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Why Sukkot is called the ‘holiday of the harvest’ — even though there isn’t any harvest

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 [email protected]

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