What is Sukkot?
Sukkot, often referred to as ‘The Feast of Tabernacles,’ or even, ‘The Season of Rejoicing,’ is a seven-day festival beginning on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei on the Jewish calendar. It is one of the most joyous Jewish holidays, perhaps made more so because it falls only five days after the end of Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—which is considered the most solemn and holiest day of the year.
Yet, while Sukkot is a holiday of feasting and joy, it is not spent in what many of us would consider ideal conditions. It is largely spent in a sukkah, a temporary dwelling or booth, covered on top by plants (many times palm branches) in a way that is not guaranteed to keep rain, heat, or cold away. It is an environment that not all would wish to rejoice in—particularly if the weather is inclement—yet it is commanded by God in His Word and is eagerly followed by His people.
“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. You shall keep it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It shall be a statute forever in your generations… You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All… shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”—Leviticus 23:40-43
Why the Sukkah?
Sukkot is a week-long festival celebrating the ingathering harvest of the season and remembering God’s miraculous presence with the children of Israel when they left Egypt—but that is only the beginning.
Sukkot is celebrated in the sukkah, a temporary dwelling that is covered with the branches of trees, a sign of God’s gifts from the earth in the season of ingathering. Yet, there is a deeper, holier reasoning behind its use…
It represents the years of wandering in the desert, when both the Jewish people, and the Tabernacle of God had only temporary dwellings. It represents God setting His people free from the bonds of Egypt. It represents God’s presence—His glory—which hovered over the ‘Tabernacle of Meeting’ in a cloud by day and fire by night… and it represents the Lord’s presence and glory leading the people of Israel with the sign of His cloud ascending from the Tabernacle to the place He would direct them.
Following the Cloud:
“Then the cloud covered the tabernacle of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of meeting, because the cloud rested above it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from above the tabernacle, the children of Israel would go onward in all their journeys. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not journey till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was above the tabernacle by day, and fire was over it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.”—Exodus 40:34-38
The cloud is both God’s Presence and His Glory. The people of Israel followed after God—they observed the signs of His presence and glory and followed after it.
Moses said to the Lord in Exodus 33:15, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here.” We, too, not only desire God’s presence and glory, we must know they are required to go forward—to move into the next season, going higher.
Sukkot, therefore, is a celebration that God’s presence and glory did not depart from His people as they traveled through the desert—that He led them, moved with them, and dwelt amongst them.
Today, on Sukkot, God’s presence and glory are celebrated and revealed by His people—that is why Sukkot is filled with such joy. Whenever the glory of the Lord and His presence are truly with His people, there is little in the way of physical discomfort that can dishearten—for the joy of the Lord is our strength! The Jewish people on Sukkot look back at God’s presence and glory and rejoice, no matter the circumstance, no matter the weather—they know the value of their God.
Symbols of Sukkot:
Unlike most Jewish holidays, Sukkot has some very specific symbols connected to its observance alone. And yet, as with most other Jewish holidays where the Torah is central, Sukkot is immediately followed by the joyous parading of the Torah scrolls marking the beginning of the annual Torah reading.
Symbols of Sukkot:
- Citron/Etrog—a lemon shaped and colored citrus fruit
- Lulav/Palm Branch
- Hadass/Myrtle Tree Branch
- Aravah/Willow Branch
Of these, the citron, palm, myrtle, and willow are used together as the ‘four species’ and are specifically tied to Sukkot. These ‘four species’ are often depicted in the archaeological record together—though the pieces, even separate, still have strong connections to Sukkot—and when used together in prayer they symbolize God’s gifts of Himself and His creation.
The Torah, while not a common symbol of Sukkot, is also important to Sukkot—as with all Jewish holidays—for it was, and is, the Word that commanded the observance of Sukkot. Additionally, the Word brings a connection to God and His blessings. It is cherished, studied, and celebrated perhaps even more so during holidays.
Sukkot Symbols Found in Archaeology and History:
Sukkot symbols are perhaps the most recognizable and unique symbols found in the archaeological and historic records of Jewish holidays. For instance, the ‘four species’ are found on coins, mosaics, and other artifacts found throughout Israel and around the world—wherever God’s people have traversed.
While, sometimes found separately, the citron and other symbols of Sukkot are common and highly cherished within the Jewish community—as can be seen by their extensive use.
Even the Holocaust could not stop their depiction or use—though this did bring extensive challenges and danger. One beautiful example of Sukkot symbol usage is this pictured lithocut from 1940 illustrated by a Jewish man, who sadly, perished while in the Ohrdruf, Germany concentration camp in 1944.
The lithocut depicts a Jewish man celebrating God’s commandments by reciting a prayer as he holds the ‘four species’ in his sukkah. It tells the story of a man who likely faced many trials for merely being a Jew, but still obeyed the Lord—his faith and commitment to God not shaken.
Through the survival of this lithocut we see that, while the Hungarian Jewish artist, Imre Amos, did not survive the ordeals of the Holocaust, his work did, and continues to show both Jew and Gentile alike the importance of Sukkot.
In part TWO of this two-part series entitled, Sukkot: Following the Cloud, we will continue to examine artifacts related to Sukkot. Additionally, we will see how the Jewish roots of our faith can benefit both Jew and Gentile walks with God. We will see how following the Cloud—God’s presence and glory—brings us not only into closer relationship with God, but allows us to experience God’s blessings and benefits.