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"
Catherine Walters, who died in July 2017, was Temple Sinai's Biblical Gardener. She shared her thoughts and wisdom about discovering the Bible in leaf, root and stem right here each month.