The Biblical Holy Day of Sukkot
Written by Robin Sampson   

T the Feast of Tabernacles is a week-long autumn harvest festival. Tabernacles is also known as the Feast of the Ingathering, Feast of the Booths, Sukkoth, Succoth, or Sukkot (variations in spellings occur because these words are transliterations of the Hebrew word pronounced “Sue-coat”). The two days following the festival are separate holidays, Shemini Atzeret and Simkhat Torah, but are commonly thought of as part of the Feast of Tabernacles.

The Feast of Tabernacles was the final and most important holiday of the year. The importance of this festival is indicated by the statement, “This is to be a lasting ordinance.” The divine pronouncement, “I am the Lord your God,” concludes this section on the holidays of the seventh month. The Feast of Tabernacles begins five days after Yom Kippur on the fifteenth of Tishri (September or October). It is a drastic change from one of the most solemn holidays in our year to one of the most joyous. The word Sukkoth means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings that Jews are commanded to live in during this holiday, just as the Jews did in the wilderness. The Feast of Tabernacles lasts for seven days and ends on the twenty-first day (3x7) of the Hebrew month of Tishri, which is Israel’s seventh month.

This holiday has a dual significance: historical and agricultural (just as Passover and Pentecost). Historically, it was to be kept in remembrance of the dwelling in tents in the wilderness for the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert.

It is expounded in Leviticus 23:43 That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

What were they to remember?

Matthew Henry’s commentary explains,
1.) The meanness of their beginning, and the low and desolate state out of which God advanced that people. Note: Those that are comfortably fixed ought often to call to mind their former unsettled state, when they were but little in their own eyes. 2.) The mercy of God to them, that, when they dwelt in tabernacles, God not only set up a tabernacle for Himself among them, but, with the utmost care and tenderness imaginable, hung a canopy over them, even the cloud that sheltered them from the heat of the sun. God’s former mercies to us and our fathers ought to be kept in everlasting remembrance. The eighth day was the great day of this holiday, because then they returned to their own houses again, and remembered how, after they had long dwelt in tents in the wilderness, at length they came to a happy settlement in the land of promise, where they dwelt in goodly houses. And they would the more sensibly value and be thankful for the comforts and conveniences of their houses when they had been seven days dwelling in booths. It is good for those that have ease and plenty sometimes to learn what it is to endure hardness.

They were to keep this holiday in thankfulness to God for all the increase of the year; however, the emphasis is that Israel’s life rested upon redemption which in its ultimate meaning is the forgiveness of sin. This fact separates this holiday from the harvest festivals of the neighboring nations whose roots lay in the mythological activity of the gods

Was the first Thanksgiving a Feast of Tabernacles Celebration?

Many Americans, upon seeing a decorated sukkah for the first time, remark on how much the sukkah (and the holiday generally) reminds them of Thanksgiving. The American pilgrims, who originated the Thanksgiving holiday, were deeply religious people. As they were trying to find a way to express their thanks for their survival and for the harvest, it is quite possible that they looked to the Bible (Leviticus 23:39) for an appropriate way of celebrating and based their holiday in part on the Feast of Tabernacles.

Note: celebrating Thanksgiving on the third Thursday of November was established by the American government and may not necessarily coincide with the pilgrim’s first observance.

The Feast of Tabernacles in Bible Times

Speak to the children of Israel, saying, "On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the festival of Sukkos, a seven-day period for HaShem. The first day shall be a sacred holiday when you may not do any work. ...The eighth day is a sacred holiday to you... it is an atzeres, you may not do any work. ...

On the first day you must take for yourself a fruit of the citron tree, an unopened palm frond, myrtle branches, and brook willows, and you shall rejoice before HaShem for seven days. ...

You shall dwell in sukkos for seven days.... So that your future generations shall know that I had the children of Israel live in sukkos when I brought them out of Egypt..

(Leviticus) 23:34-43

As The Feast of Tabernacles approached, the entire Jewish nation started making preparations. Work crews were sent to repair roads and bridges for the thousands of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem. During the festival many Jews eat (and sleep, as well) in the booths or huts, which are built in the five days between Yom Kippur and this festival.

The Feast of Tabernacles is by far the most festive and joyous of occasions. History records that four huge candelabra were constructed, lighted, and attended by young men ascending ladders periodically with pitchers of oil to keep them burning. The light from these lamps illuminated the whole city, and around them danced distinguished men with torches in their hands, singing hymns and songs of praise. The dancing as well as the music continued until daybreak. It was an extravaganza (Somerville 1995).

The holiday was celebrated following the outline in Leviticus:

Water was also an important part of the Feast of Tabernacles. Before the festival, the Rabbis taught on every passage in Scripture dealing with water. In Old Testament Biblical times, gold pitchers of water were brought from the pool of Siloam to the temple. The Priest would pour out the water over the altar to signify Israel’s gratitude for the rain that had produced the harvest, and would pray for rain in the next year. The priest would recite Isaiah 12:1-3. And in that day thou shalt say, O LORD, I will praise thee: though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the LORD JEHOVAH is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation. This special libation was performed only during the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles. This was done not only to remind God of the need for abundant rain during the winter season, but also to remind the people of the coming Messiah who had promised to pour out His Holy Spirit on the people.

This ceremony lasted seven days. The last day was called Hosha’na Rabba, meaning the Day of the Great Hosanna. As the celebration continued, the priests blew the trumpets and waved the branches and the people sang the Great Hallel
(Psalms 113 through 118).

Jewish Customs of Tabernacles

The services in the synagogue today are modeled after the ancient services in the Temple (see Feast of Tabernacles in Bible Times). Sacrifices are no longer performed since the time of the destruction of the Temple.

It is usual practice to build and decorate the booth (sukkah). In the United States, Jews usually hang dried squash and corn in the sukkah to decorate it because these vegetables are readily available in the fall.

Lulav

Jewish tradition calls for a lulav (Four Species) made of a palm, myrtle, willow and fruit from the citron to be waved. The rabbis insist this is the only accepted lulav; however Scripture says, “And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook…” (Lev. 23:40).

When Ezra reinstated the feasts, Nehemiah 8:15, he used olive branches. And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.

The Hebrew word for “goodly” in the verse in Leviticus above is hadar {haw-dawr’} [01926 ] meaning “ornament,” “splendor,” or “honor.” The Hebrew word for “palm” in this verse is tamar {taw-mawr’} [8558] meaning “palm tree” or “date palm.” The Hebrew word for “bough” in this verse is `anaph {aw-nawf’} [06057] meaning “bough” or “branch.” The Hebrew word for “willows” in this verse is `arab {aw-rawb’} [06155] meaning “poplar, willow or a tree characterized by dark wood.”

There is thought to be spiritual significance based on the characteristics of the lulav and citron:

The Tradition of Waving the Lulav

1. While standing, the person picks up the lulav with its attached willows and myrtle in his right hand, holding the lulav so that its spine is toward them.

2. The etrog is picked up in the left hand, next to the lulav, with its tip (pitom) pointing down.

3. The blessings are said: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments, and instructed us concerning the waving of the palm branch.” Then the shehekeyanu is said: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, for keeping us in life, for sustaining us, and for helping us reach this day.”

4. The etrog is then turned right side up and shaken with the lulav.
Each day of the Feast of Tabernacles, the people in the Temple courtyard would hold their lulavs and make a circular procession around the altar. During the procession they would pray a prayer that came to be known as Hoshanos. It is a prayer for God’s blessing, ending each phrase of the prayer with the word hoshana (“Please save” or “save now!”). On the first six days they would march around the altar one time. On the seventh day they marched around it seven times. Traditionally, Psalm 27 is recited at the service of the Feast of Tabernacles.
Bible prophecy tells us that people from the nations of the world will come up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles with the Jewish people in Jerusalem And it shall be, that whoso will not come up of all the families of the earth unto Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts… (Zech. 14:17).

Messiah in Tabernacles

Spiritual Lessons from the Feast of Tabernacles

God is Our Shelter

This holiday reminds us not to hold too tightly to material things. We live in a very materialistic age. When the Israelites were wanderers in the desert, they all lived in tents–rich and poor alike. Material possessions can control and manipulate us; they become gods, or idols, over us. We must remember that this life is only temporary. We are also on a pilgrimage to a Promised Land in eternity. We need to seek God’s kingdom, not earthly comfort. As we seek first the Kingdom of God (Luke 12:31), God is our shelter. For thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall (Isa. 25:4).

Yeshua is the Living Water

Our spiritual thirst cannot be quenched with anything less than Messiah Yeshua. But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life (John 4:14).

Yeshua Washes Away Our Sins

Yeshua is the true living water cleansing us from sin through His blood. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Heb. 9:13-14).

Yeshua is the Light of the World

The light from the Feast of Tabernacles lamps illuminated the whole city. Scholars suggest that Yeshua referred to this custom when he spoke those well-known words, “I am the light of the world…” (John 8:12) Also see John 1:1-9 and John 9:5.

Yeshua is Preparing Our Permanent Home

These physical bodies we now occupy are only temporary dwelling places. Our bodies are frail, and will eventually begin to deteriorate. Life is short. Our hope is not in what the world has to offer, but in what God has already provided for us for eternity. Our permanent home is being prepared for us in eternity. Yeshua said in John 14:2-3,

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

As the Israelites Left Bondage, We Leave the Bondage of Sin

God brought the Children of Israel out of the bondage of their Egyptian taskmasters into freedom. For believers in Messiah Yeshua, we can celebrate that God redeemed us from a life of bondage to sin and brought us into His freedom in the Kingdom of God.

Was the Birth of Christ during the Feast of Tabernacles?

Many scholars believe Yeshua was born during the Feast of Tabernacles. Matthew Henry states:
It is supposed by many that our blessed Saviour was born much about the time of this holiday; then He left his mansions of light above to tabernacle among us (John 1:14), and he dwelt in booths. And the worship of God under the New Testament is prophesied of under the notion of keeping the feast of tabernacles, Zec.14:16. For, [1.] The gospel of Messiah Yeshua teaches us to dwell in tabernacles, to sit loose to this world, as those that have here no continuing city, but by faith, and hope and holy contempt of present things, to go out to Messiah without the camp, Heb. 13:13, 14. [2.] It teaches us to rejoice before the Lord our God. Those are the circumcision, Israelites indeed, that always rejoice in Messiah Yeshua, Phil. 3:3. And the more we are taken off from this world the less liable we are to the interruption of our joys.

The Bible does not specifically say the date of Yeshua's birth. We know it was not during the winter months because the sheep were in the pasture (Luke 2:8). A study of the time of the conception of John the Baptist reveals he was conceived about Sivan 30, the eleventh week.

When Zechariah was ministering in the temple, he received an announcement from God of a coming son. The eighth course of Abia, when Zekharya was ministering, was the week of Sivan 12 to 18 (Killian n.d.). Adding forty weeks for a normal pregnancy reveals that John the Baptist was born on or about Passover (Nisan 14). We know six months after John’s conception, Miriam conceived Yeshua (Luke 1:26-33). Therefore, Yeshua would have been conceived six months later in the month of Kislev. Kislev 25 is Hanukkah. Was the “light of the world” conceived on the festival of lights?

Starting at Hanukkah, which begins on Kislev 25 and continues for eight days, and counting through the nine months of Miriam's pregnancy, one arrives at the approximate time of the birth of Jesus at the Festival of Tabernacles (the early fall of the year).

During the Feast of Tabernacles, God required all male Jews to come to Jerusalem. The many pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the festivals would spill over to the surrounding towns (Bethlehem is about five miles from Jerusalem). Yoseph and Miriam were unable to find a room at the inn because of the influx of so many pilgrims. They may have been given shelter in a sukkah, which is built during a seven-day period each year accompanying the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. Due to the difficulties during travel, it was common for the officials to declare tax time during a temple Feast (Luke 2:1).

We know our Messiah was made manifest into a temporary body when He came to earth. Is it possible He also was put into a temporary dwelling? The fields would have been dotted with sukkoths during this harvest time to temporary shelter animals. The Hebrew word “stable” is called a sukkoth (Gen. 33:17).

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).

Yoseph and Miriam took the child and flew to Egypt and remained there until they were told by God that Herod was dead. Yoseph and Miriam brought the baby Yeshua into Jerusalem forty days from His birth for Miriam’s purification and the child’s dedication (according to Torah this had to be done within forty days of the birth of a male child–not doing so is considered a sin). This indicates that Herod died within the same forty days, because as long as Herod was alive, they could not appear at the Temple. (According to Josephus’ calculations, Herod’s death occurred during the Autumn in the fourth year before the Common Era 4 b.c.e.).

Later in His life, Yeshua celebrated His birthday on a mountain with three of His disciples. In contrast to birthday parties, such as Herod’s, where people were killed for entertainment, His was a celebration of life. On the Festival of Succoth, Moshe and EliYahu (Elijah), from centuries past, representatives of the Torah and the Prophets, appeared and talked with Yeshua. One disciple, Kepha (Peter), suggested building three succoth for Yeshua, Moshe, and EliYahu, because it was required for the festival, but he did not understand that these three were fulfilling that which the festival symbolized: they were dwelling in their succoth (temporary tabernacles) of flesh, awaiting their eternal resurrection temples (Killian n.d.)

A number of Messianic believers are celebrating Messiah’s birth during the Feast of Tabernacles, complete with decorations and lights on the sukkah, a birthday cake, and music celebrating Yeshua’s birth.

Yeshua preached three sermons in which he declared himself the “light of the world,” and all three would be during the Festival of Lights (Hanukkah) in the winter of the year (December).

Prophetic Significance

These fall festivals speak of a future time when men will again tabernacle with God, when He will dwell with them and they with Him (Rev. 21:3). They speak of a day in which all nations will gather to Jerusalem (Zech. 8:22; 14:16). Curiously, even in the days to come, Bible prophecy tells us that people from the nations of the world will come up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles with the Jewish people in Jerusalem (Zech. 14). The stage is being set and prophecy is being fulfilled. The “coming-up” (aliyah, in Hebrew) is taking place now in Israel with the massive influx of Jews from over a hundred nations. Messianic, also, are already visiting the land in record numbers—the majority of pilgrims coming to Israel are Messianic believerss! We believe this is all in preparation and building for future scriptural events. Jerusalem continues to be the focus of God’s earthly pattern and plan, for ultimately it is to Jerusalem that Messiah is coming (Wagner 1996).

Messiah Yeshua is the tabernacle or dwelling place of God. In Him dwelled the fullness of God (John 1:14, Col. 2:9), and God dwells in our midst through Messiah Yeshua (Matt. 18:20). It may be that Yeshua will ultimately fulfill the Feast of Tabernacles at His second coming. There will be a literal rest for planet earth and all its inhabitants. Until then we can find rest in our souls.

The Beginning of the Millennium

Most Bible scholars agree that Tabernacles represents the beginning of the Millennium. We should look forward expectantly to the Feast of Tabernacles, just as we look forward to the coming of the Messiah, to bring His government, His Kingdom, and His Torah.

But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it. And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Micah 4:1).

Tabernacles and Passover are the only holidays mentioned in the millennial worship (Ezek. 45:21-25; Zech. 14:16). Note that the number of days between Nisan and Tishri is always the same. Because of this, the time from the first major festival (Passover in Nisan) to the last major festival (The Feast of Tabernacles in Tishri) is always the same. Could this have any connection to Messiah’s birth during Tabernacles and His death on Passover? Passover is in the first month in the religious calendar and Tabernacles is in the first month of the civil calendar.

Hosea 6:3 explains that Messiah will come as the latter and former rain.

Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the LORD: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth. The spring holidays are during the former rain and the fall holidays are during the latter rain.

Zechariah chapter 14 introduces the millennial age. The chapter tells of the liberation of Jerusalem and how the Messiah will be king over the whole earth. It ends with all nations keeping the laws of the Most High. The Feast of Tabernacles–that great feast which symbolizes the very presence of Yeshua the Messiah (He is the very “Tabernacle of God”), will be kept by all the nations of the world. The prophet tells us that fearsome punishments and plagues will be meted out on nations that refuse to send delegates to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles.

And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the former sea, and half of them toward the hinder sea: ... And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day shall there be one Lord and his name one ... And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations which came up against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles. And it shall be that whoso will not come up of all the families of the earth unto Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of Hosts, even upon them shall be no rain. And if the family of Egypt go not up, and come not, that have no rain; there shall be the plague, wherewith the Lord will smite the heathen that come not up to keep the feast of tabernacles. This shall be the punishment of Egypt, and the punishment of all nations that come not up to keep the feast of tabernacles (Zech. 14:8-19).
Yeshua Celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles

Yeshua celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles. He taught in the Temple on the Feast of Tabernacles. Although His disciples had not expected Yeshua to attend the feast, the vast majority of the pilgrims from afar who had heard of Him entertained the hope that they might see Him at Jerusalem. They were not disappointed, for on several occasions He taught in Solomon’s Porch and elsewhere in the temple courts. These teachings were really the official or formal announcement of the divinity of Yeshua to the Jewish people and to the whole world. Yeshua risked His life to go to the Feast of Tabernacles, but the audacious boldness of Yeshua in publicly appearing in Jerusalem overawed his enemies; they were not prepared for such a daring challenge.

On the last day and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles (the day the Rabbis poured the water) Yeshua stood (calling special attention to his message) and proclaimed Himself the very fountain of living water in John 7:37-38.


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