This review was published by RBL  2000 by the Society of Biblical Literature.

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RBL 03/24/2000
Rubenstein, Jeffrey L.
The History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods
Brown Judaic Studies 302
Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995. Pp. xiv + 361, Cloth, $49.95, ISBN 0788501305.
Christine Hayes
Yale University
New Haven, CT 06520

In this fine volume, Jeffrey Rubenstein provides a detailed account of the history of the
festival of Sukkot in the second-temple and rabbinic periods. Rubenstein contends that of
all festivals Sukkot suffered the repercussions of the destruction most acutely. By
comparing Second-Temple and rabbinic observance of Sukkot he hopes to assess the
degree to which the rabbis perpetuated older conceptions and rituals and the degree to
which they adapted inherited rituals and beliefs to the new circumstances of the post-
destruction era, thereby gaining a vantage point from which to evaluate the nature of
rabbinic Judaism and its relationship to the Judaism of Temple times. Methodologically,
Rubenstein identifies his approach as a history of religions (as distinct from a history of
traditions or a theological) approach that goes beyond the sources to consider actual
rituals and practices and what their observance meant.
The first chapter surveys the biblical sources pertaining to Sukkot as well as the major
theories concerning its origin and development in the first-temple period. In particular
Rubenstein examines the Holiness Code's incorporation of primitive agricultural rituals
from popular religion and suggests that its festival bouquet (the lulav) and its
commandment to dwell in booths (sukkot) represent attempts to institutionalize popular
festival rituals of ancient Israelite provenance. Ironically, although the agricultural rituals
of taking the lulav and dwelling in a sukka probably were not the essence of the
celebration of Sukkot in the first-temple period, they became increasingly important in
the second-temple and rabbinic constructions of Sukkot because of their memorialization
in Scripture.
Chapters two and three examine the celebration of Sukkot in the second-temple period
as represented in pre-rabbinic sources (chapter two) and rabbinic traditions (chapter
three). Rubenstein's study of the non-rabbinic sources—such as Ezra-Nehemiah,
Zechariah 14, Jubilees, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Qumranic sources, Philo, Josephus, Christian
Scripture, and ancient Jewish art—contains a wealth of detail. The combined evidence of
these sources indicates that Sukkot was the main pilgrimage and primary temple festival
This review was published by RBL  2000 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
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until the destruction of the temple. In addition to its increased association with the
authority of the Torah and with rain, the festival had acquired a popular dimension not
connected with temple celebrations: widespread observance of the rituals of sukka and
lulav, demonstrating the success of the program of the Holiness Code and the restoration
community that first adopted these rituals as biblically prescribed rites unconnected with
agricultural culture.
Rabbinic traditions describing the temple observance of Sukkot are considered in a
very rich chapter three. The rabbis' detailed accounts of the festivities and rituals carried
out in Jerusalem are preserved in documents redacted several generations after the
destruction of the temple; this raises questions as to their reliability. Rubenstein
concludes that second-temple and rabbinic sources are consistent in their representation
of Sukkot as a temple celebration of great significance, the details of the latter sources
complementing the generalities of the former sources. Although he eschews
methodological dogmatism, Rubenstein's own tendency in such a case (i.e., when there is
general agreement between extra-rabbinic and rabbinic sources) is to accord to the
rabbinic materials a presumptive plausibility once obvious historiographic tendencies are
filtered out.
Comparison of the rabbinic sources with the pre-rabbinic sources analyzed in chapter
two serves two further purposes: it enables the author to gain as complete an
understanding of the festival as possible and to assess the degree to which later rabbinic
observance of Sukkot continues or departs from that of earlier times. Rubenstein's
interests are not only historical but also historiographic. He seeks to uncover the rabbinic
conception of Sukkot as against that of other sources, to understand the significance of
the Mishnah's transmission of descriptions of cultic rituals no longer practiced and to
trace the relation between those rituals and the rituals actually observed by the rabbis. Of
particular interest in this chapter are: a discussion of the willow procession, in which
Rubenstein draws upon Qumranic material to argue for the reliability of aspects of the
tannaitic accounts; an explication of the cultic background of the water libation ritual and
the mythic world view within which it was embedded; a thorough and fruitful discussion
of the most obscure of the Sukkot rituals, simhat beit hasho'eva (the rejoicing at the place
of water-drawing), particularly in the light of Hellenistic religious practices.
Chapter four examines the relationship between the rabbinic and temple conceptions
of Sukkot by focusing on the continued association of Sukkot with rain. That tannaitic
sources contain new expressions of the link between Sukkot and rain reveals that the
absence of the cult and the destruction of the temple did not undermine the mythic world
view of the temple as the source of blessing and water. Mythic conceptions lived on
without their original ritual underpinnings (the water libation ritual) and despite the loss
of their sacred space.
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Chapters five and six examine tannaitic materials which, in the author's view, present
the early rabbinic construction of Sukkot. Chapter five examines the numerous halakhic
traditions about the lulav, the sukka, and proper observance of the festival, while chapter
six analyzes the few tannaitic aggadic traditions about Sukkot. According to Rubenstein,
tannaitic sources presuppose the basic lulav ritual, the identification and number of the
species and the manner of constructing sukkot (using convenient and accessible materials
to cover flimsy shelters). The rabbis' halakhic contributions to this inherited "substratum"
is one of definition, standardization, and increasingly detailed legislation. The rabbis
created the category of skhakh (sukka-roofing as distinct from the rest of the sukka)
which would later become a central rabbinic symbol. This symbolism Rubenstein then
explores with the help of anthropological concepts and argues that skhakh mediates
between the polarities of life/death, nature/culture, and outside/inside. The rest of chapter
five details tannaitic legislation regarding the construction of the sukka and the meaning
of the requirement to dwell within it. Much of this chapter is expository in nature but the
technicalities of rabbinic halakha are presented in a lucid and eminently readable manner.
In order to uncover the tannaitic conception of the rituals of lulav and sukka and to
shed light on the religious experience of residing in the sukka, Rubenstein turns to a
consideration of tannaitic aggadic material in chapter six—perhaps the richest and most
rewarding chapter of the book. Here Rubenstein analyzes the dominant aggadic motif of
the booths as a symbol of the "clouds of glory," the divinely bestowed clouds that
surrounded the Israelite camp during the wandering in the desert.
Rubenstein skillfully traces the web of associations connected to this motif—divine
protection, love and intimacy, and eschatological deliverance—in early and late sources,
in order to identify the emotions and associations evoked by the annual ritual of dwelling
in the sukka. In a final section, he relates the aggadic themes isolated in this chapter to
some of the specific halakhot discussed in chapter five, in order to show how the two are
reflections of the same underlying religious experience. Specifically, shade in the halakha
(produced by the skhakh) parallels the clouds of glory in the aggada. "Shade is the crucial
element which links the 'myth'—that the exodus generation dwelled within the clouds of
glory—with its 'ritual,' the annual commandment to reside in the sukka" (p. 269). Thus
the rabbinic interpretation of the sukka as the clouds of glory represents a shift in the
orientation of the festival from a commemoration of the intimate relationship between
God and the Israelites during the exodus to a reification of the experience of divine
protection, love, and intimacy in the present that foreshadows the eschatological future
when God will again deliver God's people. Rubenstein continues his investigation into
the meaning of Sukkot in rabbinic Judaism by examining the stunning array of symbolic
interpretations of the lulav and sukka rituals found in amoraic midrashim. His insightful
discussions of the eschatological associations linked to the symbols and rituals of Sukkot,
the relationship between Sukkot and other autumnal holy days (Rosh Hashana and Yom
Kippur), the sukka as a symbol of divine protection, the unity symbolized by the binding
of the lulav, the lulav's shift from symbol to sign (bearing only an arbitrary rather than a
This review was published by RBL  2000 by the Society of Biblical Literature. For more information on obtaining a
subscription to RBL, please visit
natural connection with that which it signifies), and the displacement of the association of
rain onto Shmini 'Aseret illustrate the basic polysemy of the primary symbols of the
festival—the sukka and the lulav.
Rubenstein's study provides a working model for historians of rabbinic religion and
culture who must grapple with the vexing question of how to use rabbinic sources
responsibly for the project of historical reconstruction. Rubenstein shows us that
meticulous attention to sources that both antedate and postdate the tannaitic material is
critical for an understanding and reconstruction of tannaitic religion. Further, he
successfully integrates his study of both halakhic and aggadic sources in an effort to
move beyond strict categories and attain a wider perspective and comprehensive
examination of the rabbinic festival of Sukkot.

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