Jews celebrate Sukkot, also called the Feast of Tabernacles or Festival of Booths, in the fall, four days after Yom Kippur. Sukkot is one of the most joyous of the Jewish festivals.
Sukkot is instituted in Leviticus 23:33–34: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites: ‘On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the LORD’s Feast of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days.”
Sukkot has its roots as a fall harvest festival. In Israel, the harvest of grapes, olives, and other crops ends at this time of year. It is a time when Israel’s farmers wait in hope for the first rain and the start of a new and fertile planting year.
Sukkot also commemorates the Jews’ wanderings in the wilderness for forty years under Moses.
Today, in the days between Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and Sukkot, Jews erect sukkot, booths for temporary dwelling that resemble the structures in which the Israelites lived in the desert after their exodus from Egypt.
The sukkah (the singular form of sukkot) consists of four walls made of wood, canvas, or other material.
The roof is made of branches or leaves thatched loosely so that one may glimpse the stars in the sky above. It is decorated with flowers, fruit, and paper chains.
Many Jews eat meals in the sukkah, which becomes a colorful gathering place for family and friends.
Some pious Jews, particularly those living in warmer climates, even sleep in their sukkot to fulfill the biblical injunction which says that Jews are to “dwell in sukkot seven days” (Leviticus 23:42).
Most synagogues build a communal sukkah, although observant families also build their own.
One of the key elements of Sukkot is known as “The Four Species” (read Leviticus 23:40). This is a ritual in which the branches of an etrog (or citron, resembling a lemon) and the branches of three trees (the willow, myrtle, and lulav, or date palm) are bound together and waved in all directions to emphasize that God is everywhere and all our blessings are from Him.
Some Jewish scholars say these elements refer to four parts of the human body — the lips, heart, eyes, and backbone — all of which praise God together as we say of Him, “Who is like you?” (Psalm 35:10).
Other scholars teach that the Four Species refer to four kinds of people: the etrog stands for people who read the Torah, and do good; the date palm stands for those who read the Torah, but do not do good; the myrtle represents people who do not read the Torah, but do good; and the willow stands for people who neither read the Torah nor do good.
Yet other religious leaders suggest these four plants remind Jews that people are also different yet must come together for a healthy society to function.
The final day of Sukkot is known as Simchat Torah, which means, literally, “rejoicing in the Torah.” Simchat Torah marks the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings.
It is a day of celebration for the gift of God’s word, marked by the hakafot procession, held in both the evening and morning, in which Torah scrolls are marched around the reading table in the synagogue with singing and dancing.
On Simchat Torah, Jews celebrate love for the Torah and are reminded that none of us stop being students of the Bible — learning from and studying God’s word is a lifelong process.
Sukkot — A Universal Feast Day
Another beautiful tradition associated with Sukkot is ushpizin, inviting guests into our sukkah to partake in the celebration. Since Sukkot is the only festival that all people will be expected to observe in the messianic age (see Zechariah 14:9), Jews are duty-bound at this time to strengthen the link between themselves and their neighbors and to remove any barriers that might separate them.
After the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people, Sukkot has also come to symbolize the impermanence of Jewish life outside the land of Israel.
Additionally, it represents the Jewish quest for sovereignty over their ancient homeland and the longing for the Messiah. In the words of the prophet Amos, “In that day I will raise up the booth [sukkah] of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11, ESV).
Since the sukkah has assumed a universal messianic symbolism, the Festival of Sukkot has become the only one that Gentiles will be expected to celebrate in the messianic era.
We read on the first day of Sukkot, “Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths” (Zechariah 14:16, ESV).
It is for this reason that Jews everywhere on Sukkot pray not only for their own welfare, but for that of the entire world.
Celebrating Sukkot in Jerusalem
Here is a personal reflection about celebrating Sukkot from Ami Farkas, a writer and photographer on staff in The Fellowship’s Jerusalem office:
A few days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Jews celebrate the Sukkot holiday. On Sukkot, we obey the biblical command to eat and sleep in a sukkah, a temporary dwelling we build outside our homes.
These dwellings remind us of God’s protection over the Jewish people when they traveled in the desert for forty years.
On Sukkot during the times of the First and Second Temple, representatives from every nation made sacrificial offerings in the Temple.
It was a day of giving thanks and praise to the Creator. The happiness this holy day inspired during that era was so powerful that the Talmud teaches that one who hasn’t witnessed the joy of the Sukkot celebration in the Temple has never experienced true joy.
Today, Jerusalem bustles with holiday preparations days before Sukkot begins. On every street corner we can buy wooden planks and decorations to build the sukkah, and the sound of hammering is heard well into the night.
We begin to see these temporary dwellings spring up on every sidewalk and porch. Some are big, some small. Some are made from wood and some from cloth.
We are commanded to eat in the sukkah and even sleep in it. For seven days, it is our home — a temporary dwelling that we live in precisely to remind us that life is temporary.
One of my favorite events on Sukkot is the solidarity march in Jerusalem. Christians from around the world come to march through the streets of Jerusalem to proclaim their love of the Jewish people and the God of Israel.
Every year, my wife and I grab our kids and greet the parade with singing, dancing, and drum-playing.
The Sukkot holiday is a time to focus on God’s eternal presence and protection in the world. It is an opportunity to remember that just as God provided for the Israelites as they traveled in the desert, so too does He provide for us today.