What does Sukkot mean?
Sukkot is the plural form of the Hebrew word sukkah, which means a temporary dwelling such as a tent, booth, or hut. English translations of the Bible typically refer to the holiday as the Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths. The sukkah represents the temporary dwellings in which the Israelites lived while wandering in the desert after the Lord brought them out of Egypt.
Where does Sukkot appear in the Bible?
The Torah refers to the feast of Sukkot on a number of occasions. It first describes it as the Feast of Ingathering (Hag Ha’Asif), when the nation of Israel celebrated the conclusion of the harvest (Ex. 23:16; 34:22). God designates the feast as one of the three pilgrimage festivals when Israelites must travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday in the Temple (Deut. 16:16). These early biblical references demonstrate the close association between the holiday and the fall harvest in the agrarian setting of ancient Israel.
Later, the Torah refers to the holiday as the Feast of Tabernacles, Hag Sukkot (Lev. 23:33; Deut. 16:13; Ezra 3:4). The same section of Scripture also describes it simply as the Feast of the Lord (Lev. 23:39). In this passage, God instructs Israel to celebrate the feast for seven days, beginning on the 15th day of the seventh month. Although Tishri (the month of Sukkot) is the first month in the modern Jewish calendar, it corresponds to the seventh month in the biblical calendar. The same passage adds an additional eighth day to the festival as a closing assembly (Lev. 23:36). Judaism refers to this holiday as Shemini Atzeret, which means “the assembly of the eighth.”
During the celebration of the festival, the nation presented certain offerings to God. The book of Numbers gives a detailed description of the Temple sacrifices for each of the eight days of the holiday (Num. 29:12-39).
God also instructs Israel to gather a sample from four species of trees to use as part of the Temple celebration during the holiday (Lev. 23:40). Later Jewish tradition identifies these species as the etrog (a citron), lulav (closed date palm frond), hadas (myrtle branch) and aravah (willow branch). Nowadays, the three types of branches (date palm, myrtle and willow) are bound together and referred to by the name of the date palm frond (lulav). Throughout Sukkot, Jewish communities wave the three species along with the etrog (citron) in a special ceremony, which can occur in the synagogue, in the sukkah, or in the home.
The Bible also alludes to the holiday as the “feast of the seventh month” or by the simple designation of “feast” (Judges 21:19; 1 Kings 8:2, 65; 2 Chron. 5:3, 7:8; Ezek. 45:25; Neh. 8:14).
In the New Testament, John 7 describes Jesus’ celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem.
When does Sukkot occur?
Sukkot begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Tishri. Since the Jewish day begins at sundown, the holiday commences on sundown at the conclusion of the 14th day and continues for seven days until sundown following the 21st day in the Jewish month Tishri. The addition of Shemini Atzeret, the assembly of the eighth, on the 22nd of Tishri makes Sukkot an eight-day festival. In Israel, Simchat Torah occurs on the same day as Shemini Atzeret, but outside of Israel, Simchat Torah is a separate celebration, making the holiday nine days.
What does Sukkot celebrate?
The initial Scriptures concerning Sukkot suggest that the holiday began as a celebration for the ingathering of the harvest. The water libation ritual that took place in biblical times anticipated the start of the rainy season, asking God to sustain the nation with an abundant harvest the following spring.
The sukkah, the temporary structure built for the holiday, reminds Jewish people of how our ancestors lived in temporary dwellings while they journeyed through the desert to the land of Israel.
The waving of the lulav and etrog, the four species, reminds us of how God is everywhere. Every day during the holiday, Jewish people wave the four species in six directions – east, west, north, south, up, down.
Finally, the adjoining holiday Simchat Torah celebrates the Torah. During this day, the Jewish community dances with the Torah in the synagogue. Over the course of each year, the Jewish community reads through the entire Torah (the first five books of the Bible) in weekly portions. Simchat Torah completes and begins the cycle of the readings, meaning that the last reading in Deuteronomy is followed by the reading of the beginning of Genesis. The cyclical nature of the reading suggests the Torah, the teaching of the Lord, has neither beginning nor end.
How did ancient Israel observe Sukkot?
During the days of the Temple, the nation of Israel offered special sacrifices to the Lord on each day of Sukkot (Num. 29:12-39). Since Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals, pilgrims from around the Middle East traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast.
It was also a significant agricultural celebration, commemorating the completion of the harvest. In the first century, the priests gathered a pitcher of water from the pool of Shiloach (Siloam) and poured it out on the altar following an elaborate and joyous processional up the hill to the Temple Mount. This ceremony occurred every day of the festival, with the most extravagant processional performed on the final day.
The pouring out of the water expressed Israel’s hope for future rains to produce an abundant harvest. According to the Talmud, this tradition derived from Isaiah 12:3, “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
On the last day of Sukkot, possibly at the time of this processional, Jesus stood in the midst of the Temple and declared, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38). When He said this, some declared, “This is the Messiah” (John 7:41).
As is the practice today, Jewish people constructed temporary dwellings, known as sukkot, to dwell in during the festival. They also participated in the waving of the four species at the Temple.
What are the modern traditions of Sukkot?
The main Sukkot tradition is to build a temporary structure, known as a sukkah. The sukkah can be made of different materials, although there are Jewish traditions regulating its construction to show the transient nature of the building. Each sukkah must have at least two walls, because the inhabitants must “dwell” in the structure for a week (Lev. 23:42). Tradition defines “dwelling” as eating the daily meals in the sukkah, but it is also common to sleep in the sukkah in climates and circumstances where it is possible to do so.
The top of the sukkah is covered with a natural material, such as palm fronds. The roof should allow the inhabitants to view the stars from within the sukkah, in order to remember the Israelites’ journey through the desert. It is customary to welcome guests into the sukkah to join in the celebration. Welcoming of guests recalls Abraham’s hospitality when he welcomed guests into his tent.
During Sukkot, Jewish people also wave the four species the lulav and etrog (Lev. 23:40).
Why do we still celebrate Old Testament Holy Days like Sukkot?
Believers in Messiah Jesus have freedom to celebrate these Holy Days or not to celebrate them. Each of the appointed festivals in Leviticus 23 points to Jesus’ first and second comings, so celebration of these Holy Days is a great way to draw attention to Him.
According to Zechariah, when the Messiah establishes His Kingdom, all nations will travel to Jerusalem to worship the Lord on Sukkot (Zech. 14). Since Sukkot looks forward to the arrival of the Messiah, celebration of Sukkot is a great way to share with the Jewish community how Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, has already arrived – and how He has promised to return to establish His eternal Kingdom in Jerusalem.
Does Sukkot have any prophetic significance?
The prophet Zechariah speaks of a time when God will fight and defend His people when the nations gather against Israel (Zech. 14:1-9). After God establishes peace, all the nations will then travel to Jerusalem to worship God during Sukkot (Zech. 14:16). God promises to withhold rain from those countries that do not honor Him in Jerusalem (14:17-19). Sukkot looks forward to the day when God will establish His Kingdom and all nations will join together to worship Him.
Peter likely alludes to this holiday when Jesus appears in His full glory next to Moses and Elijah on top of the mountain (Matt. 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36). He asks Jesus if it would be appropriate to build three tents – this is essentially a request for Jesus to inaugurate His Kingdom.
When Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem during the week before Passover, crowds gathered to welcome Him by placing palm branches along the road, proclaiming, “Lord save us,” and “Blessed is the King of Israel,” a direct Messianic title. The crowds used palm branches as an allusion to Sukkot, expressing their hope for the coming Messianic Kingdom.
Sukkot looks forward to the day when God will once again dwell in the midst of His people as Messiah did. When John introduces Jesus as the Messiah, he says, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The Feast of Tabernacles thus looks forward to the return of our Messiah and the establishment of His Messianic Kingdom.