Christians celebrating the High Holy Days – Jewish Feast of Sukkot
LEWISVILLE, TX: Living in Jerusalem in the nineties meant a front-row seat to the pageantry of the Jewish festival season “high holidays” and insight into the culture of the Holy Land—”being in the land the added dimension.”
For a Christian theologian, being in the land of Israel represented an opportunity to experience the singe of the desert’s hot breath, feel the stir of the wind stroking the waves of the Sea of Galilee and follow the scents and sounds of Jerusalem’s crowded markets.
The celebration of the Jewish festivals leading to a time of reflection and a whole new perspective on the biblical teachings of the feasts.
The Jewish Festival of Sukkot (“booths,” aka Feast of Tabernacles) begins on the fifteenth and continues through the twenty-first of Tishri, the biblical seventh month, and in the modern calendar this year, October 14-20, 2019.
The “High Holy Days” of the New Year which begins five days after Yom Kippur. (Leviticus 23:34-44, Nehemiah 8:13-18)
The Feast of Sukkot (also spelled, Succot) commemorates the Israelites’ forty-year journey following 430 years of captivity in Egypt. During this period, the Israelites wandered in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Sukkot also commemorates the final harvest of the agricultural year.
The Jewish celebration of the Feast of Sukkot
In modern Israel, the Feast of Sukkot celebrants lives in temporary shelters commemorating the ancient Israelites dwelling in the wilderness. The commandment “to dwell” in a sukkah can be fulfilled by only eating all meals in the sukkah, but if the weather permits, they are encouraged to spend their nights there as well. They are built on rooftops, balconies, in the courtyard, or on the streets.
At the Institute of Holy Land Studies (now Jerusalem University College), we encouraged the students to get the full Jewish experience while studying in the Holy Land. Me constructing a sukkah on the campus grounds.
Following a local Yeshiva (Jewish seminary) student’s understanding of the regulations in the Talmud, they began building their sukkah. Two-by-fours and large branches make up the basic structure. A wind-resistant canvas-like material fastened to the wood structure covers three walls.
The students’ sukkah was about six-by-six feet. The roof is made from naturally grown material that followed the regulation of something cut off from its basic stock or trunk. They used willow and palm branches along with the branches of trees scattered around our Mount Zion compound.
Celebrants picking a spot that is in the open and must not be under a tree because it provides its own covering. They were careful that the roof covering was not tied together or attached to the basic structure, which is a delicate challenge.
The palm leaves covering the top were spaced to allow the stars to be seen but not to exceed ten inches apart. Then, they were decorated with pomegranates, olives, and dates.
While they were enthusiastic about their accomplishments, I was not overly impressed. It certainly met the qualification of a “temporary” dwelling—if not flimsy.
In the United States, Jews commonly decorate sukkahs with dried squash and corn. The holiday of Halloween and Thanksgiving provides the fall crops to make it fun for families as they decorate their sukkahs, much like decorating yards for Halloween and Thanksgiving.
The profoundly religious pilgrims coming to America looked to the fall season as a time for giving thanks to God for their survival and the fall harvest. When seeking a biblical way to celebrate, they most likely viewed the Feast of Sukkot as an appropriate way to celebrate what became a tradition known as Thanksgiving.
Feast of Tabernacles in the New Testament.
During the second temple period (515 BC-AD 70) to celebrate Sukkot, the priests ceremonially marched south from the Temple to the bottom of the city of David. A journey of seven days. When they reached the Pool of Siloam, they filled their jugs and pitchers with water before returning to the Temple through the Water Gate.
To enter the inner court of the Temple, they ascended fifteen steps singing a number of the Psalms. Inside the inner court, water is poured at the base of the altar. There is rejoicing signifying the coming of the Holy Spirit (not as a member of Godhead but a divine influence on Yahweh).
Another essential feature of the celebration is the “Illumination of the Temple.” This involves the ritual lighting of four golden lamps in the Court of Women. Lighting the Temple at night reminded the people of the pillar of fire that had guided Israel in their wilderness journey.
At the feast of Tabernacles, Jesus draws a connection between the feast and the drawing of water at the spring of Siloam.
He is the living water that brings salvation (John 4). Isaiah calls it the “wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). Later Jesus calls Himself the Light of the World, again referring to the symbols in the Illumination of the Temple. Jesus’ declaration affirms the many messianic prophecies in the Old Testament.
“On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them. By this, he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time, the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.” (John 7:37-39)
While modern Jewish celebrations of the Feasts are not strictly biblical interpretations, Christians may enjoy the feasts as events that point to the Christian view of the Messiah, Jesus.
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