Sukkot: The 70 bulls that are sacrificed on Sukkot

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September 20 2010

Rashi in Parashat Pinchas (Numbers, 29:18) notes the fact that a decreasing number of bulls that are sacrificed in the Temple each day as the holiday of Sukkot goes on. He writes that the 70 bulls (the sum total of bulls sacrificed throughout the seven days) correspond to the 70 nations of the world, and just as the number of bulls diminishes with every passing day, these nations themselves will eventually become extinguished.

In his work ‘Olelot Ephraim (Ma’amar Gimel), R. Solomon Ephraim Luntshitz gives a different, striking interpretation. His point of departure is a passage in Massekhet Shabbat (152a), which reads as follows:
R. Ishmael son of R. Jose said: As for scholars, the older they grow the more wisdom they acquire, for it is said, With aged men is wisdom, and in length of days understanding (Job 12:12). But the ignorant, as they wax older, become more foolish, for it is said, He removes the speech of the trusty, and takes away the understanding of the elders (Ibid., 12:20).

The Keli Yaqar contrasts the wise and the ignorant as follows: the wise develop their form, that is, the intellect (cf. Rambam in Guide to the Perplexed, Part I, Chapter 1), which gains strength as they age. The ignorant, however, develop their matter, that is, the body, which is ultimately worthless and which diminishes with age. He further makes an interesting contrast between Bet Hillel’s shitah regarding the manner in which we light Hanukkah candles: according to this view, we add a candle every night. On the other hand, with respect to the seventy bulls that are sacrificed on Sukkot, we diminish the number of bulls every day. Why the contrast?

(Of course, it must be noted that according Bet Shammai, the pattern of Hanukkah, in which we decrease the number of candles lit, fits exactly the biblical pattern of Sukkot. (keneged parei ha-hag). Indeed, for over a hundred years, scholars have pointed out that Bet Shammai’s reason also matches the description of Hanukkah in the apocryphal Book of Maccabees, where the rededication of the Temple was presented as a substitution for Hag Ha-Sukkot. In any, event, as the Halakhah follows Bet Hillel, the question of the resultant distinction between Hanukkah and Sukkot must be addressed.)

Keli Yaqar suggests that the bulls represent the physical component of man. The number seventy represents the average length of a man’s years (see Psalm 90). From the time a person is born, the time his physical being has on  this earth gradually decreases, until he dies and is no more. This is the point of the decreasing sacrifices offered on Sukkot.

On the other hand, the candles of Hanukkah represent the intellectual/ spiritual component of man “The spirit of man is the candle of the L-rd” (Proverbs 20:27). The older one becomes, if he spends his life in the world of  Torah/Hokmah, his intellect gets stronger and stronger. And from a spiritual point of view, as man approaches death, his soul draws ever closer to its Divine source, and gains in intensity. This is the point of the increasing lights of Hanukkah.

And this is the point, concludes Keli Yaqar of the Gemara in Massekhet Shabbat contrasting the elderly talmid hakham and the elderly am ha-aretz. The difference between the two is itself the difference between finite, perishable, ever-decreasing matter and spiritual, ever increasing light.


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