In Part 1 of the Sukkot series, we surveyed the Scriptures and discovered that this Appointed Time of Sukkot is a time of great rejoicing. We also identified at least three commands given by God in relationship to the Feast: the children of Israel are to 1) dwell in sukkot (booths), 2) gather the Four Species, and 3) Rejoice. Today, we will look at how these commands are carried out, and hopefully unearth some of their deeper meanings. Let’s dig in…
Building, Decorating, and Dwelling in the Sukkah
As we’ve already learned, the most prominent symbol in all of Sukkot is that of the Sukkah, a booth in which the observant Jewish family will dwell for the duration of the Festival. Many Jews are so eager for this joyful time together with family and friends that they’ll immediately begin constructing their sukkah at Yom Kippur’s closure on 10 Tishrei--five days prior to 15 Tishrei--when the Torah commands families to commence their booth-dwelling week! The Bible instructs us: “You are to live in sukkot” (Lev. 23:42); of course, implicit in that command is that a sukkah had to be constructed. Where the Torah is vague regarding Sukkot, Jewish rabbis have provided us with direction as to how this process looks. Essentially, the sukkah is required to be built outside--perhaps “in a yard or [on] a roof, or even a balcony” (Parsons)--and to have three walls, made of materials selected by the builder (e.g. wood, brick, tarp). The sukkah’s appearance illustrates it’s temporary nature, evoking thoughts of the transitory time of the children of Israel in the desert and, furthermore, our own quickly-passing earthly lives:
“For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.” (2 Cor. 5:4, KJV)
The roof of the sukkah--it’s most important feature--must be covered by “anything that grows from the ground, such as branches, two-by-fours, and bushes” (Kasdan). In the Middle East, the most often used materials are palm branches. It is mandatory that the roof include openings whereby its occupants can observe the stars at night, yet again signifying the temporariness of the structure and its builders.
Certainly the following Psalm comes to many a stargazer’s mind as he or she beholds the vast expanse:
When I observe Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You set in place, what is man that You remember him, the son of man that You look after him? Psalm 8:3-4, HCSB
Once a family has erected and decorated their sukkah--it is a mitzvah (commandment) for every Jew to participate in the process--on 15 Tishrei, the first holiday meal for the festival is to be enjoyed by the family inside the sukkah.
Significance of Arba'at Ha-minim ("The Four Species")
As was stated in Part 1, second only to the sukkah as prominent symbols of this feast are the Arba’at Ha-minim, which are gathered in keeping with the commandment found in Leviticus 23:40.
Making up “the four species” are the following (Scripture references in parenthesis are from CJB version of Lev. 23:40; the Rabbinical descriptions for each of the species was retrieved from Barney Kasdan’s God Appointed Times):
- An etrog, or citron, a lemon-like fruit from Israel (“choice fruit”). The etrog, with its sweet taste and pleasant smell, is representative of a “person with knowledge of the Torah and good deeds.”
- The lulav, or palm branch (“palm fronds”). The fruit of this branch being sweet, yet without fragrance, is said by rabbis to represent “people [who] have knowledge, but no good deeds.”
- The hadas, or myrtle (“thick branches”) has a nice aroma, yet is tasteless, thereby symbolic of the person possessing “good deeds without true knowledge.”
- And an arava, or willow (“river-willows”). This last of the four species contains “neither taste nor smell, [representing] the person who lacks both knowledge and deeds.”
(As Messianic believers, we contend that no person but One, our Messiah, could ever be classified as that which the etrog represents. The prophet Isaiah attests to this when he says that even the best of our deeds are but filthy rags before a Holy God (Isa. 64:6). The Apostle Paul, too, acknowledged that even with his years of Rabbinical training, prior to His encounter with Yeshua, that he was “ignorant” (1 Tim. 1:13). Yeshua alone is perfect in Torah knowledge and adherence. The rest of us may attain some level of Torah literacy and obedience, but still are found desperately wanting. Without Messiah, mankind can only be represented by one of the remaining three “species.”)
Once the four species are gathered, prior to outset of the festival, they are bundled together, with the palm branch occupying the central position. Once wrapped together, The components of the lulav (called such because of the palm branch’s central position), mustn’t come apart, as the four species together are said to represent the tetragrammaton, or the four Hebrew characters for the Holy Name of the God of Israel.
On each evening of the festival, special blessings are recited over the lulav. The lulav is then “waved in every direction, symbolizing the harvest and God’s omnipresence over His world” (Kasdan).
It is not uncommon to witness the lulav being waved at synagogue services, accompanied by chants of the Hallel, or Praise Psalms (i.e. Ps. 113-118), including this familiar entreaty to God from Psalm 118:26: “Ana Adonai Hoshiana!” (Save us Lord!).
Rejoicing with the Family of God
From night one of the festival, when that first meal is enjoyed with family and friends; to each succeeding night when the lulav is waved and Praise Psalms chanted; to the Feast’s finale with Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the prevailing tone of the Holiday is one of JOY!
The joy is a shared one, with many synagogues actually building “community sukkot” enabling neighbors and friends to join in the festivities. Sukkot celebrations typically consist of traditional (and delightful) delicacies such as “stuffed cabbage and kreplach containing fruit or fall harvest vegetables” as well as “dishes made with honey and pastries”. (Parsons) Delectable dinners are often complemented with festive music and God-centered conversation, creating a sanctified atmosphere of joy and jubilation.
The importance of the lulav (discussed above) cannot be understated. Special processionals, called hakafot, are held during Sukkot where you’ll find congregants “[marching] around the sanctuary waving the lulav and recounting the Hallel or Praise Psalms” (Kasdan).
In summary, the people of God are called to celebrate and rejoice with one another during this set-apart time of Sukkot. Ancient Jewish sages are said to have commented, in regard to the celebratory nature of Sukkot: “He who has not seen the rejoicing [at Sukkot celebrations] has never seen rejoicing in his life” (Sukkah 5:1; quoted by Parsons).
Until next time…
As believers in Yeshua the Messiah, we can say “He who has not experienced the joy of salvation in Yeshua has never tasted joy in its fullness!”
In the final installment of the Sukkot series, Part 3, our focus will be Yeshua Himself. We’ll see that there awaits an even greater joy when He finally fulfills Sukkot in His Second Coming, when He’ll forever “dwell among us.”
- Heavenly Father, each time I lift my eyes to the stars, I pray I would see but a glimpse of your glory. Truly, Lord, you made all things, and all things exist for your glory.
- I pray, Yeshua, that this cry, “Ana Adonai Hoshiana”--“Lord Save Us”--would be on the lips of Jew and Gentile alike this night, and that You would incline your ear and save.
- Thank you for the fullness of joy that I now have access to in Yeshua, the Messiah!