Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, has passed. Five days later, at sundown, begins the final fall feast of Israel: Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles.

“Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel,saying, ‘On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the Feast of Booths for seven days to the LORD. On the first day is a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work of any kind. For seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the LORD. On the eighth day you shall have a holy convocation and present an offering by fire to the LORD; it is an assembly. You shall do no laborious work. These are the appointed times of the LORD which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, to present offerings by fire to the LORD – burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and libations, each day’s matter on its own day – as besides those of the Sabbaths of the LORD, and besides your gifts, and besides all your votives and freewill offerings, which you give to the LORD. On exactly the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the crops of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD for seven days, with a rest on the first day and a rest on the eighth day. Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. You shall thus celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.’ So Moses declared to the sons of Israel the appointed times of the LORD.” Leviticus 23:33-44

Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, is a day in which the Jewish people remember how the children of Israel wandered through the wilderness after leaving Egypt. They remember that the wilderness was not their home – they were en route to the Land that God had promised them, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Sukkot has been known by many names during the history of the Jewish people. It is known as The Feast of Booths, since Jews build temporary, vulnerable shelters to remind them of the desert wanderings of our people. Once the Jewish people were settled in the land God had provided for them, it also became known as the Feast of Ingathering. In the agricultural cycle of ancient Israel, the feast followed the fall harvest. During the biblical period, it also became known as Zeman Simchatenu, the Season of Our Rejoicing. God commanded the Jewish people to rejoice, and it was easy to rejoice during a seven-day holiday which capped off the long, hard agricultural year. Finally, Sukkot was known simply as The Feast. It was the biggest feast of the year, following a time of aggressive labor and the intense spirituality of the Day of Atonement. It could be compared to a week-long Thanksgiving holiday, and in fact there are some who believe that the Puritans (the Pilgrims) modeled their celebration after this biblical feast.

God had commanded certain observances to mark the day, as with the previous fall feasts. As I mentioned in my post on Yom Kippur, Sukkot was one of the Shalosh Regalim, one of three festivals during the year when every adult male Israelite was required to come to the Temple in Jerusalem. While in Jerusalem they fulfilled another command by dwelling in sukkahs, or booths – temporary, leafy dwellings – to commemorate God’s provision for the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness. Of note was the command to rejoice, a marked contrast to the solemnity of Rosh Hashanah and the fearful awe of Yom Kippur. Lastly there were the required sacrifices. More sacrifices were offered during the week-long celebration of Sukkot than in all of the other feasts of Israel combined. During the week 70 bulls, 14 rams, and 98 lambs were sacrificed, as well as attendant meal offerings. In addition, people were to bring their own offerings for vows, freewill, burnt, meat, drink, and peace offerings – no one came empty-handed.

By the time of Jesus, the Jewish people had added significantly to the celebrations commanded by God. One such addition centered on the illumination of the Temple during the week of Sukkot. According to the Talmud, which gives detailed descriptions of the Temple in the 1st-century period, during Sukkot four enormous candelabrum, each of them 75 feet high, were erected in one of the Temple courtyards. Each candelabrum had four large bowls at the top, which each held 10 gallons of pure oil. Each night of the feast, young men with torches would climb the candelabrum and ignite the oil. The light of the burning oil, the Talmud records, was so bright that every courtyard in Jerusalem was illuminated by them.

The entire city would obey God’s command to rejoice. Pious men, members of the Sanhedrin, and leaders of religious schools would dance in the courtyard, holding aloft torches and singing praises to God. Music was played on harps, lyres, cymbals, trumpets, and other instruments. A Levitical choir sang and chanted from the steps leading down into the courtyard. This would continue late into the night, and at dawn two priests would ascend the steps leading up to the Temple, blowing shofars as they went. When they reached the courtyard, everyone would turn to face the Temple as the sun rose and shone upon it.

Preparation for modern celebration of Sukkot begins when the synagogue service on Yom Kippur ends. As families return to their homes to break their long fast, the rabbis have instructed that the first nail of their sukkah must be driven. The booth is built by the older children, under the supervision of adults. One of my favorite recollections from childhood centers around this. In general, my older brother and I were not allowed to touch my father’s tools, but on Sukkot we were allowed to use his hammers and saws as we helped build the family sukkah.

The younger children help to decorate the interior walls of the sukkah. This can be quite beautiful, with tapestries or pictures on the walls – it’s up the imagination and energy of the children. The rest of the interior can be simple and plain or very elaborate, with carpeting on the floor, and tables and chairs for meals. In some Jewish communities today, it’s not unusual to see antennas or small satellite dishes sticking out about the roof of the sukkah, so the family can watch television. You can even order a pre-fab sukkah online. Somehow I don’t think this is what God intended when He commanded the Jewish people to live in booths! On the other hand, many Jewish people do enjoy their creature comforts. My own mother, for example, thinks that “roughing it” is staying in a hotel that doesn’t offer room service!

Sukkot is a time to rejoice and celebrate with neighbors and friends. Hospitality is often shown by inviting others to share a meal in the booth, especially those who don’t have their own booth or are poor. Each night a “holy guest” is welcomed, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or King David. Branches of palm trees, willows, and myrtle are woven together and taken to the synagogue, along with a citrus fruit known as the etrog (Aramaic for “that which shines”). They are waved as the worshippers march around the synagogue. This is done once each night, but seven times on the seventh day of the Feast.

The record of the New Testament tells us that Jesus not only observed the Feast of Tabernacles, but used it as an occasion to teach about His true nature as Savior. Jesus took the symbolism of the illumination of the Temple and applied it to Himself.

“Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow streams of living water.’ ” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” John 7:37-39

We read also, in John 8:12, that Jesus proclaimed,

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Jesus had come to the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles, just as every obedient adult male in Israel had come. They were obeying God’s command to come to His dwelling place, and yet God’s glory had departed from the Temple many years prior. Neither the tallest candelabra nor the brightest fire the Jewish people could light would possibly bring it back, but in the person of Jesus God’s glory had returned. God had indeed come to dwell among His people again – in the flesh. And the announcement that He now was truly tabernacling among us came on the Feast of Tabernacles. He was Emmanuel, “God with us!”

He dwells among us still, although there is no Temple today. You and I cannot go up to God’s house to rejoice. Yet we have no cause to be saddened by this. As believers in Jesus, He truly dwells in the midst of us now, because he has placed the Holy Spirit within all who acknowledge Him as Savior. This should be cause for great rejoicing indeed! God tells us that if we abide in Him as He dwells in us, he will cause us to bear fruit, just as He abided among His people and caused the Land to provide for them. When we abide in Him, and the acts of our lives honor Him, the Lord will grow in us the fruits of His Spirit:

“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” Galatians 5:22

As God commanded the nation of Israel to remember and rejoice over how He abided and provided, we must remember that He does the same in our own lives today. He has provided for us – by being our atonement. He abides among us – as His Spirit dwells in each of us.

In my post on Rosh Hashanah, I discussed that the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is God’s wake-up call, telling us to wake up and get ready. On Yom Kippur, we are getting ourselves ready, getting clean of sin, so that we can go into God’s presence. As we gather together on Sukkot, we should be reminded to look forward to the final Ingathering of God’s People. The Feast of Tabernacles is a prophetic festival, pointing us to the day when God’s kingdom will be established on earth. The prophet Zechariah foretold this:

“it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths.” Zechariah 14:16

The writers of the New Testament affirmed this prophetic truth, believing that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles, that He was God coming to tabernacle among us. In his Revelation, John wrote:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people,and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost.” Revelation 21:3-6

Whether or not you observe the Feast of Tabernacles, may you rejoice and look forward to the final Ingathering at the end of time, when we will dwell with God for all eternity as He celebrates with his redeemed Creation!