Sukkot is a Biblical Festival that surpasses the others in its themes of Joy, Thanksgiving, and Celebration. The Scriptures describe Sukkot in terms of Simchah (joy), even more so than the other two Annual Pilgrimage Festivals (Deut. 16:16), namely Pesach (see Deut. 16:1-8) and Shavuot (see Deut. 16:9-12):
“You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days, when you have gathered in the produce from your threshing floor and your winepress. You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns. For seven days you shall keep the feast to the Lord your God at the place that the Lord will choose, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful. (Deuteronomy 16:13-15, ESV)
Eventually, this festival--considered the most important of the holidays in Biblical times-- became known as “Z'man Simchateinu” or "the season of our joy."
Why all the joy? What was the source of the Israelites' joy during this special festival? Let's take a look at other Torah passages related to Sukkot and see what we can learn:
Leviticus 23:33-36; 39-43
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the Feast of Booths to the Lord. On the first day shall be a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work. For seven days you shall present food offerings to the Lord. On the eighth day you shall hold a holy convocation and present a food offering to the Lord. It is a solemn assembly; you shall not do any ordinary work…
...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 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.”
Barney Kasdan states that the purpose of this Holy Day, as spoken by the LORD to Moses, is two-fold.
A Celebration of Harvest
The first purpose is related to the Fall harvest: "When you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast" (v. 39).
Sukkot is sometimes called the "Feast of Ingathering" because it was at this time, in ancient Israel, that the farmers' fruit crops would at last be harvested. Whereas Pesach--celebrated in the Spring--was associated with planting season, and Shavuot (50 days after Pesach) marked the time of the grain harvest, it was during Sukkot that, at long last, the final fruit crop was reaped. A plentiful yield from the Fall harvest would ensure the farmer's continued "sustenance and provision for the coming year" (Parsons). Yet the ultimate object of the Israelite's joy was not the harvest itself, but in his God who causes bread and fruit to spring forth from the earth. The Sukkot holiday might be likened to the American holiday of Thanksgiving; in fact, some believe the Bible-believing Puritans who instituted the feast may well have done so with inspiration from the Torah text.
Dwelling in Booths
The second function of this Feast, as outlined in Leviticus 23, is that it is to be a reminder to the children of Israel of their wilderness wanderings: "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" (v. 39).
At Yom Teruah, shofars are blasted as a reminder of God's authority as Creator, King, and Judge of all; at Yom Kippur, innocent blood was shed to demonstrate the heinousness of sin and its fatal consequences. Now, at Sukkot, another memorial is established: the people of Israel of all generations are to "dwell in booths” (sukkot, plural for sukkah) recalling their ancestors' pilgrimage through the desert, and their God who graciously guided, protected, and provided for them throughout their sojourn. Chiefly, this time of "dwelling in tents" calls the people of God to reflect on He whose Shekinah glory had “dwelt” in the midst of them in the wilderness, thereby ensuring their safety.
The Holiday of Sukkot...represents a time of renewed fellowship with God, remembering His sheltering provision and care for us as we travel in the desert, surrounded by Clouds of Glory...The Sukkah itself symbolizes our dependence upon God’s care and sustenance. (Parsons)
The "Four Species"
In addition to the two commands mentioned above--to celebrate the feast with rejoicing, and to dwell in booths--the Israelites were also called by the Lord to gather four specific plant species: "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...". (Lev. 23:40) The text isn't very clear as to what exactly the People of Israel were to do with these organic products after collecting them. We're simply told that these items were to contribute to the Israelite's celebration and joy. However, Jewish tradition affords us some rich insight into the significance of these Arba'at Ha-minim ("Four Species"), which over time have become second only to the sukkot as the prominent symbols of this festival. To learn more about these symbols, stay tuned for Part 2 of this series...
Seven (or eight? or nine?) Days of Celebration
"You shall keep the Feast of Booths seven days...for seven days you shall keep the feast to the LORD your God..." (Deut. 16:13,15) "...for seven days is the Feast of Booths to the LORD...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...You shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year...You shall dwell in booths for seven days..." (Lev. 23:33, 38, 41, 42)
This seventh and final of God's Appointed Times is said here to be celebrated for seven days, with the first and eighth day as days of solemn rest. Wait...why an "eighth day" in a seven day feast? How is that even possible? That eighth day is known as Shmini Atzeret (the "Eighth Day of Assembly"), and is also mentioned in Numbers 29:35 as a day of abstinence from work, or a Shabbat. Both traditional synagogues as well as Messianic congregations host special services in honor of Shmini Atzeret, a day set apart for the closing of the Sukkot festival. The festivities don't conclude at the Eighth Day, however. Though not listed in the Bible, Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Law), was a day designated by the Jewish Community in the Middle Ages as a time to "celebrate the revelation of God as symbolized in the Torah scroll" (Kasdan).
As we’ll explore further in Part 3 of this Sukkot series, we as Messianic believers can celebrate Simchat Torah as we honor the incarnate Word, Yeshua, who came and is coming again to “dwell among us” (John 1:14; Revelation 21:3).
Friends, as we've seen above, Sukkot is a time to celebrate and rejoice in God as our Provider and our Protector. Furthermore, we exult in a God who dwells among us and speaks to us. Is it not fitting that Sukkot, a time of rejoicing, should follow the Ten Days of Awe and Yom Kippur? After all, the restoration of our relationship with God follows our repentance towards Him. Sukkot does indeed “represent the time of restored fellowship with the LORD” (Parsons), bringing to mind the Apostle Peter’s words in Acts 3:19:
“Therefore, repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be erased; so that times of refreshing may come [to you] from the Lord’s presence; and he may send the Messiah appointed in advance for you, that is, Yeshua.” (Acts 3:19, CJB, emphasis added)
In Part 2 of the Sukkot series, we'll look closer at the Sukkot observances mentioned above, namely the “dwelling in booths,” “gathering of the Four Species,” and the call to “rejoice.” Then, we’ll see how each look in historical and modern day practice as well as discover their deeper meaning.
Until then, here are some Payer Points:
1. Thank you, Lord, for this time of refreshing and rejoicing that You have appointed! May your Presence and Glory be near to all who are Yours.
2. I praise you, God, for carrying your children through the wilderness and faithfully guiding them and providing for them. Help me to trust that You’ll likewise always do the same for me.