The seventh and final appointed time of the Lord is upon us and excitement is in the air here in Israel.
Sukkot — the Feast of Tabernacles — is the last of what is known as the “Fall Feasts” and in the biblical calendar it is the ultimate celebration in the sequence of annual holidays. After the solemn tones of introspection and gravity of the days leading up to Yom Kippur, the contrast couldn’t be more evident.
“You have turned for me
my mourning into dancing.”
With only five days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the building of sukkot (booths) begins as soon as possible after the end of the solemn day. In Jewish neighborhoods all around Israel, the sound of hammering permeates the air as Israelis erect their booths. Children assist their parents in building and decorating the sukkah and many municipalities cut down palm branches for the public to use as a roof coverings.
According to scripture, this is to be a jovial seven-day festival following the harvest. Sukkot begins with a commanded day of rest and an added eighth day, also meant for resting, attached to the end of the festival. Feasting, rejoicing and all regular life is to take place in these temporary shelters — including sleeping. Scripture indicates that everyone is to celebrate and commemorate this holiday, including foreigners.
In private homes, people erect their sukkah on their property. Most Israelis live in apartments and build their sukkot on their balconies if there is enough space, outside ground-floor gardens or in common areas next to their buildings. Some people buy a flat-pack sukkah and various outlets offer ready-made sukkot in various sizes. Even Groupon Israel had some options with delivery included.
For those who cannot build their own sukkah, large communal sukkot are built in public places, at kosher restaurants and at synagogues so that all residents have the opportunity to eat their meals under the leafy covering. Even many municipalities build giant sukkahs in order to accommodate city denizens and celebrate the holiday.
Not commanded, but traditionally a strong part of the culture, is decorating one’s sukkah as it will become the family’s home for aweek. Young children take great delight in making festive ornaments and decorations to adorn the makeshift ceiling and walls of their booth. As the emphasis is on harvest, fruit such as pomegranates — in season in Israel — and vegetables feature in the decorations and on the menu. It is also traditional to invite family and friends to partake in at least one meal with you in your sukkah.
Visitors to Israel may be curious to see Orthodox Jewish men waving a lulav as they bow to all the points of the compass while reciting liturgy. The lulav is a symbolic arrangement of the “four species” — leaves from the palm, willow and myrtle trees bound together with an etrog fruit. This ritual is derived from Leviticus 23:40 where instructions and suggestions are given for which leafy boughs can be used as roofing for the sukkah. In place of the leaves from the tree, the fragrant but mostly flavorless fruit is used instead. The etrog, a citron, is a member of the citrus family. One fruit can cost many hundreds of dollars and sometimes, if it has not been damaged during the week of ritual holding and waving, it can be used by an industrious cook to make a jam, preserves, a cake and even candied citron peels.
Sukkot is the third and final ascension feast commanded in scripture, along with Pessach (Passover) and Shavuot, when Jews are commanded to observe the feast in Jerusalem. Many scholars have proposed the idea that Messiah was born at this time, in fulfillment of prophecy.
Zechariah 14 extends the command to all people of the earth, hence many Christians from around the world come to participate in various Feast of Tabernacle events. Tourism booms as many thousands of Jews and Christians flock to the Holy Land during this month.
In the sixth century, rabbinic Judaism took the eighth day in which God commanded the people to rest, and made it into a festival of its own called Shemeni Atzeret – literally “the gathering of the eighth day.” Later, they combined it with a 10th century custom that came with them from the exile in Babylon called Simchat Torah, which means “rejoicing in the Torah/Law.”
This day is used to mark the end of the annual cycle of weekly Torah portion readings and the beginning of the new cycle. In the synagogues, the last portion from Deuteronomy and the first portion from Genesis are read. This is generally the only time the scrolls are taken out of their arks and this is accompanied by much dancing and singing. Celebrations take place throughout the country but especially at the Western Wall in Jerusalem where thousands gather to dance with the scrolls.
Israeli schools are closed during from Erev Sukkot until after the eighth day. The first and eighth days are treated just like a regular Shabbat. The holiday officially begins at sundown on Wednesday, Oct. 4.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites: “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the Lord’s Festival of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days. The first day is a sacred assembly; do no regular work. For seven days present food offerings to the Lord, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present a food offering to the Lord. It is the closing special 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 sabbath rest, and the eighth day also is a day of sabbath rest. On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees—from palms, willows and other leafy trees—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 temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’”
“Celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. For seven days celebrate the festival 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.”
“Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, they will have no rain. If the Egyptian people do not go up and take part, they will have no rain. The Lord will bring on them the plague he inflicts on the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. This will be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations that do not go up to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles.”