Alongside the more colorful and distinctive rituals of the Sukkot festival—the taking-up of lulav and etrog, the sukkah itself—there is another command, less concrete and more penetrating: "And you will rejoice." Indeed, the passage in Deuteronomy (16: 14-15) concludes, v'hayita akh sameah, translatable as "you will be altogether joyful," or even "you will be only joyful."
While the mitzvah to rejoice is stated with special force on Sukkot, it also appears specifically regarding Shavuot, and is implicit on Passover, too. But what does it mean? Can even God summon up joy on demand?
The Scriptural details are few, scattered among a range of sacrifices, festive meals, and pilgrimage practices centering on the sanctuary, later to become the Temple in Jerusalem. An antique rabbinic source dating to the late Second Temple period—i.e., Roman times—notes that, along with the laws of the Sabbath and of Temple property, festival laws are "mountains suspended by a hair," rich bodies of doctrine hanging on a sliver of Scripture. Temple times saw sacrifices eaten in group feasts, the exhilaration of pilgrimage, and, on Sukkot, the musical devotions of Hallel and the celebratory abandon of the water-drawing festival: libations of water poured on the altar.
And what happened after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.? In a learned volume published in 2007, David Henshke of Bar-Ilan University demonstrated how the rabbis recast biblically-mandated rituals into a ramified web of practices that would imbue the annual passage through the festivals—a pilgrimage in time—with the heft and transport of the lost terrestrial pilgrimage to Jerusalem. As for the mitzvah to rejoice, most rabbinic sources formulated it in terms of drinking wine and dressing in finery.
Yet the verses in Deuteronomy also stipulate that one must rejoice "with the stranger, the orphan, and the widow within your gates." And so a major classical source, the 2nd-century Midrash Sifrei to Deuteronomy, redefined the mitzvah to mean charity, even during Temple times themselves. An anonymous medieval commentator explained that "the reward of charity is to see the divine presence, as it is written: va'ani b'tzedek ehezeh panekha, and I will see Your face with righteousness" (Psalms 17: 15). Maimonides in the 12th century hammered the point home: "And when eating and drinking one must feed the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, with all the other unfortunates. Whoever bolts the doors of his courtyard, eats with his wife and children without giving food and drink to the poor and to the downhearted—this is no festive mitzvah but the festival of his stomach."
In the mitzvah of joy, the law encounters its own limits—its inability fully to describe the outward expression of emotion. And so, within the legal prescriptions, a space opens up for the individual. Aryeh Leib Gintsburg, a great 18th-century halakhist, wrote that "this mitzvah is not well-defined but is an expansive joy. One is commanded to rejoice on festivals with every manner of joy one can. It is not like the other mitzvot, which set an equal standard for rich and poor alike. Rather, in this joy each and every one is commanded to rejoice to his utmost and according to his means, men and women, each as befits them."
In the 20th century, the late Joseph B. Soloveitchik arrestingly investigated the mitzvah of festive joy in relation to its opposite: mourning. The Talmud rules that mourning is abrogated during festivals, on the basis of the well-established principle that "the affirmative obligation of all [to rejoice] displaces the affirmative obligation of the individual [to mourn]." But cannot one continue to mourn in private, even while participating in the feasting mandated by the law? That, Soloveitchik writes, would be exactly backward: the festive observances are meant to arouse and express an inner joy, while mourning seeks to arouse and express an inner grief.
Lest this seem harsh, Soloveitchik, harking back to the medieval commentator on Midrash Sifrei, goes on to explain:
The larger point is that the annulment of mourning on account of the joy of the day is not an independent factor at all, but rather entailed by the fact that, at the festival, all of Israel stands before God, as is said in Scripture, and the significance of this is identical to the joy of man standing before his Creator. The joy is merely the emotional expression of human consciousness that finds itself facing God, and it is this divine presence that undoes mourning. Mourning and standing in God's presence are a contradiction. There is no joy other than in God's presence. . . . Wherever there is joy one stands in the presence of God, and being in the presence of God is that which defers mourning.