The Jerusalem Post

Sukkot: The Jewish holiday where God commands you to be happy - opinion

 A MAN walks past a row of ‘sukkot,’ temporary dwellings, already built ahead of the holiday, on a street in the Mea She’arim neighborhood, in Jerusalem, last week. (photo credit: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
A MAN walks past a row of ‘sukkot,’ temporary dwellings, already built ahead of the holiday, on a street in the Mea She’arim neighborhood, in Jerusalem, last week.
(photo credit: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Commemorating the holiday in which we are commanded to be happy is something we cherish.

What exactly Thomas Jefferson’s intent was when he included in the Declaration of Independence the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right to be enjoyed by all men, (and, presumably, women as well), has been pondered by historians, philosophers, and barbers for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. Not surprisingly, opinions on what constitutes happiness vary widely, and are not infrequently difficult to understand.

For some, happiness is associated with health while others view finding the right partner for life to be the epitome of happiness. Max, the guy who cut my hair way back when, had his own unique idea of what happiness was; for him, it meant hitting a long shot at the track and coming home with a windfall in his pocket. To each his own, I guess.

Interesting, though, that America’s third president did not describe the other two mentioned unalienable rights – life and liberty – in the same style as he did happiness. Life and liberty were defined as absolutes – you had them or you didn’t. Insofar as happiness is not a “one size fits all” commodity, Jefferson, rightly expressed the idea that the citizens of the newly formed country would be guaranteed the opportunity to seek what to them was happiness; whether they achieved it or not was, of course, a different matter – one that no document or edict can promise.

Happiness from the Jewish perspective is not quite as open-ended. The Torah, for example, does indeed expect us to be happy at specified times and during the performance of specific activities, but a prevailing argument among the commentators suggests that happiness is, for the most part, confined to spiritual matters; physical achievements or material gains, this premise goes, cannot be associated with what the Torah means by happiness.


Moreover, whereas the evening kiddush that is recited for most of the holidays throughout the year includes a reference to the specific holiday being observed – Rosh Hashanah is the commemoration of the sounding of the shofar, Passover is the commemoration of our freedom from Egyptian bondage, Shavuot is the commemoration of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai – Sukkot, somewhat ambiguously, is the commemoration of our happiness.

EXALTING IN Sukkot at the Western Wall (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
EXALTING IN Sukkot at the Western Wall (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

What’s even more bewildering is that along with the principal commandments associated with Sukkot – dwelling in a sukkah, gathering of the four species – we are also commanded, as odd as it sounds, to be happy. Jefferson’s document guarantees the right of Americans to pursue a state of personal happiness. The Torah, at least during Sukkot, positively demands it.

Why does God command us to be happy on Sukkot?

I’LL LEAVE it for others to clarify why God chose Sukkot as the holiday during which being happy is an absolute requirement. The reasons – and there are some very compelling and persuasive ones – range from the pragmatic to the mystical, and deserve to be explained by someone more erudite and familiar with the source documentation. These explanations, however, are for the most part incomplete. They focus on the association between Sukkot and happiness, but omit the most critical aspect of what is demanded of us – how does one fulfill the commandment to be happy?

Passions, unlike utilities, cannot be turned on and off with switches and valves. Anger, jealousy, sadness and, of course, happiness cannot be genuinely felt or expressed at will. They are the result of a combination of conditions and events that trigger the reactions which are referred to as human emotions. 

Being happy, in other words, is unlike being satisfied after a large meal or feeling cleansed after a shower. We know that God’s commandments are not always straightforward but there are usually ways to ensure that what is asked of us gets done. Determining how to fulfill the mitzvah to be happy has, I suspect, crossed the eyes of a rabbi or two.


It can be argued, I suppose, that the Torah might be speaking metaphorically and not literally. Which, when you think about it, makes sense. After all, we are leaving the comfort, warmth, and security of our homes to dwell for a week in a flimsy, uninsulated, and open-roofed structure. It would not be beyond the limit of human nature to feel edgy and impatient throughout the seven days of the holiday.

God understands this, though, and forces us, through the commandment to be happy, to overlook the invariable discomfort that results from being vulnerable to environmental hostility. By being confident that we are at all times under God’s protection and that all will be well, we can indeed achieve a level of happiness.

Or, perhaps, the commandment is to be taken figuratively – you know, cry on the inside but laugh on the outside. This, too, is not at all unreasonable. It makes perfectly good sense to forbid demons, despondency, and depression from entering the sukkah or to prevent them from contaminating the joy associated with being surrounded by nature’s bounty for seven wonderful days.

THE PRESSURES and burdens we face on a day-to-day basis will not disappear during the holiday, but perhaps they can be camouflaged or pushed temporarily into the periphery. The Talmud speaks in a number of places about the power that a smile has and the good feeling that it conveys. It just might be that appearing to be happy is an acceptable way to fulfill the commandment.

And maybe, just maybe, God, by commanding us to be happy on Sukkot, was cleverly deceiving us. It was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who suggested that the happiness we experience during Sukkot lasts long beyond the nightfall of the final day of the holiday. It remains a vivid memory and enhances us personally throughout the rest of the year. God knew that commanding us to be happy on an ongoing basis was unfairly difficult; it was not something that the human being He created was capable of.

But He also knew that the residual feeling of happiness lingers on long after the motivation for that feeling. Demanding us to be happy during the holiday of Sukkot, one way or another, provides a way to keep that feeling with us as we enter the “after the holidays” period of the year and ready ourselves for the shortened days and cold winter that await.

Truth be told, being happy on Sukkot is not a very difficult mitzvah to fulfill. We have, after all, just completed 10 arduous days of personal introspection and repentance, and have been inscribed, presumably, into the credit side of God’s private ledger. Indeed, what could be a better source of happiness and joy than the sense of relief that eating and drinking heartily while sitting in a festively decorated sukkah in the company of friends and family brings?

Commemorating the holiday in which the shofar is blown, or the one in which we recount our freedom from Egyptian bondage, or the anniversary of when we received the immeasurable gift of the Torah are days that we look forward to and for which we arduously prepare. But commemorating the holiday in which we are commanded to be happy is something we cherish.

Happy Sukkot to all of Am Yisrael!

The writer is a retired technical communicator currently assisting nonprofit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions.