A fragile sukkah

‘Out of many, one’ is the aspirational metaphor of Sukkot — and the cost of embracing divisiveness is its cautionary tale

In Short

Echoing across millennia, a historical Sukkot tragedy offers lessons about the critical role of unity and civility during times of communal division and disagreement.

The holiday of Sukkot is supposed to be the merriest day in the Jewish calendar. It is also the holiday of togetherness and peoplehood. Of all the holidays of pilgrimage, Sukkot is so beloved that it is referred to in our sources as “hechag,” the holiday, and “zeman simchateinu, the time of our joy. 

In the time of the Second Temple, the Jews were, as usual, divided. The Sadducees, comprised of the priestly class and the wealthy, stood opposed to the Pharisees, who included the rabbis, the sages, the Essenes and other sects, and most of the people. The tension between these groups was high; but on Sukkot, divisions would be forgotten and the liturgy carefully designed to contemplate the sensitivities of each faction. For example, the core of the Water Ceremony (Simchat Beit Hashoe’va) was a popular procession in which sages and commoners led the people, with the priests uncharacteristically following behind. During the Temple ritual, the High Priest — almost by definition a Sadducee — conducted the rituals with deference to the customs of the Pharisees, especially in one critical ceremony: the pouring of water over the altar as a way of imploring God for abundant rains. 

On one particular Sukkot, however, all that would change. 

The year was around 100 BCE and Judea was ruled by Alexander Yannai. The charismatic grandson of the last of the Maccabees, who had established an independent Jewish kingdom after the heroic war we remember every Chanukah, Yannai took power amid messianic expectations. As both a Sadducee but also a disciple of the great Pharisee Nitai of Arbel, he was seen as a unifier; and having secured more territory for Judea, he was also credited with making the country safer and stronger. 

Behind the veneer of openness and unity, however, Yannai was power hungry and had little regard for Jewish norms of government. He refused to give up the title of High Priest, ending the separation of power between the secular and the religious by acting as both priest and ruler. He illegitimately proclaimed himself king, a title to which only descendants of King David could aspire. 

The Talmud relates how neutered the Sanhedrin, the high court, by filling its benches with loyalists and declaring himself immune from prosecution. He deliberately set out to favor an extremist minority of Sadducees and give them inordinate power at the expense of the Pharisee majority. 

Finally, his military strategy became erratic. He annexed Idumea and Iturea against the advice of the sages, who were concerned that choosing to rule over another people could ultimately end with them ruling over the Jews instead.

Growing discontent with Yannai’s policies finally came to a head during Sukkot. There were hopes that Yannai would use the holiday of unity to make a gesture towards the Pharisees and the people and thus heal the divide; but instead, he did the opposite. 

Tens of thousands of pilgrims had participated in the Water Ceremony and were now massed on the Temple esplanade, carrying their “Four Species” and waiting for Yannai, as High Priest, to pour the ritual water over the altar. 

The Sadducees didn’t believe in that ritual, but they were a minority. The masses were tense, and the air was pregnant with hope and anticipation. The pouring of the water would beseech a loving God to bless His people with a good year: one with rains and crops, peace and health. 

Yannai took up the golden jar, looked at the crowd, and then defiantly poured the water on his own feet as the Sadducees clapped and laughed. 

A gasp of horror rose from the esplanade. Then the shock gave way to anger. 

Somebody threw an etrog at Yannai. That opened the floodgates: The king was pelted by thousands of etrogim as people called him a usurper and a tyrant.

In response, Yannai quietly ordered his personal guard to enter the esplanade and mow down the protesters, who had only lulavim to protect themselves. 

This personal guard wasn’t a Jewish army. For some time now, the Judean army, which was a popular army since the time of the Maccabees, had refused to follow the tyrant blindly; so Yannai replaced them with a professional mercenary force composed primarily of Cilicians and Psydians. He no longer had to deal with opinionated and scrupulous Jewish soldiers, but rather with efficient and obedient killing machines. 

Six thousand Jews died at the Temple that day. A seven-year civil war ensued, in which the sages and the people fought against the Sadducees and Yannai’s mercenaries. More than 50,000 Jews died, and much of the country lay in ruins. Yannai ultimately put down the revolt through sheer brutality: a mass execution of Pharisees and their families. Yannai feasted with his concubines while people were beheaded, quartered and, in an innovation from the West that was all the rage, crucified. 

(Historians used to believe that Talmudic sources and the historian Josephus Flavius, who recorded those events in the decades that followed, grossly exaggerated Yannai’s cruelty. Then in 2018, while digging the foundation of the new Bezalel Academy building in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound, workers found the mass graves from that massacre. The site included women, children and even fetal remains, indicating that pregnant women were executed too. Artifacts and coins infamously engraved with the text Yehonatan Hamelech, Yannai’s full Hebrew name and title, confirmed the time period. Apparently neither Josephus nor the Talmud had exaggerated.) 

Although Yannai ruled for almost 20 years after the revolt, the seed of destruction was planted. A few years after his death, a new civil war broke out, and the Roman general Pompey used the opportunity to occupy Judea. When the Romans needed a puppet king, Herod, an Idumean, was happy to oblige, just as the sages had feared. That was the end of Jewish sovereignty for 20 centuries.  

Contemporary comparisons are tempting, but the Israel of today is not the Hasmonean kingdom, Yannai is not Benjamin Netanyahu and the Pharisees are not the Protest Movement. Today’s Israel is stronger and more resilient than Yannai’s ever was, but the issues it faces are the same: corruption and separation of powers; navigating Jewish diversity; religious monopoly by a minority; rule of law; and relationships with the non-Jewish inhabitants of the land as well as with the foreign superpowers of the time. 

The Israel of two millennia ago failed – almost deliberately – in all of these dimensions. Those structural issues are still with us in the present Jewish State, and we are not always stellar at addressing them. We seem to have a pathological fascination with shaking the tightrope, and then we scratch our heads in disbelief when the acrobat splats onto the ground. 

As funders and leaders, each of us can contribute to making this Sukkot a feast of unity and togetherness instead of one of division and internecine hatred. Maybe we can show ourselves and the world that we learned something from that Sukkot 2,000 years ago. Maybe we can realize that our shared home is fragile, like a sukkah, and needs all the care and love that we can give it. 

This is not a naïve call to ignore our differences, nor, God forbid, to cease fighting for what’s right. It is a call to realize that there’s a mutuality of fate that transcends our divisions, to rediscover the beauty of living within a diverse people, that like a diamond, is more valuable the more facets it has. It’s a call to realize that keeping a diverse people whole hangs on a delicate equilibrium that needs to be handled with responsibility and care.

As I’ve said many times, Judaism teaches us that those in government bear the brunt of the responsibility when it comes to setting the tone and refraining from creating division and mistrust. There’s no “both sides”-ing Yannai and the Pharisees. And yet, as Rabbi Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” It is very convenient for us, as individuals and funders, to say that it’s only up to those in power. In truth, we all have power to do good and contribute to a healthier and more respectful Jewish collective.  

Yes, we are fragile like the sukkah, but plural unity is our antidote to fragility. It is significant that it is during this holiday that we read the wise imprecation of Ecclesiastes, which resonates today as it did 2,000 years ago: “A cord made of many threads won’t easily break.” 

Chag Sameach. 

Andres Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.