joyful.
In the Biblical Garden the growing season winds down once again: grapes ripened, cucumbers and cantaloupe exposed under drying leaves, dried pods of chickpeas, lentils and broad beans for our seed bank, a stem or two of sorghum cane laden with millet. The papyrus reeds that so delight the religious school children will soon die back with the cooler days, and poppies, feverfew, coriander and black cumin will continue to naturalize wherever their seeds fall. It’s been a good year, time for sweaters and the sukkah.
In Exodus, Sukkot is called hag ha-asif, the festival of ingathering and the end of the year’s agricultural cycle. Barley was harvested in spring, and wheat in early summer, but the process of transforming the sheaves of grain into bread was an arduous one that took weeks of threshing, winnowing to separate grain from chaff, and sifting out impurities, before storing it in jars for milling, all to be completed before the first autumn rains.
Then followed harvesting of grapes, figs, almonds, and pomegranates in mid-to-late summer and, lastly, olives in the fall. It wasn’t until grapes were pressed and processed into wine and olives into oil that the season of harvest and ingathering was truly over. Then came time for community rejoicing and the festival of Sukkot, a brief respite before the plow was again put to earth and the coming winter’s barley sown. In temporary shelters, families shared meals with guests, remembering the harshness of the wilderness years, and finding joy in the abundance now stored away to sustain the community in the coming year.
Rabbi Paul Steinberg, in Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Fall Holidays writes: ”For us today, Sukkot’s most apparent complexity and richness lie in its disparity: we are drawn out of our own homes and ease of our modern lifestyle, yet simultaneously comforted by reconnecting with nature and our community. Sukkot culminates with the holiday of Simchat Torah, a celebration of all that God gave us. On this day we literally dance with the Torah scrolls to celebrate both the Torah itself and Sukkot’s messages about the essence of humanity, the beginnings of civilization, and the meaning of living in God’s world. It is the holiday that compels us to look upward, through the cracks of impermanence, toward the same night sky and stars upon which our earliest ancestors gazed. Here we stand, humbled, and filled with awe and gratitude for all there is, simply celebrating life.”
Read more: "Why Sukkot is a Harvest Holiday, Even Though There's Little to Harvest"
Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, is a unique recreation of the physical setting of the Bible in all its depth and detail allows visitors to see life as it was lived by our ancestors 3,000 years ago, and it is an invaluable resource for biblical gardeners everywhere. Dr. Sarah Oren, Curator of the Neot Kedumim Botanical Garden writes:
"One of the most prominent late-summer plants is the Vitex agnus-castus, known by several names in English, including Abraham’s Balm and Chaste Tree. This member of the verbenaceae plant family grows by bodies of water all over Israel, except for the Negev desert. Genesis 22 relates the story of the Binding of Isaac, in which Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. In truth, he was not meant to kill his son; rather, he was being tested by the Lord to see to what extent his commitment and obedience would take him. When the angel stopped Abraham from harming Isaac, “Abraham looked and saw a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up as a sacrifice in place of his son.” (Genesis 22:13).
One Jewish tradition teaches us that the bush in which the ram was caught was the Vitex agnus-castus. The Latin name reflects this tradition (vitex (= life) agnus (= lamb) castus (= humble), that is to say “the life of the innocent lamb” – Isaac. A third name in English also reflects this tradition, Abraham’s balm, and the Hebrew name of the plant translates to “Abraham’s bush.” The connection of this plant to this story is particularly appropriate now, as Rosh Hashanah is upon us. This is the time of year when the Abraham’s balm is in full bloom. Our Sages teach us that the Binding of Isaac took place on Rosh Hashanah, and Genesis 22 is read in synagogues around the world. The shofar (ram’s horn) that we blow on Rosh Hashanah is to, among other things, remind God of Abraham’s commitment to God's will, and to hopefully inspire God's mercy upon us during this period of divine judgment."
Temple Sinai now has a Vitex agnus-castus in our garden collection, along with other new shrubs. The garden has yielded an abundance of herbs, pulses and cucumbers; and the grapevine on its new arbor is heavy with grapes. Now we welcome the New Year with hopes of reaping what the prophet Isaiah called the “good of the land,” and hope for a successful, happy and healthy year.
Michael Schlesinger is Temple Sinai’s Biblical Gardener. Mike has been gardening since he was eight years old. He used to grow grape vines and make wine when he lived in California. He now tends to our garden, continuing the traditions started by Catherine Walters.