The Learned is Likened to Vines: Sukkot Temporality and Eternity

Sukkot is mentioned in Leviticus and in Deuteronomy:

Thou shalt keep the feast of tabernacles seven days, after that thou hast gathered in from thy threshing-floor and from thy winepress.  And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast…  Seven days shalt thou keep a feast unto the LORD thy God…  because the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the work of thy hands, and thou shalt be altogether joyful (Deuteronomy 16, 13-15)

Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths (Leviticus 23, 42)

Av is dead, so too Elul

“Av is dead, so too Elul” is a wine poem by Rabbi Shmuel HaNagid (Rabbi Shmuel Bar Yosef HaLevi  HaNagid, 993-1056). The poem combines imagery of death, the changing of seasons and the sadness of Fall, with the joy of life and a wine banquet:

Av is dead, so too Elul, no longer will they warm —
So too was Tishrei gathered unto them.
And so the must, its voice gone dumb,
Turns red now in the barrel — the days of cold have come.
And seek you now, O friend of mine, companions fast and firm —
And every man shall bring about his aim!
Behold the rain-filled clouds now, they exclaim:
Hear the heavens thunder in their storm,
Behold the frost, the tongues of flame —
How one will fall, the other rise and climb.
Stand up and drain a cup, drain a pitcher with aplomb,
By night, perforce — by day do just the same!
   ~Translated by Soul and Gone

Harvest time in the Land of Israel begins with gathering of grain, but towards the holiday of Sukkot harvest is mainly the harvest of fruits, grapes and wine: “thou hast gathered in from thy threshing-floor and from thy winepress.” The poem describes the new wine that has recently acquired its red hue, finished its fermentation process and is ready to be drunk: “And so the must, its voice gone dumb, Turns red now in the barrel.”

The joyful feast of wine, and the gathering of friends are juxtaposed with the sadness of Fall and the death of Summer. We could interpret “And every man shall bring about his aim” (Hebrew transliteration kol ish va-ísh ya’ás ashér zamám) as a feast of drunks. However, along with an image of joy that spills over into the realm of drunkenness, there is another possible interpretation.

The Hebrew verb “zamam” means “plotting” or “doing what one wills.” It can also mean “planning wisely.” In Proverbs Eshet Chail, the Woman of Valor, is described as “She considereth a field, and buyeth it; with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard” (Proverbs 31, 16). The Woman of Valor is a diligent laborer;  she plans wisely, and buys and plants a vineyard with the fruit of her hands. The Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 1809-1879) interprets:

She plants seeds… on the soil of the soul… the seed of study is like a vineyard, because study grows as the soul grows, that is why the learned is likened to vines, planting vines that are everlasting in his soul… and in the world of reward he will take wine from them

Vanity of vanities all is vanity

We build a Sukkah (a temporary hut), in memory of the temporary huts the Children of Israel built in the desert. Rich and poor sit in a temporary construction exposed to the elements. The Haftarah of Sukkot, from Ecclesiastes, reminds us that life in this world is temporary, ephemeral:

Vanity of vanities, saith Koheleth; vanity of vanities, all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1, 2).

The opening verses of Ecclesiastes place all earthly matters (social status, pedigree, nationality and possessions) as opposed to their emptiness (vanity of vanities). It does not mean that all material things are meaningless, but rather it is an acknowledgement of the ephemeral nature of worldly goods.

The holiday of Sukkot manifests the joy of harvest, being grateful for the passing year and its achievements, and the enjoyment of wine drinking. Along with material joy, the temporality of the Sukkah reminds us how ephemeral life is, “vanity of vanities,” and the way we all take part in the great circle of birth, life, death and rebirth.

In his painting “Still Life with Self-Portrait” (1628), Pieter Claesz presents symbolic objects that aim at reminding the viewer of the ephemeral nature of human life: a violin whose strings are torn, a symbol of the ephemeral nature of pleasure, a skull, a symbol of the certainty of death, a watch, a symbol of the passing of time. To these symbols Claesz adds a glass bubble in which his image is reflected. The bubble symbolically corresponds with temporal soap bubbles, that are fragile as life itself, yet simultaneously transcends the cruelty of time by the eternity of art. It is as if the painting invites the viewer to consider the Malbim’s insight: “planting vines that are everlasting in his soul.”

Feature Photo: Still Life with Skull by Paul Cezanne (1898)

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