How Did Jesus Celebrate Sukkot?

Sukkot is a weeklong celebration,  therefore it offers a wonderful opportunity to discuss different aspects of this amazing prophetic Feast. Today, we are going to talk about that Feast of Tabernacles that Jesus came to celebrate in Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago, and to learn a few new things about Sukkot along the way.

USHPIZIN

The Gospel of John gives us a very clear testimony of Jesus observing the Feast of the Tabernacles (Sukkot).  In John 7, we read that when the “Feast of Tabernacles was at hand,” Jesus’ brothers tried to convince Him to go up to Jerusalem to celebrate it – but he answered: “My time has not yet come.”[1]  And then we find an intriguing report: “But when His brothers had gone up, then He also went up to the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.”   Why did he go “as it were in secret”? Since the first verse of this chapter tells us that “He did not want to walk in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill Him,”[2] the traditional explanation states that he did not go openly because of these threats. But maybe there is more to this statement than simply Jesus’ supposed fear for His life? After all, we know that “no one laid a hand on Him, because His hour had not yet come,[3] so why did he go up in secret?

Some basic knowledge about Sukkot would be helpful here. First of all, we have to remember that Sukkot was one of the three Feasts during which every Jewish man had to go to Jerusalem for worship. So, of course Jesus would fulfill the commandment and go up to Jerusalem – and when he says to his brothers: “I am not  yet going up to this feast,”[4]  we need to understand that the emphasis is on “yet”, he is not going yet. He is not going now, with the groups of pilgrims leaving in advance, he will travel at the last minute and incognito (not necessarily alone, but not with a big caravan either). But why is he going incognito?

One of the most important aspects of Sukkot is inviting guests into one’s sukkah (booth). Throughout the week of the Feast, people move from sukkah to sukkah, performing hospitality and experiencing hospitality, switching from being hosts to being guests. Sometimes, this custom is called ushpizin (ushpizin, אושפיזין,  literally means “guests” in Aramaic), after the original peculiar custom of “ushpizin”—  inviting not just physical guests to one’s sukkah, but spiritual, or transcendental  guests, like the “seven shepherds” of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. The “spiritual ushpizin” tradition did not fully emerge until sometime in the Middle Ages, therefore of course, it was not there in Jesus’ time. However, the  practice of hospitality,  inviting physical guests (hachnasat orchim) has always been one of the most important commandments in Judaism. The welcoming of guests during Sukkot is especially significant, since in many ways, the Sukkah represents and reflects the tent of Abraham and Jewish tradition derives the mitzvah of hospitality from Abraham (Genesis 18). So, there is no doubt that the practice of inviting guests to one’s sukkah, especially honored guests, was widespread in Jesus’ days as well. And it must be noted here that even though people could invite guests for all the intermediate nights of the Feast, of course, the most festive and the most important night was the first night – the eve of Sukkot.

Now, back to Jesus. Being a famous Rabbi and Teacher, he would probably be invited for this special night by several people, and inevitably, would have to turn down some invitations. I believe this is the reason he didn’t make his appearance public and went “as it were in secret” – probably to celebrate Sukkot with somebody who was especially dear to his heart (perhaps John himself, “the disciple whom he loved”). When Jesus appeared publicly in the Temple “about the middle of the feast,” it was already Chol HaMoed, the intermediate days of the Feast, and he was ready to accept the additional invitations for the intermediate evenings.

THE LAST AND GREAT DAY OF THE FEAST

The next time we see Jesus during that Sukkot “on the last day, that great day of the feast,” He stood and cried out, saying, “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.”[5] Why did he speak of water? What a strange image to speak of during the Feast! Was there anything connected to water in the contemporary celebration of Sukkot that might explain Jesus’ use of this image?

As the matter of fact, there was. In the days of the Second Temple, the height of the Sukkot celebration was the Water Libation ceremony. Sukkot is the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, and the libation of water was performed to invoke God’s blessing on the year’s rains. During the ceremony, a large procession ascended to the Temple, led by a priest who bore a special golden vessel filled with the sparkling spring water. The water was then poured onto the altar. The description of this ceremony can be found in the Mishna. The joy accompanying it was so great that it became a proverb: “He that has not seen Simchat-bet-ha-Sho’ebah, the joy of the drawing (and the pouring) of the water has not seen joy in his life.”

“Now, though the Rabbis attached a symbolic significance to the ceremonial in connection with the dispensation of the rain… the main reference according to themselves, … was to the future blessings to be bestowed on them in Messiah’s time, and especially pointed to the pouring out of the Spirit,”[6] as can be seen from the distinct statement in the Talmud, “Why is it called Bet-ha-Sho’eba? . . . Because of the pouring of the Holy Spirit, according to what is said: ‘With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.’”[7]

Once we understand this context – once we understand that, although not part of the original Mosaic appointment, the Water Libation ceremonial service also pointed  and emphasized  the symbolic and prophetic significance of Sukkot – the words of Jesus from John 7 acquire an even more profound and rich meaning. It is in the context of this joyful ceremonial of the pouring of water that Jesus promises the “living water” – and, like the Talmud later, he also “spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive”[8].

[1] John 7:6

[2] John 7:1

[3] John 7:30

[4] John 7:8

[5] John 7:37-38

[6][6] David Baron, Types, Psalms and Prophecies, Israel,2000, p.64

[7][7] Jer. Sukkah V

[8] John 7:39

 

If you like the  articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you  can get  them  from  my page:   https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/   

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. Ruth Brooks

    Please sign me up to receive these emails . I keep signing up but don’t get the posts

    1. Julia Blum

      I am sorry, Ruth. I am forwarding your email to those responsible, hope it will work out. Please let me know if there is still a problem.

  2. Cheryel Lemley-McRoy

    I have read that Jewish tradition holds that the Messiah will come at Sukkot. Also that the Transfiguration took place at Sukkot, which is why Peter wanted to build booths for Moses, Jesus, and Elijah. Could you elaborate on that, please?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Cheryel, I think in Jewish tradition Sukkot is associated not so much with the Messiah, as with the Messianic era. For instance, some midrashim teach that when the Messiah comes he will instruct the nations in the commandments of sukkah and lulav. Of course, all these messianic connotations are based on Zehariah 14. It might also explain Peter’s suggestion to build booths during Transfiguration – not because it was happening during Sukkot, but because he felt as if he entered the Messianic Age already.

  3. Rory M Lennox

    How does one understand the building of the sukkot tabernacle in such varied places as fire escapes in many cities where the end of the celebration seldom results in rain. Much to my surprise we have had rain here in South West Nova Scotia about in the middle of the celebration.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Rory, in Israel the season of rains starts after Sukkot , that’s why during the Holiday the booths are safe from the rain (occasionally – very seldom, though – first rain comes during Sukkot and penetrates the roof of Sukkah).

  4. Rachel

    Jesus went incognito because He did not want to draw attention to Himself since the Jewish authorities were looking to kill Him. And in reply to His “brothers” sneering proposal to expose Himself as Israel’s Messiah, was “My time (to do this revelation as Your Messiah) is not yet.” John 7:6

    Jesus knew that His Father (God) would reveal to Him the correct time for His crucifixion as the Passover Lamb, but Jesus
    would not unnecessarily place Himself and His disciples in a precarious and difficult situation, and He would not draw unnecessary attention toward Himself and incur the wrath of Rome. That is why (earlier) He departed from them and went away to pray on the mount when the people wanted to take Him by force and declare Him king. John 6:15.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Rachel, I won’t argue, I suppose that one of the main reasons for Jesus to go “in secret” was indeed the fact that “He did not want to draw attention to Himself since the Jewish authorities were looking to kill Him”. However, in my articles on this blog I am trying to help my readers understand deeper Jesus’ words and deeds by seeing them in their Jewish context. Hospitality (both showing hospitality and responding to hospitality) has always been a very important part of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles ) celebration, therefore the multiple invitations could well have been the additional cause of Jesus’ incognito.

  5. Rado

    Dear Julia, thanks.
    Without your teaching I would probably never knew that hiden wisdom of Jesus.
    Happy Sukkot!
    .

    1. Gary Gibbs

      Dear Julia,thank you. How important it is to get underneath what we read in Scripture. Thank you for helping me get there.
      Happy Suckkot.