“The dead are alive.” This line opened the 2015 James Bond film Spectre. I was excited to find out how director Sam Mendes would follow up Skyfall, the franchise’s previous, award-winning outing. What new, fiendish plot would confront Great Britain’s greatest spy? But as the cinema lights dimmed, instead of diving straight into the action, those four eerie words appeared in slow succession, punctuated by staccato sounds. The dead are alive.
After a pregnant pause, a giant skull filled the screen, sporting a dishevelled top hat and a smoldering cigar protruding from its mouth. We were in Mexico City on the Day of the Dead, being led through a loud and colourful procession. Everyone was masked and we watched Bond track his unsuspecting target. As the film progressed, we discovered that all the assailants Bond had dispatched in recent installments, ever since Daniel Craig took over the 007 mantle, were connected by an even greater foe. Memories of his murdered friends were used to haunt and taunt him as he fought for his life. And I sat there, enthralled, thinking to myself, “They’re doing Sukkot.”
Let me explain.
The month of Tishrei is a hectic time. More than one-third of its 30 days are Jewish holidays. But while Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are solemn spiritual Days of Awe that remind us of our mortality (“Who will live and who will die?”), we usually think of Sukkot as a happy festival bursting with vitality. We take and shake together four fresh plant species, and we sit in a sukkah to recall how our ancestors lived in huts after God saved them from Egyptian slavery.
Sukkot, however, turns out to be more complicated. The festival’s presentation in the Torah yields two big surprises. Neither its other name nor time of year are what we would expect.
Sukkot is described five times—in Exodus 23 and 34, Leviticus 23, Numbers 29, and Deuteronomy 16—but in only two of these is it called Chag HaSukkot (festival of huts), while four times it is referred to as the time of “gathering in” the land’s harvest, twice naming it Chag Ha’asif (festival of ingathering). This imbalance seems to imply that the agricultural aspect of the festival somehow supersedes its historical associations.
Also, Chag Ha’asif occurs “at the turn of the year” (Exodus 34:22) and, more specifically, “at the end of the year” (Exodus 23:16). It is difficult to make sense of this wording given that the festival takes place two weeks after Rosh Hashanah. How do we fathom a festival of ingathering at year’s end, rather than a festival of huts after the new year has begun? To answer this, we need to understand the Torah’s associations with “ingathering” as well as some of the biblical readings on Sukkot. Both have a definite, if unexpected, theme of death; this will bring us back to James Bond.
Look up the death scenes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the book of Genesis (25:8, 35:29, 49:33), Aaron in Numbers (20:24), and Moses in Deuteronomy (32:50), and you will encounter similar phrasing every time. After they die, they are each described as being asef el amav, “gathered-in to their people,” signifying that their spirits were joined together in the national memory. The fact that the same Hebrew root—aleph-samech-fay, or A-S-F—acts as a euphemism for dying as well as for harvesting crops, implies a conceptual linkage.
To some extent, Sukkot can be thought of as a festival of death. It recalls the conclusion of the year’s final harvest, when all the wheat and wine has been gathered in “from your threshing floor and from your wine press” (Deuteronomy 16:13). The earth has now given up its yield. There is no more life left in the ground and all is dead underfoot as summer ends.
And so, it is traditional to read the somber book of Ecclesiastes on Sukkot: “The day of death is better than the day of birth. Better to go to the house of mourning, than the house of feasting ... Better is the end of a thing than its beginning” (7:1-2,8); and the final chapter is dedicated to impending death: “Dust returns to the earth as it was, and the life-breath returns to God Who gave it” (12:7).
Even the Haftarah on Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot has a deadly theme. After the apocalyptic wars of Gog and Magog, says the prophet Ezekiel, there will be a pile of corpses so large that “it will block the path of travelers” (Ezekiel 39:11). None of this sounds very joyous, and yet we refer to Sukkot in our prayers as Zman Simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing.
All this vivid imagery presents us with a new paradigm for Sukkot. It is the festival between years. It takes place after the death of the previous year but before the new life of the upcoming year has kicked in. It is a festival outside of time. Our old lives have ended, God forgave us, and we are on the threshold of being born afresh. We celebrate Sukkot in the bracketed moments in between, at the turning of the year. There is no pressure to start our lives again, we are on vacation from our everyday responsibilities. It is a period of grace, a holiday from the world of the living.
This helps to explain the odd tradition of ushpizin, an Aramaic word meaning “visitors.” Over Sukkot we are nearer the realm of the dead than the living, and so we invite our great, long-dead biblical ancestors—many of whom were “gathered-in to their people”—into our sukkah as guests. We share their memories and learn from their example. We commune with the dead to inspire us in life.
Now you can begin to see the similarities to Halloween. Two thousand years ago, between the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of winter, the Celtic tribes celebrated Samhain. It was a time when people dressed up in costumes, held feasts, and visited neighbors. Spirits and fairies were in attendance and the realm of the dead was thought to be close.
A thousand years later, Roman and Christian traditions developed hybrid festivals upon Samhain. Hallowe’en (Oct. 31), All Hallows Day / All Saints Day (Nov. 1), and All Souls Day (Nov. 2) were times to commemorate the dead, when the threshold between the realms was open. From this emerged the Halloween of today, with its evermore spooky associations, fanned by modern commercialism.
Originating in Mexico, Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is a related but more joyful version. Family and friends gather to remember and celebrate their deceased loved ones. Graves are visited, gifts are shared, and there are parties and processions festooned with skeletons, skulls, and candles. This is a fusion of Christian practices with older rituals dating back to the Aztecs.
It seems that all these celebratory days are built on foundations laid by Sukkot. The profound ideas of this ancient festival were able to cross cultures and sprout anew. While there are moments when we need to mourn death, there are also times when we need to accept it, even celebrate it by inviting the departed into our homes. Surely this is healthier than suppressing our fears about loss. The wisdom and relevancy of Sukkot stands to this day. It teaches us to embrace mortality.
As Spectre drew to its conclusion, James Bond walked through the burned-out MI6 headquarters, on the bank of the Thames. The building was meant to be Great Britain’s ultimate protector against international espionage, but now it was a broken ruin, a crumbling shelter, a fallen sukkah. On the walls, Bond’s nemesis Blofeld had left pictures of people Bond trusted, but who had died so that he could live—his ushpizin. In order to find salvation, his demons had to be faced.
Mendes’ message in Spectre is that the dead are always alive for a hitman with a license to kill. The losses never leave. Like all good fantasy, Bond reflects ourselves. Our fears and sadness can trap us in the past, or we can free ourselves and move on.
In the film’s last scene, our hero has bested his opponent. Blofeld says, “Finish it,” but Bond drops the magazine from his gun and simply says, “Out of bullets.” He chooses life over death, a future, hope. This is why the story began on Día de los Muertos. The entire film resonates with the themes of Sukkot.
Every year, we sit outside our homes and our normal lives, in flimsy wind-swept huts, just to take a moment to catch our breath, reflect, and celebrate. A few days’ pause before we are thrust back into a new year and a new life.
Rabbi Dr. Raphael Zarum is Dean of the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS) and the Rabbi Sacks Chair of Modern Jewish Thought, established by the Zandan family.