Sukkot – “Tabernacles”
The festival cycle begun at Pesach and continued through Shavuot (the giving of the Torah) comes to a conclusion in Sukkot, dwelling in booths as a reminder of the Israelites in the desert. In a prophetic manner, Pesach reveals redemption, Shavuot centers on revelation, and Sukkot emphasizes communion. God redeems Israel, reveals His Torah to her, and comes to dwell in her midst.
Sukkot was one of the most important festivals in ancient days, and is referred to in the Tanach as simply, ha-chag, “the festival” (1 Kings 12:32). It was one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesach and Shavuot were the other two) when all adult males were to journey to Jerusalem.
Sukkot lasts for 7 days, from Tishri 15 to 21. Following Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, there is a rapid transition from the contemplative and somewhat sober aspects of the High Holy Days to the festive, joyous holiday of Sukkot. As the name itself tells, the festivals centers around a “hut” or “booth (sukkah, “hut,” sukkot, “huts”) which is to be constructed and “lived in” during the festival. In fact, the two primary commands regarding the festival are to dwell in the sukkah (including the use of the four species, outlined below) during the seven days, and to rejoice before the Lord.
Traditions of Sukkot:
a. It must be a temporary structure (emphasizing the transitory nature of our lives).
b. It is to be made as beautiful and comfortable as possible (on the basis that the Torah commands us to live in it, which the Rabbis interpret to mean “live in it as you normally would live in your permanent home.”
c. The roof of the Sukkah is to be temporary, and made of organic materials. It is usually constructed of poles or bamboo and covered with evergreen branches. According to Rabbinic interpretation, the roof should be made so that one can see the night sky through it.
d. Sukkot is associated with the beauty of the creative world, and with harvest. On this account, the Sukkah is usually decorated by hanging fruits, vegetables, as well as tapestries, wreaths, pictures, etc. in the Sukkah.
e. The orthodox usually eat and sleep in the Sukkah, but many communities utilize the Sukkah only for eating. It is a special obligation to eat a meal in the Sukkah the first night so as to recite the kiddush over wine and the blessing of the bread with the haMotzi blessing. The hope is that one comes to appreciate what it must have been like to dwell in huts when Israel first came out of Egypt. Israel was so overjoyed by the sense of their freedom, even a hut was a palace. The point is simple: when one is free before God, all other things are of less importance. Family, friends, fellowship, and rejoicing before the Lord—these are the essential elements of a joyful life.
f. We are encouraged to spend time in the Sukkah, to read, study and contemplate. By spending time in this humble abode, we come to appreciate afresh the simple things of life, and to understand the value of family relationship and community. After all, the emphasis of the festival is that the most important things in life are relationships, and particularly our relationship with God. This most important aspect of life is ours whether or not we have this world’s riches. The sukkah reminds us that with even the barest of necessities, there can be real joy in our relationship with God and with each other.
g. It is important to rejoice in the Sukkah (since rejoicing is one of the commands of the Torah during Sukkot), and therefore it is traditional that if rain or bad weather makes dwelling in the Sukkah a hardship, all retire to the house! Rejoicing takes precedence over sitting in the rain.
In the Sukkah
a. First night: Say the blessing then light candles [opposite order than on normal holidays and Shabbat] followed by the She-hecheyanu (blessing “Who has sustained us . . .). Next, kiddush (“Borei peri haGafen”) over wine. Then the blessing for the command to dwell in the Sukkah, followed by netilat yedaim (washing of hands) and the ha-motzi (“Who brings forth bread”). The blessing for the four species (see below) then follows.
b. Following nights: ha-motzi followed by the blessing for the command to dwell in the Sukkah (no She-he-cheyanu).
c. During the middle ages it became a custom to invite symbolic guests to join the family each day in the Sukkah (called ushpizin). Common were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David, as well as Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah, Miriam, Abigail and Esther. From a Messianic perspective, Sukkot is the best time of the year to remember that Yeshua came to “dwell with us” (John 1:12f) in our humble place, and to be reminded of His presence with us as we celebrate in the Sukkah. His birth was in a humble dwelling, and He, the Lord of Glory, came to live with us in our earthen home. Sukkot is a time to consider, meditate on, and rejoice in the birth of our Messiah. Here is a beautiful time of the Festival cycle to celebrate the birth of our Savior. Inviting Him into our Sukkah is a very tangible expression of the truth that He came to dwell with us in our humble place. He dwells with us still by the Ruach (Spirit). The rejoicing of the Festival itself is enhanced and taken to an even greater height when we realize the Word incarnate Who dwells with us.
d. It is traditional to read Ecclesiastes (Qohelet) during Sukkot, both in the Sukkah and in the Synagogue. Some may initially question the reading of the Qohelet at a festival where joy is to be experienced. But when one reads this wisdom book, it becomes clear that joy is one of the main themes—that joy comes from grasping the moment of God’s pleasure in the relationships of family and friends. Frustration comes when we try to store up those events and joys which cannot be stored: the hug of a child, the kiss of a loved one, eating together, sharing of life with one another—these are, in the end, what brings us the most joy, and these can be experienced even in the humble surroundings of a common hut! Sukkot thus helps us to focus upon the most important issue of life, allowing other things to fade into the background.
In the Synagogue
a. According to Lev. 23:40, a proper celebration of the festival requires the use of the arba minim, “four species.” The verse lists four species, which have been interpreted as follows:
“product of goodly trees ” = etrog (citron)
“branches of palm trees” = lulav (palm leaves bound together)
“boughs of leafy trees” = myrtle
“willows of the brook” = willow
b. In the synagogue on the first day of Sukkot, the four species are held in the hands and are shaken in all four directions, as well as up and down after the blessing is pronounced. This same ritual is done in the Sukkah as well and on all other days of Sukkot except on Shabbat.
The meaning of the shaking is that of harvest, since Sukkot symbolizes the final harvest of nations, when all nations will celebrate Sukkot (cf. Zechariah 14:16ff). The nations will be gathered to the worship of Israel’s God, and they will come from all directions of the compass. Thus, the four species (representing all kinds of peoples) will come from all over the earth to Israel to worship HaShem.
There are also Hashanot, circling (hakkafot) in parade fashion with the four species and reciting one of the Hashanot (“save us”) hymns (e.g., Psalm 106). Usually this is a circle around the synagogue, as a remembrance of the processions around the Temple during the 2nd Temple period. This is not done on Shabbat, but the Hashanot are recited without circling.
The meaning of this ritual is variously explained: a thankfulness for the harvest (much like the wave offering of the Temple period) is the most often cited meaning. From a Messianic perspective, the emphasis upon harvest, and the shaking of the four species in every direction, brings to mind both the promise of regathering Israel from the four corners of the world, and the promise to bless all the nations through Abraham, the harvest of the nations. It seems clearly for this reason that Sukkot is the festival chosen in the future reign of Yeshua as the celebration in which the nations participate (Zech. 14:16ff).
c. From a Rabbinic perspective, the first two days of Sukkot are considered full festival days (like all festivals outside of The Land), but days 3-6 are considered “intermediate days” (Chol haMoed). The Torah only specifies the first day and the eighth day (shemini atzeret, see below) to be sabbaths.
Traditionally, the first two days of Sukkot are marked by time in the Sukkah, etc., eating regular meals and reciting the festival blessings. There are some slight changes in the traditional synagogue liturgy. The seventh day is called Hoshana Rabbah, “the Great Hoshana.” (The word “Hoshanah” is actually two words combined, “save” and “please,” and is thus a shortened form of “help, I pray.” It was transliterated as “hossana” by English translators and has become a familiar word in Christian liturgy and music.) Normally, being the last day of the festival, it would be considered a full festival day. But the biblical text is a bit ambivalent, and it thus became tradition to add an eighth day, called
Shemini Atzeret, and thus the festival of Sukkot is carried one day past its normal time. The text reads:
Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘On the fifteenth of this seventh month is the Feast of Booths for seven days to the LORD. ‘On the first day is a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work of any kind. ‘For seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the LORD. On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation and present an offering by fire to the LORD; it is an assembly. You shall do no laborious work.
The question of interpretation is that the text first seems to indicate that the festival lasts seven days, yet it marks the eighth day as a sabbath. The sages intepreted this to mean that the seventh day marked the end of Sukkot, but the eighth day was a festival unto itself, while at the same time being an extension of Sukkot. The seventh day, then, is noted by a special ritual: the synagogue is circled seven times, rather than the single circling of the first six days. And, during the seven circlings, willows are beaten on the ground, and the Torah scrolls are carried in the parade. These “circlings” (called hakafot) are mentioned in the Talmud (b.Yoma 59a) and may have been traditional even earlier.
The eighth day, called Shemini Atzeret, “eighth day conclusion,” thus pictures the eternity, the eighth day of the cosmic week, and foretells the eternal dwelling of God with His people. In this way, the Festival of Sukkot, the last of the Torah cycle festivals, is a mini-picture of the whole history of the universe: seven days marking the scope of human history, and the eighth day (shemini atzeret) symbolic of eternity.
Sukkot emphasizes the dwelling of God with man, especially in the humble incarnation of Yeshua. That Yeshua first was laid in a manager gives the true picture of God dwelling with mankind, coming to his humble place of dwelling—the King in the Sukkah! God dwelt with man through the Shekinah (glory of God) visible above the Tabernacle and the Ark. But the dwelling emphasized in Sukkot is dwelling with man in his humble abode—an obvious mark of the incarnation. Furthermore, it is a time to reflect about the essential things of life, the things of true importance. The reading of Ecclesiasties (Qohelet) provides a wonderful time to remember that the little things of life, things that one cannot “storeup,” must be treasured by seizing the moments of God’s blessing and rejoicing in His dwelling with us.
The fact that Sukkot centers attention upon the future reign of Messiah and the ingathering of all the nations to worship Him gives the festival a sense of hope and anticipation. As in all the festivals, so Sukkot is a rehearsal for the event it symbolizes, i.e., the dwelling of Messiah King as Ruler and Sovereign of the World.
An excerpt from book Introduction to Torah Living, by Tim Hegg, p. 152-157