Shelter From the Storm

Familiar Prayer About a Sukkah Has Little To Do With Sukkot

I’m Gonna Get You, Sukkah: An Orthodox family prepares for Sukkot.
Menahem Kahana/Getty Images
I’m Gonna Get You, Sukkah: An Orthodox family prepares for Sukkot.

By Philologos

Published September 30, 2012, issue of October 05, 2012.
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During the holiday of Sukkot, one adds a small prayer when saying the birkat ha-mazon, the Grace After Meals. It goes, Ha-rah. aman yakim lanu et sukkat David ha-nofelet, “May the Merciful One [that is, God] raise up the fallen sukkah of David.” I’ve often wondered what exactly this referred to, and this year I decided to look into it.

It wasn’t hard to find the answer. As often happens with answers, though, it led only to more questions.

In the last chapter of the book bearing his name, the prophet Amos, after predicting ruin for a sinful people of Israel, concludes on a hopeful note with God’s words: “For, lo, I will command, and I will sift the House of Israel among all nations, as the wheat is sifted in the sieve, yet shall not the least grain fall upon the earth…. On that day will I raise up the tabernacle [sukkah] of David that is fallen, and close up the branches thereof… and I will build it as in the days of old.”

Originally, Amos’s metaphor had nothing to do with Sukkot. The sukkah he speaks of is an agricultural shelter against the midday sun, the type that one occasionally sees in the fields of Israel to this day, on which our more elaborate holiday sukkah is modeled — a simple structure of four corner poles with a roof of branches. It is this roof that has fallen down in Amos’s sukkah, and when it is “closed up” again, God promises, “I will restore the captivity of my people of Israel… and they shall plant vineyards and drink the wine thereof; they shall also make gardens and eat the fruit of them.”

Amos was prophesying in the middle of the eighth century B.C.E. — some 200 years, according to the Bible, after the kingdom of David and Solomon was greatly weakened by splitting in two between north and south, and several decades before the Assyrians destroyed its northern half and exiled many of its inhabitants. Already in Amos’s age the threat of an Assyrian conquest and of the population transfer that generally followed it were in the air, and he was looking past them to a time when the Davidic kingdom — “the sukkah of David” — would be restored in all its glory.

The early rabbis, who lived 1,000 or more years later, under Roman rather than Assyrian domination, looked forward to such a restoration, too, though within a messianic framework that Amos does not speak of. Believing, however, that the Messiah would be a descendant of the House of David, they assumed that Amos’s prophecy was of his coming. This is reflected in a passage in the tractate of Sanhedrin that tells us:

“Rabbi Nachman [a fourth-century C.E. sage] asked Rabbi Yitzchak: ‘Do you know when Bar-Niflei [‘the son of the Nephilim’] will come?’ He [Yitzchak] answered: ‘Who is Bar-Niflei?’ He [Nachman] said: ‘The Messiah.’ [Yitzchak said]: ‘You call the Messiah Bar-Niflei?’ He [Nachman] replied, ‘Yes, because it’s written [in Amos], On that day I will raise up the sukkah of David that has fallen [ha-nofelet].’”

There is a pun here on nofelet, “fallen,” and nefilim or (as it is more commonly spelled in English) nephilim, the legendary celestial creatures described by the book of Genesis as descending to earth in the generations before the Flood and begetting offspring with humankind. Both words come from the Hebrew verb nafal, “to fall,” and in both ancient Jewish and Christian sources, the Nephilim are sometimes depicted as fallen angels who rebelled against God and were cast down to earth from heaven. (The 2006 TV miniseries “Fallen,” based on a novel by Thomas Sniegoski, has as its hero an 18-year-old American high school student, Aaron Corbett, who discovers he is an offspring of the Nephilim when he begins developing supernatural powers.)

This passage is intriguing and mysterious. The appellation Bar-Niflei was obviously not a common one for the Messiah, not only because it occurs nowhere else in early rabbinic literature, but also because Rabbi Yitzchak has never encountered it and is surprised, perhaps even shocked, to hear it used that way. Perceiving his reaction, Rabbi Nachman seeks to extricate himself by explaining that it is a reference to the verse in Amos — an explanation that is hardly tenable on either grammatical or contextual grounds. It is clearly a hasty improvisation on his part.

The conclusion would seem to be that Rabbi Nachman was privy to an esoteric tradition about the Messiah’s descent from the Nephilim that, upon becoming aware of Rabbi Yitchak’s ignorance of it, he did not wish to share with him. But what could this tradition have been? The Nephilim are not positive figures in rabbinic lore; on the contrary, they are described there as outcasts from God’s presence who sowed corruption on earth. Is the Messiah, like Aaron Corbett, one of their latter-day descendants who, gifted with their more-than-human powers, becomes a force for good? Could there have been a connection between such a belief and the Christian doctrine of the Messiah’s divine paternity? We are left knowing no more than Rabbi Yitzchak. We don’t even know whether or not he was taken in by Rabbi Nachman’s sukkah.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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