Leviticus 23:34-36, 39-43
Say to the Israelites: "On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the LORD's Feast of Tabernacles [sukkot] begins, and it lasts for seven days. The first day is a sacred assembly; do no regular work. For seven days present offerings made to the LORD by fire, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present an offering made to the LORD by fire. It is the closing assembly; do no regular work.
"So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the LORD for seven days; the first day is a day of rest, and the eighth day also is a day of rest. On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. Celebrate this as a festival to the LORD for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in booths for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God."
Celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. Be joyful at your Feast—you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. For seven days celebrate the Feast to the LORD your God at the place the LORD will choose. For the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.
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: Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the LORD your God has blessed you.
On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: "Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths"-as it is written.
So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.
The Hebrew word sukkot as it is used in the Bible comes from a root word that indicates a "hut," such as a shepherd's temporary hut, or perhaps a hunter or hiker's temporary shelter like a "lean-to," made out of entwined branches. The word is used to refer to a variety of such simple, temporary shelters, and is translated in a number of ways in the King James Version of the Bible, including tabernacle, tent, and booth. For further details on the use of the term, see the article What are "Tabernacles"?
Sukkot in the 1st Century
The following description of elements of the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in the 1st Century is a brief summary adapted from the descriptions offered in the following:
By late summer or very early autumn in ancient Israel, most of the crop of wheat would have been long since harvested and brought in to storage, and the harvest of the season's fruits and vegetables would be almost done. The grape harvest would be winding down, with wine-presses working overtime. As these agricultural responsibilities were being completed, Israelites from all over the land would have begun making preparations to go to Jerusalem for Sukkot, known in English as the Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths.
Sukkot was one of the three annual "pilgrimage festivals," when all male Israelites (and all of the members of their families, including servants, if possible) were expected to go to the central worship site in Jerusalem, where the Temple was located, for the seven-day Feast and the "Eighth Day Assembly" Holy Day that followed immediately afterward.
Farmers would have readied tithes and offerings from their harvest to present at the Temple, and shepherds would have chosen sacrificial animals from their flocks. Care would be taken to be sure to include widows, the fatherless, and the poor in general in the plans for the celebration in Jerusalem.
The Feast was to begin on the 15th day (at the time of the full moon) of Tishri, the seventh month of the Hebrew Calendar, a time period that falls in late September and/or early October on the modern Gregorian calendar. Before nightfall leading in to that day, each pilgrim family was be in Jerusalem. or within a "Sabbath Day's journey" of the city's edge (somewhat less than one mile). There they would have prepared for themselves and all in their family a sukkah to eat and sleep in for the seven days of the Feast, a temporary hut or "booth," often called a "tabernacle" in English. As described in Nehemiah above, these booths would have filled the streets, courtyards, and rooftops in Jerusalem and its near environs to overflowing.
In addition, before the beginning of the Feast, each family member would have been provided with a lulav and etrog to use in festive ceremonies at the Temple. The lulav was a cluster of branches which were to be held in the right hand (a tall central palm branch, flanked by some willow and myrtle branches), and the etrog a type of citrus fruit--looking much like a giant lemon--to be held in the right hand.
Edersheim describes the beginning of the Feast:
When the early autumn evening set in, the blasts of the priests' trumpets on the Temple Mount announced to Israel the advent of the feast.
As at the Passover and at Pentecost, the altar of burnt-offering was cleansed during the first night-watch, and the gates of the Temple were thrown open immediately after midnight. The time till the beginning of the ordinary morning sacrifice was occupied in examining the various sacrifices and offerings that were to be brought during the day.
While the morning sacrifice was being prepared, a priest, accompanied by a joyous procession with music, went down to the Pool of Siloam, whence he drew water into a golden pitcher, capable of holding three log (rather more than two pints). But on the Sabbaths they fetched the water from a golden vessel in the Temple itself, into which it had been carried from Siloam on the preceding day.
At the same time that the procession started for Siloam, another went to a place in the Kedron valley, close by, called Motza, whence they brought willow branches, which, amidst the blasts of the priests' trumpets, they stuck on either side of the altar of burnt-offering, bending them over towards it, so as to form a kind of leafy canopy. Then the ordinary sacrifice proceeded, the priest who had gone to Siloam so timing it, that he returned just as his brethren carried up the pieces of the sacrifice to lay them on the altar.
As he entered by the 'Water-gate,' which obtained its name from this ceremony, he was received by a threefold blast from the priests' trumpets.
The priest then went up the rise of the altar and turned to the left, where there were two silver basins with narrow holes--the eastern a little wider for the wine, and the western somewhat narrower for the water. Into these the wine of the drink-offering was poured, and at the same time the water from Siloam, the people shouting to the priest, 'Raise thy hand,' to show that he really poured the water into the basin which led to the base of the altar.
For, sharing the objections of the Sadducees, Alexander Jannaeus, the Maccabean king-priest (about 95 BC), had shown his contempt for the Pharisees by pouring the water at this feast upon the ground, on which the people pelted him with their aethrogs, and would have murdered him, if his foreign body-guard had not interfered, on which occasion no less than six thousand Jews were killed in the Temple.
As soon as the wine and the water were being poured out, the Temple music began, and the 'Hallel' (Psa 113-118) was sung in the manner previously prescribed, and to the accompaniment of flutes, except on the Sabbath and on the first day of the feast, when flute-playing was not allowed, on account of the sanctity of the days.
When the choir came to these words (Psa 118:1), 'O give thanks to the Lord,' and again when they sang (Psa 118:25), 'O work then now salvation, Jehovah'; and once more at the close (Psa 118:29), 'O give thanks unto the Lord,' all the worshippers shook their lulavs towards the altar.
After the Temple sacrifices and official ceremonies of that first day were complete, as evening drew, on the pilgrims were treated to a much more exuberant and free-spirited experience. The Mishnah records a comment, from the time before the destruction of the Temple, regarding Sukkot that notes about this portion of the Sukkot celebrations: "He who has not seen the rejoicing at the Place of the Water-Drawing [Hebrew: Simhat Beit haShoeva] has never seen rejoicing in his life."
In the Temple's "Courtyard of the Women" there were 3 or 4 (reports vary) huge, towering candelabra erected, each with four golden bowls at the top to hold oil. Young priests were assigned the job of carrying huge pitchers, holding perhaps almost four gallons of oil, up ladders to keep the bowls filled. Wicks for these candelabra were made from worn-out priestly garments. It was said that the light from these huge "torches" was so bright that there was not a court in Jerusalem that was not lit up by their flames.
At the feet of these, there was an amazing scene:
The actual participants in the celebrations were not the common folk, but the greatest scholars and the most pious men of the generation-the heads of the Sanhedrin, the sages, the academy heads and the elders. In the presence of all those assembled in the Holy Temple, these exceedingly righteous men would dance, sing and rejoice. All the denizens of Israel came to watch and listen. There were those amongst the sages who even danced while juggling flaming torches! It is related that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel juggled eight such torches, catching them in his hands one at a time without allowing them to touch each other. In utter simplicity, without regard to their own stature or station, they danced in honor of the libation, the holiday, and most of all, to honor the Holy One who has chosen to make His presence known in this house. It was in this same spirit that King David danced before the ark of the L-rd (see II Samuel 6:21).
While the dancing was going on, a massive "orchestra and chorus" of Levites filled the 15 steps that led from the Court of Israel to the Court of the Women. They sang and played on harps, lutes, cymbals, trumpets, and other instruments. This went on through the night, until early the next morning:
Two priests, with trumpets in their hands, were at the upper gate (that of Nicanor), which led from the Court of Israel to that of the Women. At cock-crowing they drew a threefold blast. As they reached the tenth step, they drew another threefold blast; as they entered the court itself, they drew yet another threefold blast; and so they blew as they advanced, till they reached the gate which opens upon the east (the Beautiful Gate). (Edersheim, ibid)
And then the water ceremony was repeated. This continued for each day of the Feast, and thus it is not surprising that one contemporary rabbi noted that many were exhausted, although exhilarated, by the end of the week, with so little opportunities to catch up on sleep!
All throughout the week there would be numerous official sacrifices commanded especially for the Feast, as well as huge numbers of other offerings and sacrifices brought by worshippers. Some sacrifices involved the complete burning up of an animal, but often they consisted of just a representative portion turned over to the priest, with the rest returned to the worshipper for festive meals that he would host for his family, friends, and the poor.
At the end of the seventh day, the Feast of Tabernacles itself was considered to be at an end, and the sukkahs would be taken down before sundown. And on the eighth day a closing assembly would be held with more rituals and sacrifices at the Temple. After that, the teeming crowds of visitors who had filled Jerusalem would disperse, back to their home towns.
Sukkot in the 21st Century
In 70 AD, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the midst of a rebellion by the Jews of Israel. Many of the people were driven from the land, dispersed all over the Roman Empire. And thus the joyous festivities of the annual Feast of Sukkot in Jerusalem came to an end.
Whether in exile in other countries, or still in Israel, the Jewish religious leaders had to come to some conclusion on the matter of observance of the annual Feasts. It was impossible to continue the prescribed sacrifices and rituals, as the details required a Temple, its altar, its Holy Place, and its Holy of Holies.
Thus began generations of development of the endorsement of "alternate" ways to celebrate by Jewish rabbis. And it soon became obvious that observance of the annual Feasts and Holy Days would have to center around the primary Jewish institution still left standing, the local synagogue (a word which indicates both the congregation of people who meet together for worship and study of the scriptures, and often also the building in which such gatherings are held.) By the time of Christ, there were synagogues in most towns of any size, and they were already the main focal point of Jewish worship on the weekly Sabbath.
By the 21st century, the Sukkot rituals, symbolism, and celebration customs of the 1st century have been long since adapted to this synagogue system. Some of these adaptations would still seem very familiar to the 1st century Jew, some might be very puzzling.
The sukkah is still one of the features of the seven days of Sukkot. But now it is built right in the home town of each Jewish family, usually right up against their own home. They are seldom substantial enough to actually sleep in (especially in colder climates), often more of a "symbolic" dwelling than a real one. The requirement these days is that a family at least take some of their meals in the sukkah, and perhaps study and pray there.
Larger sukkahs are sometimes built as temporary gathering places for members of local synagogues, for parties and other activities of the week of Sukkot.
Rather than made totally out of branches, modern sukkahs most often have solid sides, out of such materials as lumber, fiberglass, or canvas, with only the roofing made out of fresh vegetation.
Frames can be made out of lumber, aluminum poles, and more. You can even buy "pre-fab" sukkahs online! Sample:
The whole family is usually involved in putting up the sukkah and decorating it, often with flowers, plants, autumn foliage, and with fruits and vegetables--everything from apples and bananas to squash and ears of corn--perhaps hanging from the ceiling. Children may also create artwork to go on the walls, and paper chains and other hand-made decorations to add to the festive feel.
The sukkah is great fun for the children. Building the sukkah each year satisfies the common childhood fantasy of building a fort, and dwelling in the sukkah satisfies a child's desire to camp out in the backyard. The commandment to "dwell" in a sukkah can be fulfilled by simply eating all of one's meals there; however, if the weather, climate, and one's health permit, one should spend as much time in the sukkah as possible, including sleeping in it.
A sukkah must have at least two and a half walls covered with a material that will not blow away in the wind. ...The "walls" of the sukkah do not have to be solid; canvas covering tied or nailed down is acceptable and quite common in the United States. A sukkah may be any size, so long as it is large enough for you to fulfill the commandment of dwelling in it. The roof of the sukkah must be made of material referred to as sekhakh (literally, covering). To fulfill the commandment, sekhakh must be something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks, bamboo reeds, sticks, or two-by-fours. Sekhakh must be left loose, not tied together or tied down. Sekhakh must be placed sparsely enough that rain can get in, and preferably sparsely enough that the stars can be seen, but not so sparsely that more than ten inches is open at any point or that there is more light than shade. The sekhakh must be put on last. Note: You may put a water-proof cover over the top of the sukkah when it is raining to protect the contents of the sukkah, but you cannot use it as a sukkah while it is covered and you must remove the cover to fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah.
Family members still each have a lulav and etrog. Instead of shaking these toward the altar as in ancient Israel, now they will be shaken toward the bima, the platform or table in the front of a synagogue that holds scrolls while they are read during worship services. They are waved during certain prayers in the synagogue, and carried in processions around the bima that are reminiscent of the processions around the altar in the 1st century.
In addition, these items are used regularly in a short ceremony in connection with blessings said at home in the sukkah. The following description of this ceremony is from a webpage that has a little animated figure of a Jewish man demonstrating this process.
Stand facing the east (or whatever direction is toward Jerusalem from where you are).
Take the etrog in your left hand with the stem (green tip) up and the pitam (brown tip) down. Take the lulav (including the palm, myrtle and willow branches bound together) in your right hand. Bring your hands together and recite the blessing below.
After you recite the blessing, turn the etrog so the stem is down and the pitam is up. Be careful not to damage the pitam! With the lulav and etrog together, gently shake forward (East) three times, then pull the lulav and etrog back in front of your chest. Repeat this to the right (South), then over your right shoulder (West), then to the left (North), then up, then down.
For those who take their lulav shaking seriously as a deep matter of spiritual obligation, there is much more detail to the process. You can read about this here:
The ancient night festivities of the massive Simhat Beit haShoeva celebrations at the Temple are mildly reflected in parties called by that name, usually held at local synagogues, with festive meals inside a large communal sukkah, and plenty of music and singing and dancing--perhaps even some juggling!
For a useful extensive overview from a Jewish perspective of the modern Jewish observance of Sukkoth, see the descriptions at the link below. The material in this article on the Times of Refreshing site was in part adapted from this overview.
The appearance of the Hebrew alphabet has nothing in common with the English alphabet. A number of Hebrew letters have sounds that are not distinctly connected to separate sounds in English. And even Hebrew itself is spoken in a wide variety of dialects depending on the cultural background of the speaker. Therefore attempts to transliterate (reproduce the sounds of a word or phrase in letters from one language to another) are always speculative at best. Even within the English-speaking community of Jews, there are wide variations in the way that Hebrew words are transliterated into English, with no central standard to draw from. In the articles in this series on Jewish Feast and Holy Day Customs, as well as throughout this Times of Refreshing website in general, in order to follow some sort of systematic way of transliterating, an attempt has been made to choose those transliterations that are most typical on the Internet. For instance, the Hebrew term for the Feast of Tabernacles is transliterated on some websites as Sukkot (1,160,000), others as Sukkos (119,000), others as Sukkoth (76,600), still others as Succot (128,000) or Succoth (162,000). In this case, the most typical choice is obvious, so Sukkot is the spelling of choice on this site. In other cases, the variations in spelling are much closer in numbers, and an arbitrary decision has had to be made.
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