What Is the Festival of Tabernacles – Sukkot?
The Fellowship | August 13, 2022
In contrast to the solemnity and introspection of the High Holy Days that directly precedes it, Sukkot, also known as the Festival of Tabernacles or the Festival of Booths, brings an atmosphere of joy, reflecting the biblical command to “Be joyful at your feast” (Deuteronomy16:14). That is why Sukkot is known as “the time of our happiness.”
As described in the Book of Leviticus, this holiday is a time for the Jews to rejoice in God’s bounty, whether it’s His salvation in taking them out of bondage in Egypt or providing them with a plentiful harvest (the festival coincides with the end of the harvest season). Ultimately, though, Sukkot celebrates our trust in God and relying completely on our relationship with Him.
Below you will discover a wealth of resources to help you understand the importance and significance of this joyous time of year, not only to Judaism, but also to the Christian faith as well.
What Is Sukkot?
Jews celebrate this holiday, also called the Festival of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths, in the fall, four days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a joyous celebration of the harvest and a time to remember Israel’s wandering in the Sinai desert before entering the Promised Land.
Sukkot was 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.’” This holy observance is one of the three festivals that were celebrated with pilgrimages to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, until the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
Like many Jewish holidays, Sukkot commemorates a number of religious and historical motifs. It has its roots as a fall harvest festival, and many consider it as the precursor and inspiration for the American Thanksgiving. 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 (which marks the end of the High Holy Days) 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.
Building the Sukkah
Building a sukkah is an activity that can be both fun and meaningful. The Jewish custom is to begin building the sukkah immediately after the conclusion of Yom Kippur. There are many ways to build a sukkah ranging from work-intensive methods to easy-to-build kits that can be purchased in a store. Either way, there are some basic guidelines.
The roof must be made from natural elements that have grown from the ground. Most people use either palm fronds or bamboo with wooden beams as support. The roof also must be thick enough to provide significant shade, but thin enough to let the stars shine through.
Once the sukkah is built, it is customary to decorate it as beautifully as possible, which displays our enthusiasm for this biblical commandment. Typical decorations tend to include hanging real or plastic fruit and other produce, echoing the theme of the harvest season. In addition, many people place pictures of Israel and Jerusalem on the sukkah walls as a reminder that Sukkot is one of the three holidays on which, during Temple times, people were required to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The Meaning of the Sukkah
The family eats meals in the sukkah, which becomes a colorful gathering place for family and friends. Some even sleep there to fulfill the biblical command to “dwell” in the sukkah for seven days.
Sitting in the sukkah is likened to residing within God’s loving embrace. The Jewish sages teach that these basic walls represent God’s arm and the sukkah is His embrace. In Song of Solomon 2:6 we read: “his right arm embraces me.” God’s arm embraces us through the sukkah. The first wall is like God’s arm, the second wall like God’s forearm, and the third smaller wall is like God’s hand. Together they surround us with a hug.
Fellowship Founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein wrote, “The walls that surround us are like the arms of God, sheltering, protecting, and loving us. What do we do while enjoying God’s embrace? We embrace each other. Inside the sukkah there is no TV and no outside distractions. It’s a space where all we have is each other. We enjoy and appreciate one another. In fact, the Jewish sages teach that Sukkot, which is known as “the time of our joy” is really about “the joy of time,” relishing the time to fully be with each other.”
As we sit in our sukkah we feel God’s presence. There, in the outdoors, vulnerable to wind, rain, and heat, we feel the loving presence of our Creator who protected the Israelites in the desert and shelters us still today. In addition, Jewish law requires the roof of the sukkah to be somewhat open so that it is possible to see the stars. All yearlong when we look up in our homes, we see the sturdy ceiling and roof as our source of protection. But in the sukkah when we look up and see the heavens, we know that our savior and protector is God.
A Holiday of Unity
Sukkot is also a holiday that celebrates unity and is about inclusivity. This theme of unity is echoed in the holiday’s other most prominent observance: The gathering of the four species, from four different kinds of trees: citron, date palm, myrtle, and willow.
In Scripture, we are directed to “take branches from luxuriant trees—from palms, willows and other leafy trees—and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). We bind the four elements together and bless them every day of the holiday. According to the Jewish sages teach the four species represents a different type of person.
On Sukkot, we take them all together, signaling that we embrace all types of people. We also demonstrate that we are only complete when we are bound to our fellow human beings. Moreover, it is only when we have meaningful relationships with others that we can truly experience joy.
The holiday of Sukkot is a reminder that a person can have all the material objects in the world, but it is a miserable existence if it’s not shared with others. Indeed, one of the greatest sources of joy in life is the enjoyment of bonding with others. On Sukkot we derive great happiness from being together with other people.
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.
Additionally, Sukkot also 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. It has become a tradition for Christians to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to celebrate Sukkot and participate in the annual Jerusalem March, expressing their solidarity and support for Israel.
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.