The Jewish calendar features three seasonal holidays, which are grand celebrations stretching over a week or eight days. The autumn gives us Sukkot. The winter presents Hanukka. And the spring delivers Pesakh. Tied to the agricultural year, these are the splendid old festivals of our Hebrew roots.
Sukkot was the major celebration during the year of the royal House of David. Rosh Hashana was its climactic last day and Yom Kippur was preceding day of preparation. Lying between the summer harvest and the rainy season, Sukkot featured both satisfaction with the past and anxiety over the future. The parade with the palm branches and citrons-with its passionate cry of Hoshana (“save us”)-provided the pageantry and the magic. Hopefully, Yahveh (or whatever god was in fashion) would respond to this appeal with the gift of rain.
In the priestly period–when the Torah was completed-Sukkot was transformed. Yielding to Pesakh as the chief holiday, Sukkot also developed an Exodus theme. Although it was essentially an agricultural festival, Sukkot was now tied to the legendary forty years of Jewish wandering in the desert. The decorative harvest booths (sukkot)-that gave the holiday its name and that were initially used by harvesters for rest during the midday sun-were now bizarrely described as the housing of the Hebrew nomads wending their way from Egypt to Canaan.
This distortion fit into the demands of priestly theology. The Exodus story in the Torah was the ultimate tribute to Yahvistic power and divine providence. All holidays were ripped from their original contexts by the priestly editors and given an Exodus setting. If they did not commemorate any events, at least their place or origin became Mount Sinai.
From “Judaism Beyond God” by Rabbi Sherwin Wine 1995