Little do most Jews know that this innocuous celebration of supermarket produce is, in the classical liturgy and literature, actually a rather edgy encounter with the apocalyptic strain in Judaism.
You didn't know there was one? When modern American Jews try to explain what makes them uneasy about Evangelical support for Israel, they often cite the Christian belief in the Apocalypse, when an evil superpower is expected to launch a world war, whose survivors then undergo religious conversions. But in broad outline, this happens to be just what Jews have traditionally believed about the End of Days.
The rabbis of the Talmud understood Sukkot as playing an educational role not unlike the one the Left Behind series of novels does for Christians today, depicting in graphic terms the sequence of events that must eventually unfold at the end of history, including details affirmed by both traditional Jews and conservative Christians.
As the Talmud explains in its clarification of the words of the biblical prophets, the apocalyptic sequence will begin with the appearance of the Messiah--or rather, two messiahs. One, a descendant of the biblical patriarch Joseph, will be killed in battle with the forces that oppose God. The second and far more important messiah, descending from King David, is then revealed. About this time, the nations of the world will begin to worship the God of Israel, seeking to join the community of Israel as Jews. (See Talmudic tractates Sukkah 52a and Avodah Zarah 24a). There follows the resurrection of the dead and a judgment of all mankind, when the righteous and the wicked will be assigned to their eternal fates.
A key element in this apocalyptic scenario is the rebuilding of the temple, the hope for which is a recurrent theme throughout Sukkot.
Twice daily during the festival week, Psalm 27 is recited, similarly referring to the Temple and the hope of its being raised again: "One thing I asked of the Lord, that shall I seek: That I dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life.. Indeed, He will hide me in His Sukkah on the day of evil."
The apocalyptic "day of evil" also forms the theme of the synagogue readings from the prophets, prescribed for the first day of the festival and for the Sabbath that falls in its middle. In the former we read Zechariah's terrifying description of the War of Gog and Magog (14:1-21): "Behold, God's awaited day is coming; and your spoils will be divided in your midst. I shall gather all the nations to Jerusalem to wage war" - where, however, they will defeated in what sounds (did you say "Left Behind"?) like nuclear annihilation: "their flesh will rot while they still stand erect, their eyes will rot in their sockets and their tongue will rot in their mouths."
But not to worry! As the prophet affirms, "All who will be left from among the nations that come upon Jerusalem . will ascend [there] every year to prostrate themselves before the King, the Lord, Master of Legions, and to celebrate the festival of Sukkot."
The Sabbath reading follows in a similar vein, drawn from the book of Ezekiel (38:18-39:16). Here the cryptically identified tyrant, Gog of Magog, advances to make war on Jerusalem but is turned back by God's forces. Then "the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the holy One of Israel."
The festival concludes with another esoteric liturgical reference to the Apocalypse. At the end of the week of Sukkot we take leave of the sukkah, having eaten in it for the last time this year, and ask God for a blessing: "as I have fulfilled [the commandment] and dwelled in this sukkah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the Sukkah of the skin of Leviathan."
The allusion is to an image given in the Talmud's tractate Baba Batra (74b), offering in mystic allegory a description of the reward of the righteous at the climax of history. When the end-time cataclysm has been concluded, those whom God wishes to reward will dwell in a sukkah constructed from the skin of a monstrous sea creature, the Leviathan. Additionally, they will feast on the creature's flesh.
In contemporary Judaism, Sukkot tends to be disentangled from this disturbing apocalyptic element. But recognizing Sukkot's end-of-the-world theme is essential to understanding its place among the High Holidays--this theme actually ties it to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holidays that immediately precede it on the Jewish calendar. The three festivals form a unit, a dramatically coherent structure, as Jewish law makes clear when it emphasizes the importance of getting to work on building your sukkah just as soon as Yom Kippur is over. The yearly sequence--Rosh Hashanah, then Yom Kippur, then Sukkot--sets out, in miniature, a narrative of the history of mankind.
It is a drama in three acts. First comes the Jewish New Year, commemorating the beginning of God's creation, the conception of the world. Sandwiched in the middle there is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which stresses the struggle of every person to overcome the thoughtlessness, selfishness, indeed the evil in himself. This represents the phase of history in which we live now. While man travels down the corridor of time--proceeding from the beginning to the end, whether of his life or of the life of humankind as a whole--the main object of his struggles must be to strengthen the good, which means overcoming evil.
At the conclusion comes Sukkot, with its references to the end point of the human experience. Without Sukkot, we would have only the one-two sequence of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, suggesting that a struggle must go on forever, with no hope of an ultimate victory--a depressing prospect. But there is indeed hope. Each Sukkot is a preview of what it will be like to experience the culmination and conclusion of the historical process, lending the festival the atmosphere of joy for which it is known.