Where does Sukkot come from?
Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) is one of the three God ordained festivals during which Jews made pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Exodus 23:16 mentions the three Feasts:
"Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year:
You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread… at the time appointed in the month of Abib… and the Feast of Harvest, the first fruits of your labors which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.” (NKJV)
About the Feast of Tabernacles we read in Deuteronomy 16:13 “You shall observe the Feast of Tabernacles seven days, when you have gathered from your threshing floor and from your winepress… Three times a year… and they shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you.” (NKJV)
Further Biblical guidelines for Sukkot are written in Leviticus 23:40-44, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days… You shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days…”
Historical and Agricultural significance
The three Pilgrims Feasts - Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Tabernacles) have both historical and agricultural significance. Sukkot occurred in the fall harvest.
The season of rejoicing
Following the solomn and soul searching days, Sukkot is a week of rejoicing, beginning on the 15th of the Jewish month of Tishrei, the date of the first full moon after the autumnal equinox. (Usually September or October) During the week, the Jewish people eat their meals in a tabernacle or booth, (the sukkah) that is covered with leafy boughs, but with the sky showing through, in remembrance of their wanderings in the desert.
A week-long holiday
In Israel, the first days are celebrated as full holidays; the last day (the Eight Day of Solemn Assembly” is also kept as a holiday, followed by Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Law). Thus in reality the holiday lasts nine days. The middle days are called “Hol ha Mo’ed”, in which people work, but the festival framework is maintained.
Different names relating to the Festival
Hag ha Asif – Festival of the Ingathering of the crops
Hag ha Sukkot – Festival of Tabernacles
Hag – the Festival, a popular name with the rabbis, suggesting that Sukkot was the holiday par excellence.
Zeman Simchatenu – the Season of our Rejoicing, referring to the Bible’s commandment to “be joyful”.
Thanksgiving during Sukkot
With the destruction of the Temple, the Feast’s centrality disappeared, as most Jews lost contact with agriculture.
The holiday’s main observance involves “dwelling” in the sukkah. However, the concept of thanksgiving for the harvest remains central, symbolized by the fruits (real or artificial) that decorate the sukkot (one sukkah, two sukkot).
Some say the American Pilgrim fathers were influenced by the Jewish observance of Sukkot, from which Thanksgiving Day came.
The Sukkah’s many uses
Because most Bible translations use the word “Booth”, we often overlook it when their mentioned.
During their wanderings in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, the Israelites built these temporary structures of branches and animal skin.
We read in Genesis 33:17 that Jacob made booths for his cattle, to shelter them.
Soldiers in the field used them as living quarters; Uriah the Hittite mentions them during his conversation with King David.
The Hebrew word used for lion’s-den is “sukkah”.
Jonah built himself a sukkah while he waited for Nineveh’s destruction.
Farmers and wine growers would go out to the vineyards with their entire household to bring in the harvest, (which could take a month), during which time they lived in the sukkah.
What was used to build a sukkah?
The first sukkot built in the wilderness were probably made from the branches of the acacia tree. This tree grows abundantly in the desert wadi’s where floodwaters provide the necessary moisture. The Ark of the Covenant was made of acacia wood.
Once in the Promised Land, the Israelites were able to use the trees of the forest to build sukkot, as we can read in Nehemiah 8:15.
The Bible mentions olive, pine, myrtle, and palm branches, including those of thick trees.
Together with the reminder of Israel’s journey in the wilderness, the rabbis said the sukkah was the symbolic reminder of man’s reliance on Divine protection.
“In Salem [Jerusalem] also is His tabernacle, [sukkah] And His dwelling place in Zion.” (Psalm 76:2 NKJV)
“…then the LORD will create above every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and above her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night. For over all the glory there will be a covering. And there will be a tabernacle [sukkah] for shade in the daytime from the heat, for a place of refuge, and for a shelter from storm and rain.” (Isaiah 4:5, 6 NKJV)
Enter, exalted holy guest…
Ushpizin, (Aramaic word for guests) was a 16th century Kabalistic custom that is still part of the religious observance. Ushpizin refers to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David who each day are symbolically welcomed into the sukkah.
The Four Species
A general part of the Festival are the “four species” – Araba’ah Minim - which are held together and waved at different points in the religious services, in accordance with the commandment “Rejoice before the LORD”.
The four species consist of a lulav - palm branch, etrog – citron, hadasim – three myrtle twigs, and the aravot – two willow branches. These species combined are called the Lulav.