Every year, throngs of Christians from all over the world flood the streets of Jerusalem, waving flags of Israel and the nations from which they come. It is a beautiful expression of solidarity for Israel and love for the Jewish people.

Many of these Christians are inspired by biblical prophecy. According to Zechariah, there will come a time when people from all nations “will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles” (Zechariah 14:16 NIV). But what is the Feast of Tabernacles?

The Feast of Tabernacles, also sometimes called the Feast of Booths in some translations, is one of the biblical holidays described in Leviticus 23. Jewish people do not typically refer to it as “the Feast of Tabernacles” (or “Booths”), but more commonly refer to it by its Hebrew name: Sukkot.

What Is a Sukkah?

“Tabernacles” and “booths” are attempts to translate sukkot into English. The singular form is sukkah.

A sukkah is a makeshift shade from the sun made from readily available materials. For example, during the harvest season of late summer, a laborer might rise early and work throughout the morning. Then as the oppressive midday sun bears down, he takes a break. Using leftover plant stalks, leaves, and branches, he constructs a simple shelter to provide him with shade.

One traveling through Israel’s countryside during the harvest season in biblical times would no doubt have seen many of these little shelters in fields, vineyards, and orchards. But they are not just for harvest. Jonah also built such a sukkah to sit in as he waited to see what would come of Nineveh (Jonah 4:5). Jacob built sukkot for his cattle in his journeys, and actually named the place after them (Genesis 33:17).

When the ancient Israelites emerged from Egypt, they left their houses behind. At first, they would not even have had tents to pitch to protect themselves. They would have gathered whatever brush they could find to keep the sun off their heads. God himself also sheltered them from the sun’s rays; his presence was the sukkah they needed!

Because of its uses, the sukkah is a symbol for both harvest and sojourning.

The Biblical Source

Given this information, let’s take a look at the institution of this holiday in the Bible:

Speak to the people of Israel, saying, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the Feast of Booths [Sukkot] to the LORD. (Leviticus 23:34 ESV)

On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. You shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths [sukkot] for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths [sukkot], that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths [sukkot] when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 23:39-43 ESV)

To summarize this passage:

  • Sukkot is a happy seven-day holiday.
  • It starts on the fifteenth day of the seventh month.
  • It is connected to the harvest.
  • The first and eighth days are days of rest.
  • One should rejoice using four kinds of plants.
  • It is an everlasting commandment.
  • Jewish people in Israel are commanded to dwell in a sukkah for seven days.
  • It is a commemoration of the exodus from Egypt.

Happy Campers

Today Jewish people all over the world, not just in Israel, construct sukkot to celebrate this joyous festival. Usually this takes the form of a small hut with natural plant material, such as branches or bamboo. Then decorations and furnishings are added to make it feel festive and comfortable. Depending on the weather and climate, one might eat meals or even sleep in the sukkah each night.

The four plants mentioned in the verse (identified as a citron fruit, palm branch, myrtle branches, and willow branches) are bound together. Each day, participants shake them in each direction as an expression of prayer and worship.

On the seventh day, called Hoshana Rabbah, there are prayers for rain. In ancient times, these prayers accompanied a ceremony in which water from the Pool of Siloam was poured on the Temple altar.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus taught in the Temple during Sukkot (John 7:2-14). It was on the seventh day, Hoshana Rabbah, when he said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38 ESV).

Sukkot in the Future

Sukkot may contain symbols of the past, but it is a future-focused holiday. It occurs at the very culmination of the calendar: after the harvest, in the seventh month, on the fifteenth day (the full moon), and lasting for seven days. It depicts the messianic future of peace and God’s provision.

As the Prophet Zechariah declared, one day all nations will flow to Jerusalem for the festival. So why not start now?