Why Sukkot Is a Harvest Holiday, Even Though There's Little To Harvest

Holiday Is Not the Best Time to Reap Grain

Blowing in the Wind: Barley is harvested in the spring, long before the eight days of Sukkot.
Getty Images
Blowing in the Wind: Barley is harvested in the spring, long before the eight days of Sukkot.

By Philologos

Published September 14, 2013, issue of September 20, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In the Bible, the prayer book and Jewish tradition, the holiday of Sukkot — the “Feast of Booths” or “Feast of Tabernacles,” as it is generally referred to in rather archaic English — also has an accompanying epithet: ḥag ha-asif, the Feast or Holiday of “Gathering” or (as the King James and many other English Bibles have it) “Ingathering.” In the book of Exodus, for example, we read: “You shall keep the feast of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor.”

Ḥag ha-asif is one of those phrases that observant Jews are so familiar with that they just assume they know what it means. If asked, many would probably answer: “It means the holiday of the harvest.” But what harvest is that? The eight days of Sukkot begin on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, a date that usually falls in late September or early October. (This year it’s earlier.) If we think of the major crops grown in Palestine in biblical times, barley was harvested in early spring; wheat in early summer; fruit like grapes, figs, almonds and pomegranates in mid-to-late summer, and olives, so important for their oil, in October and November. What, then, was harvested at the time of Sukkot?

Actually, very little. Hebrew is richer than English in words for the harvesting of different crops. To reap grain is li’ktsor, and the grain harvest is the katsir. To pick grapes is li’vtsor, and the grape harvest is the batsir. To pick olives is li’msok, and the olive harvest is the masik. To pick other fruit is li’ktof, and its harvest is the katif. Yet though it has the same arrangement of consonants and vowels as katsir, batsir, masik and katif, the asif (from the verb le’esof, to gather) does not refer to the reaping or picking of anything.

The book of Deuteronomy makes this clear when God says in it: “And if you will obey my commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God…. He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in [ve’asafta] your grain and your first wine [tiroshkha] and your first oil [yitzharekha].” The words tirosh and yitzhar — the general words for “wine” and “oil,” respectively, are yayin and shemen — signify the first fermented juice of the grape and the first pressed oil of the olive after they have been picked.

The asif, then, was not the harvest itself but the processing of certain parts of it. This was especially true of the grain harvest. Cutting or reaping wheat or barley was but the first stage in a series of operations needed to turn them into the bread that was a staple of the biblical diet. First they had to be threshed, so as to separate their ears from their stalks. This was generally done with a threshing sled, a board imbedded with sharp stones or pieces of metal that was driven repeatedly over the reaped grain by a circling ox or donkey until all the stalks were detached and could be removed.

Next, the grain had to be winnowed, so as to separate the ears’ chaff — the thin, tissuelike integument in which the kernels of grain are contained — from the kernels themselves. This depended on there being a breeze or wind, so that, using wooden fans, the winnowers could toss the grain high in the air for the lighter chaff to be carried off and the heavier kernels to fall to the ground. Finally, the fallen kernels had to be sifted in order to remove dirt, pebbles and other impurities, and then bagged or sacked for storage until they could be brought to a miller and converted to flour.

All this was slow, difficult work that could take a peasant family an entire summer to complete. It was usually performed together with other families on a communal threshing floor, located on a village’s high ground so as best to catch the breeze. (Threshing floors of this sort can still be seen in many villages in the

Middle East, though agricultural mechanization is gradually eliminating them.) The threshers, winnowers and sifters would often camp out on the threshing floor and spend whole days and nights there, and while this made the process an enjoyably social one, there was never much time to waste, because everything had to be finished before the first autumn rains came after the long summer dry season. Otherwise, the wet grain would start to rot.

Sukkot arrives each year just as the Palestinian rainy season is about to begin. This is why it has a special prayer for rain, crucial for the next year’s crops, and why observant Jews, having asked every day for field-moistening dew since the previous Passover, now ask for rain until Passover comes again. Finishing the asif in time was a cause for rejoicing, especially if the grain harvest had been a good one. Long before the Pilgrims sailed for America, the Feast of Gathering was our Thanksgiving.

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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.