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September 24, 2018


“Sukka” on the balcony of an apartment across from Mount Zion.


“On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. You shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths [Hebrew: sukkot] for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 23:39-43 ESV).

“And they found written in the Torah, which YHVH had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in sukkot during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should proclaim it and publish it in all their towns and in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Go out to the mountain, and bring olive branches, branches of oil trees, myrtle branches, palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.’ Then the people went out and brought them and made themselves sukkot, each one on the roof of his house, or in their courtyards or the courts of the house of God, and in the open square of the Water Gate and in the open square of the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made sukkot and lived in the sukkot, and there was very great rejoicing!” (Nehemiah 8:14-15)

Sukkot is plural for sukkah (or succah), which most often in the Scriptures refers to a small, rude, temporary shelter. This is something removed from the large tents or meeting halls which its English equivalent “Tabernacles” might nowadays bring to mind in some Christian circles! Nor is this Hebrew word the same as that used for the “Tabernacle” in which the Levites ministered to the LORD in the wilderness (That is Ohel Moed – “tent of meeting,” or Mishkan—”dwelling place”).

In ancient times, sukkot were used as:

  • Sheds for cattle (Genesis 33:17)
  • Guard shacks for watchmen over vineyards (Isaiah 1:8). Jonah built for himself a sukkah outside Nineveh (Jonah 4:5) from which to observe what God might do to that city.
  • Overnight shelters for warriors in the field (II Samuel 11:11). In Psalm 27:5 David trusts that God will hide him in His sukkah in the “evil day”.

As part of an annual fall “ingathering” festival to be celebrated after she had entered Canaan and was living in nicely constructed houses (Exodus 23:16), Israel was called to rejoice and feast before the Lord for seven days, resting on the first and eighth days (see first Scripture passage above). For that occasion she was also called to build and, for the first seven days, spend time in sukkot.

“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days” (Leviticus 23:40).

Jewish tradition has identified the “fruit of splendid trees” with the etrog (English “citron”—a fragrant, lemon-like fruit), the “branch of palm trees” with the lulav (unopened frond of a special palm), “boughs of leafy trees” with the myrtle. Although originally these fruit and branches were (and still often are) the materials for making and decorating the sukkah (See Nehemiah passage above), one way of “rejoicing before the LORD” practiced from ancient times is that of waving them together. The palm, myrtle and willow branch are bound together, and held in the right hand, while the etrog is held in the other. The user brings the two hands together and waves the species in four directions, then up and down, attesting to God’s mastery over all of creation. Since, when shaken, it makes a pattering sound reminiscent of rain, the waving of the lulav is also seen as representative of a prayer for God’s provision of rain over the coming season (The “Former Rains” begin in Israel during late autumn.).

Today, we still build these tiny sukkot for use during the festival. Besides blessing with the lulav, we also gather leafy, fruitful boughs of foliage, and bright fragrant fruit to decorate the sukka. This brings to mind how, whilst Israel was in the desert, moving from place to place with these temporary dwellings, God’s presence was nevertheless with them as a source of life and beauty. Deuteronomy 29:5 records how this supernatural source of “Life” kept their very clothes and sandals from wearing out—for forty years! I Corinthians 10:4 in the New Covenant reveals that Israel’s refreshing during those forty years was a “rock” which followed them, and that rock was Messiah!

Setting up and decorating the sukkah is a happy family affair (perhaps in some ways similar to that of Christians in other nations when they decorate a Christmas tree!). And not only in the home—walking past almost any restaurant in Jerusalem this week, one will see succot out on the sidewalks with tables inside for guests to be able to enjoy their away-from-home meals or coffee in a succa!

As we rejoice in thanksgiving before the Lord for His provision and sustenance, the sukkot remind us that we are in fact still abiding in temporary dwellings – that, as goes the old American spiritual, “this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through!” That, “if our earthly house, this tent, this sukkah, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavenlies!” (II Corinthians 5:1) Yet while we are here, the living presence of this same LORD who accompanied Israel through the desert will be with us all the way.

Significantly, during this season many Jews read through the book of Ecclesiastes – that strange, poetic, unflinching examination of passing “vanities” to which we are tempted to attach our eyes and affections during our journey through this earthly passage “under the sun”.

The feast begins and ends with a special “sabbath” (Mondays, 24 September and 1 October this year). Since these two days are “holy” (i.e. set apart), those in between are called chol—”ordinary”. During Chol Ha’moed (the ordinary part of this special, “appointed season”) many people in Israel will have abbreviated work days, and children will be out of school for the entire week.

Finally, among Messianic Jews this is generally considered to be the season in which the Holy One Yeshua (Jesus) came into the world in Beit-Lehem (“House of Bread”, Bethlehem) – a time when the Son of God took on human flesh to dwell (the other word for “tabernacle”) among us. After atoning for our sin, He defeated death and was raised on high, where He has gone to prepare a place for us, in His Father’s house—where there are many (permanent!) dwelling places. We eagerly await His return—

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and He will dwell with them…'”(Revelation 21:3)


A Happy Feast of Tabernacles Celebration!

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