Hashanah and Yom Kippur but is associated more with Passover and Shavuot. (Leviticus 23:33-41)
Sukkot is the last of the seven feasts. It falls on the last seven days of the seventh month and we are commanded to observe it seven times. Seven is the number of completion as seen in Genesis 2:2 when God’s work was completed in seven days. The number seven plays special significance in this, the final fall feast.
What is Sukkot?
Sukkot is first mentioned in the Bible as the name of the first stopping place of the Israelites on their journey out of Egypt in Exodus.
“Ya’acov went on to Sukkot, where he built himself a house and put up shelters for his cattle. This is why the place is called Sukkot [shelters].”
The word “sukkot” actually means “woven”. These shelters (booths) were woven together from branches and leaves to protect the animals from the sun, so sukkot later came to mean the hut or booth with the “woven” roof. Since we are commanded to build a hut or booth on this holiday as a reminder of G-d’s sheltering care for us, this feast is called “Sukkot”. (One booth is a “sukkah”, and being a feminine noun, in Hebrew the plural becomes “sukkot”.)
“You are to live in sukkot for seven days; every citizen of Israel is to live in sukkah, so that generation after generation of you will know that I made the people of Israel live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am Adonai your God.”
We physically reenact the building of these flimsy shelters to remind us of the time spent in the wilderness when we were totally dependent on God for everything. According to the law of nature, the nation should have perished due to their lack of food, water, no road map, no mall to buy new clothes and shoes when they wore out in forty years. The Lord met each need in abundance, so we celebrate this holiday to remember His faithfulness and our dependence on Him. The sukkah was purposely made flimsy and constructed outside. It should be made so that the stars can be seen through the roof and rain can fall in. This is to show our dependence on G-d as our protector and provider, and not some wood or brick building. When we are outside, we are closer to nature and it is easier to physically see how G-d is so obviously in charge of things. It also makes us aware of how fragile human life is. We get another lesson in trusting G-d as our protector and provider. Most Jews today just visit a sukkah, or at best, eat a meal in one. Remember that G-d has commanded us to actually dwell in a sukkah for seven days! Try it – it can be like camping out in your own backyard!
Although the sukkah is to be primitive and flimsy, it may also be a thing of beauty. We are commanded to do three things for the sukkah – live in it, gather lulav and etrog, and enjoy the feast! Part of the enjoyment is to engage the whole family in building and decorating the sukkah. Children can participate so that they too may know of God’s provision. If they are too young to actually put the sukkah together they can make decorations sukkah paper chains or drawings to put up once it is constructed. If there is no space to make one outside, the family can make a miniature sukkah out of twigs and leaves on a tabletop.
Sukkot is celebrated at this time of year because it is associated with the ancient Israeli cycle of agriculture. Fall was the time of the final harvest when the abundance of the fields was gathered in thankfulness. A reference to this is mentioned in Isaiah 1:8 where there were temporary huts, or “sukkot”, for the harvesters in the vineyard. They were occupied by the watchmen in the fields who protected the ripe harvest before it could be gathered.
– Tishrei 15: 1st day, Sabbath rest
– Tishrei 16: 2nd day, enjoy the festival
– Tishrei 17: 3rd day, Chol HaMoed (1st intermediate day)
– Tishrei 18: 4th day, Chol HaMoed (2nd intermediate day)
– Tishrei 19: 5th day, Chol HaMoed (3rd intermediate day)
– Tishrei 20: 6th day, Chol HaMoed (4th intermediate day)
– Tishrei 21: 7th day, Hoshana Rabbah (“the great praise”)
– Tishrei 22: 8th day, Shimini Atzaret (“solemn assembly”, a Sabbath rest)
– Tishrei 23: 9th day, Simchat Torah (“rejoicing in the Law”)
Building a sukkah can also has spiritual meaning for believers: The world and its material things are a spiritual desert or even a wilderness. We would wither without Messiah’s intervention on our behalf. Without His presence, power, and provision, we would be left naked, destitute, and in darkness.
I Chronicles 29:15
“For in your presence we are temporary residents, just passing through, as all our ancestors were our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope.”
This verse should cause us to reflect on how much we rely on flimsy things, the temporary trappings of the world that have no eternal value. Spending time out in the sukkah and remembering what God did for the nation of Israel as He led them to a better place reinforces our faith that God will keep His promise to us. This promise is that He will guide us to our permanent home promised in heaven.
II Corinthians 5:1
“We know that when the tent which houses us here on earth is torn down, we have a permanent building from God, a building not made by human hands, to house us in heaven.”
While only temporary, the sukkah experience is to be enjoyable. Rabbis have said that you are not to eat your meal in the sukkah if it is raining. This would take away some of the joy of this feast, one we are actually commanded to enjoy:
“Seven days you are to keep the festival for Adonai your God in the place Adonai your God will choose, because Adonai your God will bless you in all your crops and in all your work, so you are to be full of joy!”
The rabbis have given another name to this feast which is “Zeman Simchateinu” or “season of our joy.” The rejoicing should not just be for God’s provision of our daily bread, but also for our spiritual food. This is why Sukkot is so closely tied with the High Holidays.
The theme from Rosh Hashanah is repentance and a turning to God. Then we are to examine our relationship with Him in the ten Days of Awe. This leads us to experience His redemption on Yom Kippur, realizing that we have our atonement through Yeshua. It naturally follows that we can now rejoice in God’s forgiveness during Sukkot.
Now we can see how we get the different names associated with Sukkot:
– “Chag HaSukkot”: Festival of Booths (Leviticus 23:24)
– “Chag Ha’Asif”: Festval of Ingathering (Exodus 23:16)
– “Zeman Simchateinu”: Season of Our Rejoicing (Deuteronomy 16:14)
– “Chag”: The Feast (Leviticus 23:39-41)
– “Hoshana Rabbah”: The Great Hoshana (the seventh day of the feast)
– “Shimini Atzeret”: Solemn Assembly (the eighth day of the feast)
– “Simchat Torah”: Rejoicing in the Law (the ninth day of the feast, or the second day of Shimini Atzeret, often considered a separate holiday)
Sukkot is also known as the “Feast of the Lord” or simply “The Feast.” In Hebrew, the word feast is “hag” and its root means to “to dance” or “to be joyous” before the Lord. This feast was the biggest ceremony in Bible times.
The name “The Feast of the Ingathering.” has dual meanings. As the final agricultural harvest the crops were gathered in. It is also an “ingathering” because Sukkot is one of the three feasts where all men are required to appear before God in
“Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles. No man should appear before the LORD empty-handed.“
The last part of the verse mentions that the people are not to come empty handed before the Lord. Indeed, they were not empty handed for Sukkot! No other feast required so many sacrifices as spelled out in detail in Numbers 29:12-39. It is also interesting to note how many times the number seven is used – seven days, seventy bullocks, fourteen rams, ninety-eight lambs; they are all divisible by seven. Altogether, there were 182 animals mentioned (which is 26 x 7). Added to this was the 336 tenths ephahs of flour for the meal offering (which is 48 x 7). It is like the number seven, symbolizing completion, is imprinted on this, the seventh feast in the seventh month. Does this idea of “completion” symbolize something else for us?
While the idea of “ingathering” signifies the presentation of crops before the Lord and the gathering of Israelites to Jerusalem, believer’s can also see it to mean the “ingathering” of Yeshua’s children. Yeshua says to those who believe in Him:
“In my Father’s house there are many places to live. If there weren’t, I would have told you; because I am going there to prepare a place for you. Since I am going and preparing a place for you, I will return to take you with me; so that where I am you may be also.”
The spirit of thankfulness was especially true at the time of Sukkot in ancient Israel. Their economy was mostly agricultural, so the people relied heavily on the cycle of crops for their sustenance. These crops were dependent on rain that was very scarce in the arid Middle East. As is true today, farmers must have great faith, depending on G-d for the moisture necessary to avoid famine.
During the time of Yeshua, the high point of the Sukkot celebration was the “drawing of water” ceremony when the people called upon the Lord to provide heavenly waters for their next harvest season. This was a very grand event that was full of much pomp and drama. It reached its peak on the last day of Sukkot called “Hoshana Rabbah”. Accompanied by throngs of chanting worshippers and flutists, the Levitical priests went to the pool of Siloam near the temple mount. There he filled a golden pitcher with water and returned to the temple. The crowd entered through the Water Gate that was named for this ceremony. The choir and the worshippers began chanting the words of Psalm 118 called the “Hallel”, or praise psalm. (as in “Beth Hallel“, house of praise)
O LORD, save us; O LORD, grant us success.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. (in Hebrew: “Baruch ha ba b’shem Adonai”) From the house of the LORD we bless you.
This expressed the messianic hope of the people at that time, oppressed by their Roman overseers. It was very appropriate that Yeshua appeared on the scene, with the multitudes chanting “Please deliver us, Son of David!” as they laid the palm branches associated with Sukkot in His path:
A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest!”
This ceremony also held a deep spiritual significance. Water is a symbol of the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit. The people were aware of this as they gathered to pray for the fall rains. The prophet Joel spoke of the Lord pouring down the latter rains:
Be glad, O people of Zion, rejoice in the LORD your God,
for he has given you the autumn rains in righteousness.
He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before.
In Joel the connection is made between these rains and the Spirit:
“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.”
The Talmud, referring to this water ceremony at Sukkot asks: “Why is the name of it called the drawing out of water? It is because of the pouring out of the Ruach HaKodesh according to what is said…(referring to Isaiah:)
“Then you will joyfully draw from the springs of salvation.”
This is the name given to our Messiah, for “salvation” in Hebrew is Yeshua!
Besides the water ceremony, there was the ceremony of the “illumination of the temple.” This is where four enormous golden candelabras were lit. This was a terrific spectacle that has been noted in Rabbinical commentaries. The Mishna says that pious worshippers would rejoice and dance well into the night holding torches and singing songs of praise. It is said that the light from these candelabras on the Temple Mount could be seen for miles!
It is no coincidence that on this last day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabba, with the themes of light and water on the minds of the multitudes, that Yeshua came to the Temple to proclaim a message that offered better water and light that would totally satisfy the needs of the people:
“Now on the last day of the festival, Hoshana Rabbah, Yeshua stood and cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him keep coming to me and drinking! Whoever puts his trust in me, as the Scripture says, rivers of living water will flow from his inmost being!” Yeshua struck a chord with the people who knew the scripture He was referring to:
“For I will pour water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground; I will our my Spirit on your descendants, my blessing on your offspring.” As bright as the lights were during this joyous occasion, Yeshua proclaimed an even brighter light for all:
“Yeshua spoke to them again: ‘I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light which gives life.”
Yeshua offered life and redemption to all the pilgrims at Sukkot. He was announcing the coming of the messianic age. Zechariah describes the return of the Lord when He will stand on the Mount of Olives. God will personally deliver his people:
“On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem…”
Later he describes the unique light also present in those days and the Living Waters flowing out of Jerusalem:
It will be a unique day, without daytime or nighttime–a day known to the LORD. When evening comes, there will be light. On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter.
These are not just natural waters, but spiritual waters of salvation. The multitude could continue to rejoice because of what followed in Zechariah:
“Finally, everyone remaining from all the nations that came to attack Yerushalayim will go up every year to worship the King, the Lord, and to keep the festival of Sukkot.”
What a great messianic prophecy! Yeshua came to the masses on the last day of Sukkot and proclaimed that there was a way for them to be cleansed of their sin so that they no longer needed to atone for them year after year as they had just done
on Yom Kippur. He was pointing to a time that Ezekiel had prophesied about:
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
This feast is the most joyous of Israel’s feast. It came at a time when the crops had been reaped and the people’s heats had been naturally gladdened by the bounty. As they presented themselves in Jerusalem, they recalled when they were gathered there six months earlier, when they had dedicated their entire feast to the Lord during First Fruits. At that time they remembered the Exodus from Egypt and the Passover with its fulfillment of the true Passover sacrifice, the perfect Lamb of God – Yeshua. Then they would recall that seven weeks after that they gathered again for the grain harvest, or Shavuot. This was remembered as the time when the Law was given on Mount Sinai. It also points to the time when the Holy Spirit fulfilled this feast by writing the Law on their hearts at Pentecost. Now, gathering for Sukkot, the people remembered God’s provision in the wilderness when they had dwelled in booths. The fulfillment of this feast will be the harvest of the nations when they will all be gathered to worship the Lord when He returns to reign in Jerusalem:
“I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “See! God’s Sh’khinah (G-d’s presence) is with mankind, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples and he himself, God-with-them, will be their God.”
There is a very good reason for rejoicing at Sukkot – especially for believers. Rosh Hashanah’s theme is to turn the nation of Israel to repentance with the sound of the shofar. Prophetically this will signal Messiah’s return. Yom Kippur’s theme is the redemption and forgiveness through the atonement of Yeshua. One day all of Israel will recognize Him as Lord. On Sukkot, we rejoice in the Lord’s gathering of His people to tabernacle with Him. Then they will truly “sealed in the book of life.”
This points to a future Sukkot:
“After this, I looked; and there before me was a huge crowd, too large for anyone to count, from every nation, tribe and language. They were standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palm branches in their hands; and they shouted, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
Almost as common as the sukkah are the “four species”, or “lulav” and “etrog” ritual items derived from an interpretation of materials mentioned in Torah:
“On the first day you are to take choice fruit, palm fronds, thick branches and river-willows, and celebrate in the presence of Adonai your God for seven days.”
Some believe that this verse describes the actual materials to be used in making a sukkah, but rabbis have come to agree that these materials are to be bound together and waved in rejoicing during the festival. This is where we get the “lulav” and the “etrog”.
“Etrog” is Aramaic for “that which shines.” Over time, it has come to mean a citrus fruit. Rabbis say that this fruit is implied by the phrase “foliage on goodly trees” where “goodly” meant both, the taste of the wood of the tree, and the trees fruit. Only the citron fulfills these requirements. Another way to understand the etrog is by using the numerical values of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The number values in the phrase “fruit of goodly trees” matches the number values in “etrogim” (plural for etrog).
“Lulav” originally meant sprout, but has come to mean willow, myrtle, and palm branches. Myrtle was chosen because of the phrase “boughs of leafy trees.” There are various explanations for the four species that have been chosen. Each of the four species refers to a specific place on a persons body where he/she can serve God.
– The etrog represents the heart, a place of understanding and wisdom.
– The palm represents the backbone and one’s uprightness.
– The myrtle represents the eyes that give us enlightenment.
– The willow represents the lips and our prayers to G-d.
Both the lulav and the etrog are used in the synagogue each day during Sukkot. The etrog is placed in one’s left hand and the lulav (myrtle, willow, and palm branches bound together) are in the right hand and are to be waved in the direction of the four compass points during certain times of the Sukkot service.
Other traditions include inviting symbolic guests, or “ushpizim” to visit the sukkah. These are Bible patriarchs such as Abraham, Isaac, Moses, etc. The idea is to recall those who went before us who were wanderers, those who depended on G-d’s shelter and provision. We can turn this tradition into a time to teach our living guests about these Bible characters. This is a time to show hospitality by inviting others to share a meal under the sukkah. This would be especially appropriate to offer to anyone who does not have a sukkah of their own.
It is also traditional to recite the Hoshanah Psalm while circling around the synagogue. Some have turned this into a joyous celebration by including dancers, musicians and others waving the lulav and etrog in a loud procession. The Megillah, or short scroll associated with this feast is the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Its soul searching, somewhat dark, contemplative nature, more associated with Yom Kippur, is said to balance the joyous note of Sukkot. It is traditionally read on the last day of the feast.
A tradition of Moroccan Jews is to pour water on each other, perhaps a reminder of the pouring-out-of-water ceremony during Temple times. What a great idea for our warm fall days!
Of course the biggest tradition is the building of the sukkah. Traditionally, the first branches of the sukkah are lashed together just after the Yom Kippur break-fast. Each family can build one, or it may be a communal project, involving the whole synagogue. In addition, a small sukkah can be put together completely by children.
The best choice in materials are natural branches or other organic items such as bamboo. Some people use branches from Magnolia trees that have a fragrance to encourage people to stay in the sukkah. If possible, the items should be secured with rope or twine verses nails, again to emphasize the structure’s temporary nature. However, make sure your sukkah doesn’t come crashing down on a table-full of guests! A string of outdoor lanterns, a rug, hay bales, or potted plants will make the sukkah inviting.
All types of natural items can be suspended from the “skhakh”, or roof of the sukkah. Apples and pears are easily tied by the stem, and will keep for the length of the feast. Some use the seven fruits of harvest mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8, such as wheat, barely, vines, figs, pomegranates, olives, and honeycomb. This is another symbol of G-d’s rich blessing of provision for us.