What is Sukkot?
Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, is a Jewish Fall Feast observed soon after Yom Kippur, which itself falls directly after Rosh Hashanah. Given that these three important Jewish holidays all fall within so short a time frame—usually between 2-3 weeks—it is a whirlwind of emotions to those who observe them. Beginning with the excitement of Rosh Hashanah—the new year—moving to the repentance and Godly sorrow of Yom Kippur, and ending at Sukkot—the culmination of the three—with its joy, remembrance, and transition.
All three are uniquely important if we are to be properly set on our path for the year; for our new beginnings and opportunities to come. And each one acts as a vital part of God’s battle plan and action steps to get us to our new beginnings—to move us into a season of walking out what God has laid before us. Yet, while all the steps of these three holidays hold great importance, there is a special importance in Sukkot…
As the final Fall Feast, Sukkot acts as the last door we will pass through as we enter our promise. It is a time of joy in this way, as well as a time of transition and setting our minds to action. It is an ending of one reading of the Torah, and a signal that it is nearly time to begin again—a refreshing of seasons.
When we see Sukkot coming, we know change is on the wings. And if we have set our eyes upon our Father, we can know with certainty that it will go well—because our Father is the one who keeps us.
The Observing and Symbols of Sukkot:
If we are to understand the symbols used, we must first understand a few key details about Sukkot itself and how Sukkot is celebrated.
Sukkot is a week-long festival usually falling between late September and mid-October, celebrating the ingathering of that season’s harvest—early fall being a major harvest time. It is a time of remembering God’s miraculous presence with the children of Israel as they left Egypt and entered the desert. Yet, that is only a part…
Sukkot is celebrated in a sukkah, a temporary dwelling covered with the branches of trees, a sign of God’s gifts of the earth during the season of ingathering. Yet, there is a deeper, holier reasoning behind the sukkah… for just as the children of Israel wandered the desert 40 years dwelling in temporary places, so did the presence of the Lord that led them through the desert—in a Tabernacle meant to be built up or taken down quickly.
It was there in the desert the Lord made His presence known as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, guiding His children into their promise.
By celebrating Sukkot in a sukkah, it becomes more than just a remembrance of how God kept His people in the desert… more than how God dwelt in a temporary residence so that we might know His presence—first by dwelling in the Tabernacle, then ultimately the body of a mortal man… It is remembering that God always leads us to our promise if we but keep our eyes on Him!
“Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid… for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.”—Deuteronomy 31:6
Now that we begin to understand the importance of where and how Sukkot is celebrated, the items used to celebrate the festival have a place in our minds to reside—along with a greater purpose as we come to know that Sukkot’s joy is knowing that we are led by our Father…
The “Four” Symbols of Sukkot
Sukkot is unique amongst those holidays ordained by God for many reasons, but one special one is in its symbolism. For while, as with most holidays, Torah plays a role, there are other symbols unique to Sukkot alone.
Yet, unlike most other Jewish holidays where the Torah is central, Sukkot’s main relation to Torah is the two days following Sukkot where the Torah scrolls are joyously paraded, marking the end of the last Torah reading and the beginning of the next annual Torah reading. As such, Torah might be considered an “indirect” symbol of Sukkot, rather than an overt symbol.
Symbols of Sukkot:
- Citron/Etrog—a lemon shaped and colored citrus fruit
- Lulav/Palm Branch
- Hadass/Myrtle Tree Branch
- Aravah/Willow Branch
- And Torah (an indirect symbol because of its celebration immediately following Sukkot)
Of these, the citron, palm, myrtle, and willow are used together as the ‘four species’ and are specifically tied to Sukkot and are therefore the primary symbols of the week. Additionally, when depicted, these ‘four species’ are rarely separated, even in the archaeological record. Though the pieces, even separate still have strong connections to Sukkot, when used together in prayer, they symbolize God’s gifts of Himself and His creation.
Further, we find that there are many reasons why these four are used together beyond the God ordained use commanded in Leviticus 23:40, though, no direct importance is told at that point—for the meanings would have likely been known by the people. However, through the study of additional scriptures and themes of Sukkot, we can begin to uncover reasons for not only their importance to our Jewish brothers and sisters, but to us as Gentile Believers…
The importance of the citron can be tied back to Psalm 104:1 and Leviticus 23:40. Psalm 104:1 speaks of God being “clothed in honor and majesty”—majesty translating from the Hebrew word hadar. While Leviticus 23:40 speaks of the citron as being the fruit of “goodly,” “beautiful,” or “majestic” trees—the word also translated from hadar, thus creating a connection between God and the citron. And since Sukkot celebrates our God as the One who leads us, the citron, reminding us of His goodness and majesty is an important symbol to have.
“Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, You are very great:
You are clothed with honor and majesty.”—Psalm 104:1
“And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.”—Leviticus 23:40 (NKJV not direct Torah translation)
The palm is often related back to Psalm 92:12 which speaks of how we, who believe in God and as such are righteous in Him, bloom or flourish like a date palm. Since Sukkot is the point where we, the righteous, enter into our promise to bloom and flourish, the date palm is a reminder to include God’s promise for our purpose. To celebrate God’s promises for the new year.
“The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.”—Psalm 92:12
The myrtle is used—not merely due to Leviticus 23:40 but—because of the grace God has given Israel, such as that of Zechariah 1:8-11. For in that portion of the Word an angel of the Lord appeared amongst the myrtle trees to Zechariah, along with a man in his vision, riding a red horse.
While the use of myrtle in a prophecy might be enough reason to choose the myrtle specifically as the bough from a leafy tree, there is more. What Zechariah saw was those sent to wander the earth to and fro, to scope out the land before God would redeem Jerusalem. This not only has the myrtle related to God’s vigilance and preparation for that which He has planned for His children, but it demonstrates His grace. For ALL His people have sinned and fallen short, but in God’s infinite grace, He redeems all—from His children Israel, to those of us grafted in.
“And the man who stood among the myrtle trees answered and said, “These are the ones whom the Lord has sent to walk to and fro throughout the earth.”—Zechariah 1:10
Lastly, the willow is used not only because of its direct mention in Leviticus 23:40, but because, as Psalm 68:4 speaks, we are to exalt the Lord. Yes, the willow is not mentioned in this verse of Psalm, nor is Sukkot mentioned, yet, if we examine it more closely, it fits perfectly…
For us to enter into what God has for us we must follow His ways, yet, the final piece is to exalt our Father; to exalt His name and praise His mighty deeds. Remembering that it is He who guides us, created us, and is deserving of all praise. Psalm 68:4 reminds us to exalt Him.
“Sing to God, sing praises to His name; extol Him who rides on the clouds…”—Psalm 68:4
For like the breath of God which breathed in creation, the beauty of the gentle swaying of the willow branches reminds us of His breath in all creation… that He is deserving of the breath of our praise and exaltation… reminding us that we would have nothing without Him. For He is the One who rides on the clouds (“aravot” in Hebrew) and He is the One who instructed us to cover our Sukkot dwellings with the “aravah”—the branch of the willow.
In Part TWO of this two-part series we will not only explore the symbol of Torah, but discover how Sukkot is a day of joy… one that we, as Gentile Believers, can not only rejoice in as we remember God’s goodness in days of old, but rejoice in for that which God is still doing. Finding joy in God’s seasons!