…On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the Festival of Sukkot, seven days for the L-RD. -Leviticus 23:34
Sukkot is an eight-day harvest holiday that arrives during the Hebrew month of Tishrei 15. It starts four days after Yom Kippur and is followed by Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Sukkot is also known as the Festival of Booths and the Feast of Tabernacles. This Biblical feast commemorates the time in Israel’s history when the Israelites (Jews) camped in the wilderness in tents (sukkot) and the Lord God of Israel manifested Himself in their midst in the pillar of cloud and fire! This prophetic feast reveals the mystery of God’s plan of salvation for the whole world, when at the climax of history, God will once again “tabernacle” with His redeemed (Rev 21) as the nations, Jew and Gentile alike, come up to Jerusalem, year after, to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. Our bibles teach us that when the LORD comes to earth to rule in righteousness, all the people of the world will observe the Feast of Tabernacles:
“Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, they will have no rain. If the Egyptian people do not go up and take part, they will have no rain. The LORD will bring on them the plague he inflicts on the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. This will be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles.” Zechariah 14:16-19
Sukkot also hearkens back to times in ancient Israel when Jews would build huts near the edges of their fields during the harvest season. One of these dwellings was called a “sukkah” and “sukkot” is the plural form of this Hebrew word. These dwellings not only provided shade but allowed the workers to maximize the amount of time they spent in the fields, harvesting their food more quickly as a result.
Sukkot is also related to the way the Jewish people lived while wandering in the desert for 40 years (Leviticus 23:42-43). As they moved from one place to another they built tents or booths, called sukkot, that gave them temporary shelter in the desert. Hence, the sukkot (booths) that Jews build during the holiday of Sukkot are reminders both of Israel’s agricultural history and of the Israelite exodus from Egypt.
There are three major traditions associated with Sukkot:
- Building a sukkah.
- Eating in the sukkah.
- Waving the lulav and etrog.
At the beginning of sukkot (often during the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot) Jews construct a sukkah. In ancient times people would live in the sukkot and eat every meal in them. In modern times people most often build a sukkah in their backyards or apartment terraces, or help their synagogue construct one for the community. In Jerusalem some neighborhoods will have friendly contests to see who can build the best sukkah. Few people live in the sukkah today but it is popular to eat at least one meal in it. At the beginning of the meal a special blessing is recited, which goes: “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us to dwell in the sukkah.” If it is raining then the commandment to eat in the sukkah is postponed until the weather is more accommodating – luckily Sukkot is eight days long!
Since Sukkot celebrates the harvest in the land of Israel, another custom on Sukkot involves waving the lulav and etrog. Together the lulav and etrog represent the Four Species. The etrog is a kind of citron (related to a lemon), while the lulav is made of three myrtle twigs (hadassim), two willow twigs (aravot) and a palm frond (lulav). Because the palm frond is the largest of these plants, the myrtle and willow are wrapped around it. During Sukkot, the lulav and etrog are waved together while reciting special blessings. They are waved in each of the four directions – sometimes six if “up” and “down” are included in the ritual – representing God’s dominion over Creation. You can learn how to wave the lulav and etrog in this article: http://judaism.about.com/od/holidays/ht/howtolulavetrog.htm
The lulav and etrog are part of the synagogue service. Each morning of Sukkot people carry the lulav and etrog around the sanctuary reciting prayers. On the 7th day of Sukkot, called Hoshana Rabba, the Torah is removed from the Ark and they march around the synagogue 7 times holding the lulav and etrog. The 8th/last day of Sukkot is called Shmeni Atzeret. On this day a prayer for rain is recited, demonstrating how the Jewish holidays are in tune with the seasons of Israel, which begins on this day.
Building the Sukkah
“You will dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths.” -Leviticus 23:42
The sukkah is great fun for the children. Building the sukkah each year satisfies the common childhood fantasy of building a fort, and dwelling in the sukkah satisfies a child’s desire to camp out in the backyard. The commandment to “dwell” in a sukkah can be fulfilled by simply eating all of one’s meals there; however, if the weather, climate, and one’s health permit, one should spend as much time in the sukkah as possible, including sleeping in it.
A sukkah must have at least two and a half walls covered with a material that will not blow away in the wind. Why two and a half walls? Look at the letters in the word “sukkah” (see the graphic in the heading): one letter has four sides, one has three sides and one has two and a half sides. The “walls” of the sukkah do not have to be solid; canvas covering tied or nailed down is acceptable and quite common in the United States. A sukkah may be any size, so long as it is large enough for you to fulfill the commandment of dwelling in it. The roof of the sukkah must be made of material referred to as sekhakh (literally, covering). To fulfill the commandment, sekhakh must be something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks, bamboo reeds, sticks, or two-by-fours. Sekhakh must be left loose, not tied together or tied down. Sekhakh must be placed sparsely enough that rain can get in, and preferably sparsely enough that the stars can be seen, but not so sparsely that more than ten inches is open at any point or that there is more light than shade. The sekhakh must be put on last. Note: You may put a water-proof cover over the top of the sukkah when it is raining to protect the contents of the sukkah, but you cannot use it as a sukkah while it is covered and you must remove the cover to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah.
You can buy do-it-yourself sukkot from various sources online, or you can build your own. It is common practice, and highly commendable, to decorate the sukkah. In the northeastern United States, Jews commonly hang dried squash and corn in the sukkah to decorate it, because these vegetables are readily available at that time for the American holidays of Halloween and Thanksgiving. Many families hang artwork drawn by the children on the walls. Building and decorating a sukkah is a fun family project, much like decorating the Christmas tree is for Christians.
Click here for a humorous video of a sukkah being built in record time:
My belief is that Y’shua (Jesus) was actually born during the Feast of Tabernacles, some time in October, not on December 25. Scripture gives enough proof of the timing of Mary’s pregnancy along with harvest times and Elizabeth’s pregnancy to support this. I will write about that in a future post. Meanwhile, Happy Sukkot!