This is the second installment of a period series examining the ancient Israelite (and Jewish) festivals—their origins, ancient practice, development within Jewish tradition, and their relation to early Christianity. The first set of articles (earlier this year) dealt with the festival of Passover (Part 1, 2, 3, 4). This current set will explore the festival of Sukkot, which is celebrated at this time of the year.
Name and Origin
The name Sukkot is a transliteration of the Hebrew toKs% (s¥kkô¾), a plural form of the noun hK*s%, from the root iks which has the fundamental meaning “block off, cover”. The noun refers simply to a covering, usually in the sense of a protective dwelling or shelter; the related noun Es) has essentially the same meaning, and may be viewed as a byform of the same word. The word hK*s%, in spite of being a common noun, is relatively rare in the Old Testament, at least when it is used in the general sense of a shelter—cf. Gen 33:17; 2 Sam 11:11; 22:12; 1 Ki 20:12, 16; Job 27:18; Isa 1:8; Jonah 4:5, etc. At least as often, it is used in the specific context of the festival under discussion here (Lev 23:34ff; 2 Chron 8:13, etc).
The name derives from the practice of families and individuals setting up temporary (and ceremonial) shelters (toKs%) to dwell in during the festival. In English, the Hebrew term is often translated loosely as “booths” (i.e., festival of Booths), though the more traditional rendering is the archaic (and rather inappropriate) “Tabernacles”.
Even though the name Sukkot (toKs%) came to be traditional designation for the festival among Israelites, the earliest (historical) tradition clearly indicates the festival’s origins. In the instructions (Torah) given in the book of Exodus, it is called the festival of “the gathering” ([ys!a*h*), Exod 23:16; 34:22. All of the three major pilgrimage festivals—Passover, Weeks, and Sukkot/Booths—were originally agricultural festivals, tied to specific points of the harvest season. This is quite clear from the instruction in Exod 23:13-16; 34:22-24.
The festival of Sukkot/Booths celebrates the “gathering”, in reference to the end of the harvest generally, but also specifically to the gathering of the grapes and olives which marks the end of the season (in the late summer/early fall). This occurred during the seventh month, Nissan, which corresponds to a period in September-October of our calendar. The festival was held over an eight-day period, 15-22 Nissan, following the harvest (Lev 23:33, 39; Deut 16:13; Num 29:12ff).
Ancient Practice and the Torah
The instruction for the festivals in the book of Leviticus (chapter 23) provides some basic information on how Sukkot/Booths is to be celebrated (vv. 33-43). The first and last days of the festival are marked by a “call to holy (observance)” (vd#q) ar*q=m!), which means that the time (and space) is to be kept pure and set apart, so that no ordinary labor is to be done (v. 35-36). This sets the boundaries and establishes the sacred character of the festival: its time belongs to YHWH (vv. 39, 41), and should be devoted to worship. In particular, a sacrificial offering (“[by] fire”) is to be presented to God on each day (v. 36).
The second component of the festival is described in verse 40. The people are to take leafy branches from various trees (lit. “tree[s] of splendor”), and use them in joyful acts (vb jm^c*) of celebration and worship “before YHWH”. The palm-tree and brook-willow are specifically mentioned as sources of these branches; they presumably they were to be waved about as part of the rejoicing.
The final component involved the construction of temporary shelters (toKs%), the significance of which is explained:
“In s¥kkô¾ [i.e., shelters] you shall sit [i.e. dwell] (for the) seven days; (all) th(ose) grown up in Yisrael [i.e. native Israelites] shall sit in the s¥kkô¾. (This is so that) as a result, (the) circles of your (descendants) may know that I made (the) sons of Yisrael to sit in s¥kkô¾ in my bringing them forth from (the) land of Egypt. I (am) YHWH your Mighty (One).” (vv. 42-43)
The shelters thus represent and symbolize God’s providential care for the people during their Exodus-journeying out of Egypt. The shelter-coverings, by the very meaning of the word hK*s% (cf. above), allude to protection, to the “blocking out” of the elements, etc. There may also be a bit of wordplay involved, since the homonym Sukkoth is also the name of first stopping-point on the Exodus journey (according to Exod 12:37).
An interesting final detail is that the eighth (final) day of the festival is specifically referred to by the term hr*x*u&, indicating that, as with the first day, the time was sacred (like the Sabbath) and that no ordinary work/labor was to be performed (v. 36). The precise meaning of hr*x*u& here, however, is uncertain. The basic meaning of the root rxu is something like “hold back, restrain, detain”. Probably the significance of the term in relation to the eighth day of the festival is that the people should refrain from doing work; however, it has also been suggested that the idea of the people being ‘detained’ for an additional (eighth) day was intended.
In Numbers 29:12-38, there is additional instruction given for the observance of Sukkot, devoted to descriptions of the prescribed sacrificial offerings for each day. The brief instruction in Deuteronomy 16:16-17 includes the detail that all adult males shall appear before YHWH (in Jerusalem) for the festival, along with the principle that each person shall give an offering as he is able, according to the extent to which God has blessed him and his family. In Deut 31:10-13, the festival of Sukkot is marked as the occasion when “this Instruction [Torah],” referring to the book of Deuteronomy itself, is to be read out before the people.
There is no specific indication of the festival of Sukkot being celebrated prior to the Kingdom-period (cf. the notice in Neh 8:17). According to 1 Kings 8:2ff, it was celebrated, in a grandiose manner, by Solomon, when it was utilized as the setting for the inauguration of the newly-built Temple in Jerusalem. As would be fitting for the importance of the occasion, an additional seven days were added to the prescribed seven for the festival, doubling its length to fourteen, after which the eighth/final day was celebrated (v. 65). In the separatist Northern kingdom, under Jeroboam, the Sukkot festival was celebrated in Bethel, rather than in Jerusalem, for obvious reasons (12:32).
Apart from brief notices or allusions to Sukkot in Hosea 12:9 and Lamentations 2:6-7, the only other Old Testament references come from the early post-Exilic period. Celebration of the festival is mentioned in Ezra 3:4, as part of a program of restoration and reform, which entailed both the rebuilding of the Temple (with its ritual/sacrificial apparatus) and a renewed adherence to observing the Torah. Once the Temple and its altar were rebuilt, the prescribed sacrifices for the festival (cf. above) could be offered (cp. 2 Chron 8:13). A more detailed description of the celebration of Sukkot is mentioned in Nehemiah 8:13-18, more or less following precisely the Levitical instruction regarding the festival (cf. above). Branches of olive, myrtle, and palm trees are specifically mentioned (cp. Lev 23:40). It is also noted that the shelters (toKs%) were constructed variously on the rooftops and in the courtyards of individual homes, but also in the courts of the Temple and in the public squares at two of the city gates, presumably to allow for additional access to the ceremonial shelters by the population (v. 16). Also, in accordance with the Deuteronomic directive (Deut 31:11-13), the author mentions that the “Book of the Instruction [Torah] of God” (i.e., Deuteronomy) was read out loud before the people during the festival.
In Part 2, I will examine the influence of Sukkot, both within the Old Testament, and in the subsequent early Jewish tradition. Particular attention will be focused on the important reference in Zechariah 14, and on the possible setting of the festival for a number of the Psalms (esp. Psalm 118).