From The Days Of Awe – To The Festival Of Joy

Your Joy Will Be Complete 

Almost immediately after the Days of Awe—the days of trembling and repentance —Sukkot begins. We finish the fast of Yom Kippur, we hear the last cry of shofar, and on the same night, we start building sukkot – tabernacles. Years ago, I lived in a house with a large common yard and I loved watching my religious neighbors rejoicing in erecting their sukkah in this yard in the evening right after Yom Kippur. This transition, from the solemn and sober Days of Awe to the Festival of Joy, is incredible; we will definitely discuss it here at some point;  today, however, we will talk about the Feast of Tabernacles.

As my readers probably know, the number seven has always been regarded by interpreters and commentators of the Torah, as the number of completeness. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the seventh month of the year, Tishrei, is indeed a very important month in God’s sacred calendar. It is full of the special solemn days, mo’adim, and I’ve already tried to express the beauty of Rosh HaShanah and the solemn atmosphere of Yom Kippur on these pages. Now, finally, we are approaching the last of the “solemn assemblies” of Tishrei, the Feast of Tabernacles. For me personally, this Feast has always stood out among all the feasts of  God’s sacred calendar; and I’m sure it is not just me, after all, it’s not by chance that in the Bible it is sometimes simply called “The Feast” (1 Kings 8:2) or “The Feast of the Lord” (Lev.23:39). Why? What is so special about Sukkot?

Sukkot is a Biblical Festival of Joy: if Passover is called the “Season of our Liberation,” and Shavuot is called the “Season of the Giving of our Torah,” Sukkot is described as the “Season of our Joy!” zman simchateinu. In fact, Scripture commands us explicitly to be joyful during Sukkot:

13 Celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. 14 Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. 15 For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete[1].

Why? At first glance there seems to be no reasonable explanation: other Biblical feasts commemorate an event which saved the Jewish people from grave danger that occurred on that particular date (such as Passover, Chanukah, and Purim), but nothing happened on the 15th of Tishrei which would explain the establishment of a holiday on this date. So why is Sukkot so important for God and why is it called zman simchateinu— the Season of our Joy? What do we celebrate and why do we rejoice?

The answer can be found in Jewish tradition. According to our Sages, Moses came back with the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, God forgave His people after their terrible sin of Golden Calf.  However, it is only at Sukkot, that God’s presence came back to abide among His people; it’s only at Sukkot that those Divine clouds covered the hand-made booths. This is the mystery and the joy of Sukkot – the mystery and the joy of God’s return and of renewed fellowship. That is why Sukkot is indeed the holiday of divine intimacy and divine presence; that is why Sukkot is called zman simchateinu, the Season of our Joy—because God, in His mercy, came to tabernacle with His people!

Let Us Make Here Tabernacles …

You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites 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.’”[2]

In Jewish texts, we find two different approaches regarding the symbolism of the sukkah. According to the first one, a sukkah symbolizes the divine clouds that God protected His children with,  in the wilderness—the Clouds of Glory which miraculously surrounded the Jews for the forty years they spent in the desert. According to the second approach, the people of Israel actually built booths in the wilderness to protect themselves, and we are commanded to build sukkot in order to remember those sukkot in the wilderness we lived in when God took us out of Egypt. Are these two approaches mutually exclusive? Let us try to reconcile them.

The word “sukkah” can be related to the ancient root סכה, to see. Therefore, it might be understood as an allusion to the higher degree of spiritual sight acquired by Israel in the wilderness. Even though the Jewish people probably did build themselves little huts, in order to gain some safety and shelter in the desert, “they were also privileged to enjoy an even greater protection, one that surpassed not only booths but fortresses. Israel was enveloped by God’s Clouds of Glory. This was totally unlike the protection provided by steel and solid rock.”[3]  Thus, in these two approaches, we can see a reflection of Israel’s twofold experience in the wilderness—both extremely difficult and extremely glorious—living in humble huts but lead and covered by God’s Glory!

The reflection of this “Clouds of Glory” concept we find also n the New Testament. You would remember one of the most beautiful stories in the Gospels – the story of the transfiguration. All the synoptic Gospels describe Jesus going to the mountain and being transfigured there: shining “like the sun” and talking to Moses and Elijah. The whole scene presents a beautiful picture of heavenly glory. And what is the reaction of the apostles witnessing this scene? All of a sudden Peter suggests that they should build tabernacles: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”[4] At first glance, it sounds like a very strange, unexpected suggestion! Where did it come from?

It is only in the light of that second approach that we just spoke about – that sukkah symbolizes the Clouds of Glory which miraculously surrounded the Jews for the forty years they spent in the desert, that sukkah is a powerful symbol of the divine presence – that we understand the reason why Peter offered to build sukkot: he was referring to this traditional symbol and trying to express the glory of God’s presence he was experiencing!

CHAG SUKKOT SAMEACH, DEAR FRIENDS!

MAY YOU EXPERIENCE THE PROFOUND JOY OF HIS PRESENCE DURING THIS WONDERFUL SEASON!

[1] Deut. 16:13-15

[2] Leviticus 23:43

[3] Succos,  Artscroll Mesorah Series, 2002, p.22

[4] Matt.17:4

 

The insights you read on this blog,  are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion)  classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying  in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding  eTeacher courses[1] (juliab@eteachergroup.com) .

If you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  click here to check them out. 

[1] At this point, we offer WTP course only in English, while DHB course is offered also  in Spanish and Portuguese.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Nico Mettler

    Hi Julia. Do Christians fit in here somewhere? May we also celebrate Sukkot?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Nico, I suppose you know as well as I do this wonderful prophecy: “the nations…shall come up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles” (Zech. 14:16). A few years ago, on the parking lot of a huge hall in Jerusalem where International Christian Embassy holds the Christian celebration of Sukkot every year, my husband and I met an orthodox rabbi. For some reason, he just started to talk to us – probably, out of excitement. He was so agitated, his eyes were shining, and he was pointing out to the building: “Do you see all these people from the nations coming up to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot? This is exactly what we see in Tanach – and it means, the time is close”. He was very excited – and it was a very exciting encounter for us as well!

  2. Cheryel Lemley-McRoy

    I read somewhere that the Hebrew tradition expects the Messiah to come at the Festival of Sukkot?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Cheryel, thank you for your question. Even though I myself use sometimes these words: “Jewish Tradition”, the fact is that there are many different teachings and streams inside of this tradition, and therefore I don’t think there is a single answer to your question. Undoubtedly, there are some streams that expect Messiah to come at Sukkot – but there are others that don’t, and that’s why in general, I personally won’t say that “the Hebrew tradition expects the Messiah to come at the Festival of Sukkot”.