Chapter Sixteen

How the Jews celebrate the Feast of the Foliage-huts. [Heb. Sukkot, tabernacles]

The third main feast on which all Jews had to appear in Jerusalem is the Feast of the Foliage-huts, as it is written in the fifth book of Moses Deut. 16.16: Three times a year all your men shall appear before God your Lord at the place which he has chosen, namely for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for the Feast of Weeks, and for the Feast of the Foliage-huts.

God gave orders to celebrate this feast on the fifteenth day of the seventh moon, which according to the New Year of Feasts, starting in March, would be in the autumn month of September, as we call it in Latin, otherwise this month is the first month for the Jews, according to their customary year reckoning, which will be explained later.

The reason for this feast is that the children of Israel should consider and reflect upon the fatherly care of God, which he showed the people of Israel, by miraculously providing for them when they were without living quarters or houses for forty years, as it is written Lev. 23.42: All that were born in the land of Israel, should live in the foliage-huts, so that your descendants may see and know, that I caused the children of Israel to live in foliage-huts, when I led them out of the land of Egypt.

The huts were made of twigs and greenery of beautiful green trees, such as oil-containing trees, olives, myrtle, and other resinous trees, which remain green for a long time. This is pointed out in these words Lev. 23.40 : And on the first day you shall take fruits from beautiful trees, palm-twigs and greenery from thick trees and willows. It is pointed out somewhat more clearly in the book of Nehemiah in these words Neh. 8.15: And they proclaimed in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, and said: Go out to the mountains and get oil-twigs, twigs from resinous trees, myrtle-twigs, palm-twigs and branches from leafy trees so that we may build foliage-huts as it is written. And the people went out and gathered branches, and made foliage-huts. From this we see that some time ago they made their huts from those branches and lived in them for eight days. Also, they used more than the four different types which are mentioned in the third book of Moses to make their huts. Apart from this, in Nehemia the willows are not mentioned, which served to bind the twigs together, and everyone took it for granted that such had to be used for that purpose. Therefore the Jews are mistaken today, for they believe superstitiously that only the four different kinds, which are mentioned in the description of the feast by Moses, are used to build the huts, and they are used in a different way as we shall soon see.

They wrote a lengthy tractate in the Talmud about this feast, decreeing how it should be celebrated in the right way, how the huts should be made, and how the four different kinds of twigs should be used. They discuss it very subtly, as is their custom, and are concerned only for the outward ceremonies, but not how they should lift up their hearts to God. Although they say many prayers at this feast, their devotion does not come from their heart, but they gabble their prayers, and if they could say a thousand words with one breath, that would be considered a great art!

This feast lasts eight days, but only the two first and the two last are complete feast-days. The ones in the middle are only half holy-days.

On the fourteenth day, at the time of the afternoon service, they gather in their synagogues, and sing and pray according to their Minhágim, or church-books, until it is night. After that, they go home to their foliage-huts. The father of the house says a prayer, and with that brings in the feast of the foliage-huts, thanks God, that he has chosen them from all the other peoples, exalted them, and blessed them, and bidden them to build foliage-huts. After that they eat their supper in the hut, and are very happy.

They are also supposed to sleep at night in the huts, but this is too bothersome now because of cold, damp places and other problems. Therefore they usually go back to their houses, and sleep in their regular beds, and find that much more comfortable.

On the morning of the fifteenth day, they go to shul again early in the morning, they sing and pray much, but not from their heart. And when the cantor comes in his prayers to Sim Schalóm Lord give peace, then each one takes a bunch of palms, olives, or willow branches (we read about that in the third book of Moses) in their right hand, and a citron (fruit of the beautiful trees, it says in the text) in the left hand and says: Praised be you, Lord our God, King of the world, that you have blessed us with your laws, and bidden us to carry a bunch of palms, and with that he shakes the bunch so that it rustles, as Scripture says Ps. 96.12: Then the trees in the woods will exult. After this, he shakes the bunch three times towards the east or sunrise, then three times towards noon,[i.e. south – this usage is archaic in modern German] then three times over his shoulders towards the west or sundown, then three times towards his left side or midnight, [north] lastly also over and under himself (rather like a fencing master, who fights with a foil.) They continue to pray, shaking it once more to show that they have overcome sin from all sides, and they have scared the devil with their rustling, so that he will accuse them of their sins no longer. Soon, someone goes and takes up the holy book from the ark, puts it on the Almemor, or pulpit, and then they all walk around the pulpit with their citron and bunch of twigs. They do this on all the seven days to remember the march seven times around the city of Jericho until the walls fell down, and the city was taken. They hope very much that the walls of the Roman Empire will fall, and the Jews will be masters over the Christians. This is expressed in Rabbi Bechai's opinion when he writes Cad hakkemach pp. 51-52: The circuits, that today we walk seven times around the pulpit on the feast of the foliage-huts, is a sign for the future, Schætippol chómas Edom, that the wall of Edom, that is the Roman Empire, will fall, and all Edomites will be exterminated from this world, as the Prophet Daniel said in his prophecy about the fourth beast, which means the Roman Empire, with these words Dan. 7.11: I watched until the beast was killed, and his body perished, and it was thrown into the fire. Then mount Zion and Jerusalem, which were called a Midbar, or desert, will be glad, as it is written Is. 64.10: Zion has become a desert and Jerusalem is destroyed. And in another place the holy prophet Isaiah says too that Zion shall be glad, and Jerusalem shall exalt over the revenge and punishment of Edom (that is the Roman Empire) as it is written Is. 35.1: The desert and dry land shall be glad. So far Rabbi Bechai, from which we see how much good they wish the Christians on this feast day. But in their prayer-books they turn out differently, they pray and wish that God may strike us, as he did to the first-born in Egypt as we read in one of the prayers, which starts Ana hoschia na, [save us!] They say specifically Takkeh ojebhenu, strike our enemies, as you struck the first-born in Egypt, and humble them. With their enemies, they mean none other than the ones who keep them prisoners. About this and other things I will, God willing, speak in a separate dissertation.

After this first rustling, they pray on, shake their bunches a few more times, take out two books from the ark, and read some of it with great ceremony but little devotion.

On the second day, they celebrate in the same way, not according to the law and commandment of God, but because of Saphek, or doubts, that now they do not know for sure which is the fifteenth day of the autumn month. Therefore they prefer to celebrate two days.

At night the father of each house says a little prayer, to separate the feast from the workday, and he thanks God that they have kept the feast so well.

The four following days are only half holidays, they sing and pray some more, and every day have ceremonies with the shaking of the bunches. If a Sabbath happens to be on one of these days, then they pray and read besides other things, a piece from the prophet Ezekiel, 38.18 et seq. about the horrible war of Gog and Magog. They believe and write that on this month in the near future, Gog will be killed. They will be saved and led back to their land.

The seventh day is holy again. They call it Hosanna rabba, Help much, because they call on God to help them, and assist them with all his power to resist their enemies. They pray that they may have a good and prosperous year, because the first day of this month is the actual New Year's Day of the year according to which they count their years. Very early in the morning, some take a cold bath, they go to shul, they light many candles, they sing and pray boldly, and with great ceremony take seven books of the law from the ark. In Poland they take out all the books, even if there would be seven thousand, they would have to come out. They put the book on the pulpit or Almemor, then they go seven times around the pulpit with their bunches, now freshly decorated with green willow twigs. Every time around they take out a book, and then put it back in the ark.

Ramban, Rakanat, Bechai and other Rabbis write about the fourteenth chapter of the fourth book of Moses, that God would show them on this seventh night through the moon what will happen to them during the coming year. Namely, they walk this night by moonlight, some bareheaded, some in their shirt, or even naked covered by a sheet. They drop the sheet, spread their arms and hands, and now if his shadow misses a head, then he will lose his head that year, which is a sign that he will die that year. If he misses a finger, a good friend will die; if he misses the right hand, his son will die; the left, his daughter will die; if he sees no shadow at all, then he will die without a doubt, and if he has plans for a journey, it is a sign that he will not return. The previously mentioned Rabbis prove all this from the fourth book of Moses with these words Num. 14.9: Their shadow left them. So at the end of this story the Gemara says: If a person does not see his shadow that night by moonlight, he is nevertheless a Jew.

They write further that God will decide and order how much rain they should have during the year, and also if it will be a scarce or abundant year, for which reason they say many prayers for good rain, which fosters the growing of fruit. The reason God shows them how many people will die, and how many will be left to feed is so they may have an estimate if it will be a scarce year, and if the year will feed less people because of the need of grain and other food.

After noon they make ready their apartments and the houses where they dwell again, but they still have their evening meal in the huts. After that they go home and sleep in their homes.

The eighth day is also holy according to the law and is celebrated, it is called Schemini azéres, the eighth day of the delaying, as if one stays for seven days at the house of a good friend as a guest, and that friend keeps him longer on the eighth day too, because of their great friendship. At noon they eat in the hut, but they do not say the usual blessing over it, and they bring soiled pots and pans, so the hut may be unclean, and therefore they may have more reason to move from the huts back into their homes, which they do when evening approaches, and they all return to their homes. When they leave the hut, some say: God willing, next year we shall live in the hut of the Leviathan. By this, as I understand it, they mean that in the future the Messiah will help them eat the great fish Leviathan [a mythical fish which will serve as food for the righteous in paradise. The skin will serve as a covering for the hut.] I will explain this later. [In the last chapter.] The reason for spending seven days in the foliage-huts in which they keep house, eat and drink like in their regular house, is in remembrance of the funnel-cloud under which they were led away from Egypt. That cloud was similar to a hut which protected them against the arrows and stones the Egyptians kept shooting after them and besides that, it protected them against evil winds and heat.

Although they were led from Egypt on the fifteenth of March, God did not order them to live in huts in March, but in autumn, because it would not have been special feast and divine command, if they had lived in huts in March. At that time, everybody builds his own hut to find protection against the summer heat, but when fall comes, everybody runs from the huts back into their warm homes. Therefore, if they live at that time in foliage-huts, everybody can see that it must be a special demand of God that bids them do so.

Those foliage-huts should not be built at a place where it is unpleasant or smells (as it is in the Jewish streets in Frankfurt, where it is so very pleasant and fine -- and I don't think.) But it should be under a wide open space outdoors, not under a gate or roof. Each one should sit in it as in the open air. Doors should not be closed if it is raining, or a cold wind is blowing. The roof should be made of green branches, not with boards or similar things, and they should be so far apart that you can see the stars shining through. Rich Jews hang up beautiful tapestries, but they should not take the place of walls. They tie beautiful fruits on the roof, such as lemons or pomegranates. Sometimes they just take melons, because the other fruits are too expensive.

Women and servants are not obliged as much as men to live in the huts, because laws tied to a particular time are not applicable to women.

Because of cold and rain you should not leave the hut. But if it rains too much, they depart humbly and sadly, feeling that God is angry with them, and does not want them now to keep the law, just like a lord whose servant pours a cup of wine, and the lord takes the cup, and throws it in the face of the servant.

Although it is written in the third book of Moses Lev. 23.40 that they should take Pri etz hadar, fruit of beautiful trees, palm branches, etc. there is no doubt that here the word Pri means not the fruit of the tree, but its branch, with or without the fruit. For they were supposed to make the huts from these branches, as it is explained in the book of Ezra, previously mentioned. The Jews interpret it as citrons, which they call Esrog, and with great superstition they posit four different species which are supposed to be mentioned by Moses. They write miraculous and laughable things about this, and do not use it to build the huts, but in the way previously mentioned. The citrons are imported from Spain, also the palm and olive branches, and myrtle-twigs. Every year, sixteen Jews travel there [to Spain] and they bring back as much as they can carry, which they then sell all over Germany, wherever Jews live. I observed this autumn that a citron sold for four gulden.

They hold there are great mysteries in these four things. Namely, the palm branch symbolizes the false Jews, because just as the palm tree is beautiful and fine, but the fruit has no taste, so is the one who has the law, but produces no good fruit or good deeds. The citron points to the Tzaddikim, or pious. Just as the fruit is beautiful, with a fine aroma, so are the pious, who have the law, and bring good fruits while they keep the law. The myrtle smells goos, but brings no fruit; some people are like that, they do good deeds but have no laws. The willow-tree branches point to the Reschaim, or godless, who have no laws and no good deeds, just like the willow, has neither taste nor fruit. The last mentioned are the Christians who have neither laws nor the word of God, which was given only to the Jews, and therefore cannot have good deeds either, Scilicet. ["And I don't think!"] Rabbi Bechai writes in his book Cad hakkemach, Cadus farine: [the Jug of Flour] These four things point to the four Empires, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, and the willows point to the Roman Empire.

To conclude, I will add what you can read in the beautiful, foolish Talmud about the laws of these foliage-huts. In the tractate Abhodah zarah, Concerning Idolatry, chapter two, we find the following conversation which God will carry on in that with the nations of the world, [i.e. the Gentiles] and he will convince them that the Jews are pious and right, because they held on to the law always, and that they [the Gentiles] are godless and wrong, because they neither possessed nor observed the law. Then the nations (that is, the Christians and all non-Jews) will say: Ribbon Schel olam, Lord of the world, give us the law from the beginning to the end, and we will keep it too. But God will tell them: Schotim, O you fools, know you not the adage: The one who labors on the eve of Sabbath, will have what to eat on the Sabbath; but the one who does not labor thus, what shall he eat on the Sabbath? But still, Mitzvah kallah jesch li, Sukkah Schmah, I have just a little law, called Sukka, (that is the law of the foliage-huts) go and keep that. From then on, all of them will run and build a foliage-hut, one on his roof (at that time the roofs were flat, not pointed like now), another in his garden, and they will live in huts. But God will gather the sun's heat of an entire fourth of a year, namely from the longest day in summer on, and the sun will shine so hot on them, and scorch them, that nobody can suffer the heat any more. Thereupon the nations will be angry, they will tread the huts underfoot, and leave them with great irritation, and say Ps. 2.3 Let us throw off their bonds, and tear their cords asunder. Then God will mock them, and laugh, as it is written Ps. 2.4: The one in heaven laughs at them, and the Lord mocks them. Therefore Rabbi Isaak said that you cannot find any laughter in God, save on that day. So far the Talmud. From this narrative one can see how the Jews delight in themselves, and they want to convince themselves and their God that they are the sole holy people of God, who can keep the entire law, and all the commandments of God. But the Christians and other nations are all damned, only good to be mocked before God. But how did God praise them about keeping the commandments through his Prophet Ezekiel? Ezek. 20.10-13

When I led them from the land of Egypt, and brought them into the desert, I gave them my commandments, and I taught them my judgments, through which the man who holds on to them lives. But the house of Israel was disobedient to me in the desert also, and they did not live according to my commandments, and they despised my judgments which, if a man does, he shall live in them. And they greatly profaned my Sabbaths...

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Alan D. Corré
corre@uwm.edu