Messiah In the Feasts: Sukkot

Posted: October 11, 2011 in Christian Living
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Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, is one of the Fall Feasts celebrated on the 15th of Tishrei on the Hebrew calendar. This year, the seven-day Sukkot period will begin at sundown on October 13th. Sukkot is an important part of the Jewish experience. Historically many important events have occurred during Sukkot, including King Solomon’s dedication of the First Temple of Jerusalem. The Sukkot holiday finds its origin in a Biblical mandate. In TORAH, God commands that the Jews must live in temporary outdoor structures for seven days in remembrance of the Israelites who fled from Egypt with Moses:

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 rest, and the eighth day also is a day of rest. On the first day you are to take choice fruit from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and poplars, and rejoice before the Lord your God… All native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. –  Leviticus 23:39-43

In this passage, God commands us to build ‘booths’ (temporary shelters) and live in them during the festival of Sukkot. These temporary structures are known as “sukkah,” and they can range in various sizes. A kosher sukkah must be constructed with three walls with one wall used as a door. (That’s why most traditional sukkahs have four walls including the door) The roof must be made from natural organic materials and you must be able to see the sky through the roof as a reminder of the promise that God made to Abraham to make his descendants more numerous than the stars in the heavens. Without the opening in the top, the sukkah is not considered kosher. Traditionally, Jewish families decorate the sukkah with a variety of decorations including homemade ornaments, paintings, and streamers. Often decorations are inspired by harvest foods and the seven species of Israel mentioned in Deuteronomy: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates, wheat and barley.

Sukkot is not only a celebration of the harvest, it also celebrates God’s dwelling with humanity. It is this element which most clearly shows the Messianic significance. When Solomon built the first temple, it was on Sukkot that the Spirit of God (the Shekinah Glory) descended upon it.  God came to dwell with man visibly in the Temple on the day that God Himself set aside to mark His dwelling with Man. This is one of the reasons many believe that Yeshua was born during Sukkot.

There are other reasons for this as well. We know that when Yeshua was born, there were shepherds tending to their flocks. The particular area where these shepherds were watching their flocks was the place they kept the lambs that would be used for the Passover sacrifices. These flocks were not out in the open fields during the winter as some Christians believe. We know from historical records that these lambs were taken into a protective corral from November through February. So that narrows the timing of His birth down a bit for us.

Next, we know that when Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, there was no place for them to stay. Why would that be? Traditional thought has suggested that it was because everyone was out and about registering for the census that Rome had mandated. However, that actually plays a very minor part in this, because the census was not something that had to be done by a specific date. We know from recent discoveries that these censuses went on for quite some time – in many cases over several years. So, it isn’t likely that they were rushing to Bethlehem in order to register. So why would Joseph risk a long, hard, dangerous journey with a wife about to give birth?

Three of the festivals are what were called “Pilgrimage” festivals. On those three occasions it was required for the men and their families to journey to Jerusalem. In other words, it was required by God to be in Jerusalem on those days. Since they would have been going to Jerusalem from Bethlehem for the festival, it would be reasonable to assume that they would make the relatively short side trip to attend to the census registration as well. But when they arrived, everyone in Israel was heading to Jerusalem; and with Bethlehem was only a few miles away, naturally, all the rooms were taken.

We also know that Mary’s relative, Elizabeth conceived John while her husband, Zechariah, who was a priest, was serving in the Temple. We’re told that Mary conceived six months later, meaning that Yeshua would have been born six months after John. If all this is true, then interestingly enough, John, whom Yeshua referred to as “The Elijah who was to come” before the Messiah, would have been born during Passover. In fact, it is still traditional, during the Passover Seder today, for the youngest child to open the door in anticipation of Elijah’s arrival. Exactly six months after Passover is Sukkot. This is when Yeshua would have been born – six months after John. John, the “Elijah” came when God appointed for Him to come; and Yeshua came six months later!

Sukkot has long been associated by the rabbi’s with the coming of Messiah, for many reasons. One of them is the fact that Scripture tells us that people from the nations of the world will come up to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles with the Jewish people in Jerusalem during the Millennial Kingdom: “Then…all nations of the earth…will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles” (Zechariah 14:16). Regardless of whether Sukkot was the time of his birth or not, it will definitely find its full prophetic fulfillment when Yeshua comes to establish his long awaited kingdom. And all people who have been redeemed by his glorious sacrifice will gladly celebrate Sukkot in all its fullness – for God will then dwell among us forever!

The seventh day of this Sukkot is known as Hoshana Rabba – the Great Save. Because Sukkot was a festival celebrating the final harvest of the year, it was customary to thank God during this time for the produce of that year and to ask Him to provide the needed winter rains for next year’s harvest. There were many special observances and traditions developed along this theme. The most spectacular of these was the water drawing ceremony.

Water was an important part of Sukkot. Before the festival, the Rabbis taught on every passage in Scripture dealing with water. During the water drawing ceremony, the High Priest would recite Isaiah 12:1-3: “And in that day you shall say, ‘O LORD, I will praise you: though you were angry with me, your anger is turned away, and you have comforted me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the LORD is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation.’ Therefore with joy shall you draw water out of the wells of salvation.”

In the Middle East during the first century water was often scarce. The people were very much aware of their dependence on God for the rains that were so vital for the preservation of life. No wonder the prophets came to see rain as a symbol of salvation and the work of God’s Holy Spirit: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean.” (Ezekiel 36:25)

We can now more fully appreciate the events recorded on one particular Sukkot – when Yeshua stood in the Temple on this great day of the feast and cried out: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:37-38)

Yeshua’s promise to give living water prompted even greater debate during the last day of the festival of Sukkot. The leaders grew angry because the Temple guards refused their order to arrest Yeshua. Even when one of their own, Nicodemus, came to Yeshua’ defense, they still dismissed His claims saying, “A prophet does not come out of Galilee” (verse 52). Apparently, they had forgotten about Isaiah chapter 9: “There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past He humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future He will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; of those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:1-2)

Yeshua used that very scripture to point to himself as the fulfillment of prophecy – A great Light. According to the Mishnah, gigantic candelabras stood within the temple court. Each of the four golden candelabras is said to have been about 75 feet tall! Each of the candelabra had four branches, and at the top of every branch there was a large bowl. Four young men bearing pitchers of oil would have to climb ladders to fill the four golden bowls on each candelabra. And then the oil in those bowls was ignited.

Remember that the Temple was on a hill above the rest of the city, so the glorious glow was a sight for the entire city to see. In addition to the light, Levitical musicians played their harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets to make joyful music to the Lord. The light was to remind the people of how God’s Shekinah glory had once filled His Temple. But in the person of Yeshua, God’s glory was once again present in that Temple. And He used that celebration to announce that very fact. As he was teaching in the temple court just after the Feast, (perhaps standing right next to those magnificent candelabras) he declared to all who were gathered there: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Rabbinic Law encourages Jews to eat, live, and sleep in the sukkah for all seven days of the festival. (Weather and health permitting) Most modern Jews do not actually sleep in the sukkah; it is used instead as a special outdoor dwelling place for dining together with family and friends.

Sukkot and Thanksgiving

Sukkot is a harvest holiday, which means that the foods served are seasonal in nature. The Sukkot menu generally features vegetables and fruits that are harvested at the time of the season—apples, squash, eggplants, grapes, etc. The arrival of Sukkot ushers in the autumn season; Sukkot foods are inspired by the bounty of the harvest.

Does this sound a little familiar? You might have noticed that the Sukkot holiday resembles the American tradition of Thanksgiving. Believe it or not, the similarities between Sukkot and Thanksgiving actually have a historical frame of reference. Before coming to the New World, the Pilgrims lived for a short time among Sephardic Jews in Holland. In fact, there is historical evidence to suggest that our American Thanksgiving tradition was directly inspired by the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Both the Pilgrims and the Jews were victims of religious persecution. The Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492; they scattered and eventually settled in different parts of Europe and the Middle East. This group of Sephardic Jews made Holland their home. The Pilgrims escaped England in 1608 to avoid the increasing intolerance of their Separatist views by the Bishop of Lincoln and Archbishop of York. Both the Jews and the Pilgrims settled in Holland because of the country’s religious tolerance.

The Pilgrims spent about a decade in Holland before leaving for the New World (America), but they were certainly there long enough to interact with the local Jewish population. The first Thanksgiving was likely inspired by Sukkot celebrations the Pilgrims witnessed while living among the Sephardic Jews of Holland.

This tie between Thanksgiving and Sukkot is pretty extraordinary, and can be seen on many levels. We are taught that the first Thanksgiving meal in 1621 was eaten out-of-doors, which would correspond to the Sukkot tradition of dining outside in the sukkah. We are also taught that the Pilgrims welcomed the Native Americans to their original Thanksgiving table.

Sukkot, like Thanksgiving, is a holiday of welcoming. God commanded Israel to build and dine in the sukkah. As I had mentioned earlier, Jewish families today decorate their sukkah with a variety of decorations including homemade ornaments, paintings, and streamers. But what if it was the Native Americans, who some believe were descendants of some of the tribes of Israel scattered during the Diaspora, who welcomed the Pilgrims to the original Thanksgiving table?  The Native American Tipi has four walls with a door on one side and an opening in the top. (Similar to the sukkah) Most tipis in a village would not be painted, but sometimes tipis were painted to depict personal experiences, such as war or hunting. Those known to be skilled painters were consulted, and a new design was made to fit anonymously within the traditional framework of the tribe’s painted tipis. The cornucopia, a Thanksgiving symbol of plenty, resembles the Jewish shofar that is blown during Rosh HaShannah, The New Year on the Hebrew calendar. Both Sukkot and Thanksgiving feature bountiful menus of delicious, seasonally-inspired foods.

God’s timing is perfect. His Appointed Feasts are full of meaning and value for all. – For the Jew and Non-Jew alike. For all of us who call on the name of Yeshua, we can drink even more deeply of God’s wonder by studying these times and by incorporating them into our worship practices. After all, it is these Feasts that God has appointed and set aside, and commanded to be observed “as a lasting ordinance throughout your generations.” (Exodus 12:14) And that “the same law applies to the native-born and to the alien living among you.” (Exodus 12:49) These days are not burdens, but blessings, gracious gifts from a loving Father to His children. And I pray that a little of the glory of this gift is revealed to you today.

Many today have refused to have their own darkness exposed by the light of God through His son, Yeshua. But there are those who are drawn to the light, whose hearts burn with the truth of Yeshua. And that light is still shining brightly today.

Lord God, King of the Universe, I pray that the light of Messiah will always burn brightly in our hearts, so that You might use us to ignite the hearts of others. As Your people celebrate this festival, may they come to know the One of whom all the festivals speak. May the living water of Yeshua Ha’Mashiach quench their thirst and fill them with the Spirit of the God of Israel. Amen.

(Some information taken from “Christ in the Feast of Tabernacles” by David Brinker)

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