HISTORY OF SUKKOT: FESTIVAL OF BOOTHS
Tonight at sunset, September 20, begins the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, also known as the Festival of Booths or Festival of Tabernacles.
The Old Testament Book of Leviticus discusses the Exodus from slavery in Egypt of the Children of Israel. They were to commemorate it by living in temporary booths for a week
“… that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 23:43
The week started with a Sabbath (rest from work) and ended on the eighth day with a sabbath.
A “pilgrimage” holiday was when Jewish males were required to travel up to the Temple in Jerusalem — you always “go up” to Jerusalem, even from the north, because it is uphill. Until the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, Sukkot along with Passover and Pentecost were the three feasts or festivals when ancient male Israelites, as commanded in the Torah (the Law, the 5 Books of Moses), were to travel to the Temple to make sacrifices and worship along with the services led by the “kohanim” (priests) in Jerusalem.
The booths played to the secondary agricultural aspect of Sukkot mentioned in the Book of Exodus chapters 23 and 34, or the “bringing in” of the harvest. It marked in a sense the end of harvest time and the offering of sacrifices of first fruits associated with it. The Book of Deuteronomy discusses the importance of the yield of the wheat harvest and the wine vats as part of the offering.
The booths were usually constructed of three sides, with an opening in the fourth and a roof opening to the sky.
First Century Observance of Sukkot
During the time of Christ, Jerusalem had the Second Temple, beautified by the Jewish King Herod the Great. Jews would come from all over the Diaspora of the Roman Empire to make their sacrifices in Jerusalem. During one of Jesus’ many trips to Jerusalem during the Feast of Booths, the Gospel of John records that on the last day of the feast, Jesus stood up and cried out,
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” John 7:37-38
His words were a self-conscious proclamation identifying himself with one aspect of the Sukkot celebration, where water was drawn from the spring of Siloam in the water-drawing ceremony, referencing the “wells of salvation” mentioned in the Book of Isaiah. His words caused a huge commotion at the time, and the subsequent passage relates how people wondered if he was the Prophet or the Christ who was foretold.
Modern Observance of Sukkot
Years ago, I had a next-door neighbor who was the town rabbi, and on his house deck, he would build a tent-like structure during Sukkot. It remains a popular Jewish festival, even after the destruction of the Temple.
In recent years even Google participated. A few years ago, two sukkahs were built on the balconies of Google’s New York headquarters building in Chelsea. Both Jewglers (the colloquial term for Google’s Jewish employees) and other Googlers (Goiyglers, Gentile Googlers, if you will) were encouraged to drop by. In subsequent years, Google offices in Pittsburgh, Boston, Argentina, Dublin, and the Mountain View global headquarters in California pitched sukkahs.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian