How did the Jews celebrate Sukkot 2,000 years ago? Archeology offers an answer


About 2,000 years ago, as the feast of Sukkot approached, tens of thousands of Jews left their homes across the Land of Israel and beyond and began a journey to Jerusalem. There they would meet a monumental and flourishing city and participate in what was arguably one of the most intense religious experiences in the entire Roman Empire.

Ancient remains might not represent the best tools for identifying what was happening in a very specific and short period of time – like the seven days of a festival whose characteristic commandment is to build a temporary stand that would leave nothing permanent. .

However, considering what the excavations of Jerusalem have revealed in conjunction with historical sources, offers us a grandiose picture of this period of heyday just before the city and its temple were destroyed by the Romans.

“When we talk about pilgrimage in Hebrew, we use the expression aliyah al a-regel, which does not simply suggest the notion of pilgrimage, but literally indicates going up with the feet,” said Dr. Guy Stiebel, senior lecturer. at Tel Aviv University.

“People took a break from ordinary life, left their homes and headed for Jerusalem, which they reached through the area at the southern tip of what we now call the City of David,” he added.

Archaeological excavations have revealed the gate that the pilgrims passed through.

“They purified themselves in the pool of Siloam, then went directly up to the Temple Mount, through a stepped street that would have been built in the time of King Herod,” noted Stiebel. “Now we know that the project was carried out under the governor of Judea Pontius Pilate. Despite his bad reputation in the eyes of Christianity, he built some of Jerusalem’s most impressive monuments.

Professor Yuval Gadot of Tel Aviv University in the remains of the building destroyed by the Babilonians in 586 BCE during the excavation of the Givati ​​parking lot in the City of David, Jerusalem. (credit: ROSSELLA TERCATIN)

The command for Jews to go up to Jerusalem during Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot is included in the Torah.

Stories of Jews making the pilgrimage are already included in later books of the Hebrew Bible, said Dr. Yonatan Adler, a lecturer at Ariel University and an expert in ancient ritual baths – or mikvaot – where Jews were to sit. ‘to submerge to purify oneself. themselves, in their daily lives as well as before visiting the temple.

“Based on these texts, we can probably assume that some form of pilgrimage had already taken place during the First Temple period,” he said, referring to the period between 1200 BCE and 586 BCE. BCE when the sanctuary in Jerusalem stood, before being destroyed by the Babylonians.

In the first century AD, the Jewish Roman historian Titus Flavius ​​Josephus says that millions of people participated in the pilgrimage, bringing tens of thousands of sacrifices to the holy temple. The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria also speaks of the occasion in his work.

The route was designed in such a way that people experience what Stiebel described as a “wow effect”, similar to that experienced by someone visiting a majestic cathedral.

“In Herod’s time, the Temple Mount was known as one of the largest religious complexes in the Roman world,” he said.

The Siloam Pool was just one of the many public ritual baths that were discovered on the way to or near the Temple Mount.

“According to my tally, we have found around 1,000 mikvaot in the country, and a large number – around 200 of them – are in or around Jerusalem,” Adler said. “We must remember that the Jews had to purify themselves not only for a pilgrimage but also in their daily life. However, we have discovered public ritual baths that stand on the road to Jerusalem that are not connected to any settlements or agricultural settlements and it is reasonable to assume that they were used by pilgrims on the way to the city.

According to Adler, it’s unclear what the experience of immersing in a ritual bath looked like back then – some of which are large enough to assume that several people would enter at once.

“We don’t know how the gender separation – if any – would work, or whether people would go into the water naked or dressed in clothes,” he said. “On the other hand, we also don’t know if there was a particular sensitivity regarding nudity.”

Jews from all walks of life took part in the pilgrimage.

“Anyone, regardless of their social status, could join in, soak in the pool, walk to the temple as the experience piled up with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people gathered there. ‘inside town on this road,’ added Stiebel.

Although no trace remains of the ancient huts these Jews probably built to celebrate the feast, archeology provides other important evidence of the centrality of the Sukkot feast.

“All four species were on coins minted by rebels against the Romans during the first Jewish uprising,” Adler said.

A palm tree bound with leafy branches – likely willows and myrtle – and a citrus or two appear on artifacts that were also a symbol of freedom and independence from the Romans.

“It’s reasonable to think that the rebels saw the four species as a symbol that everyone would recognize,” Adler said.

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