Enumerated in Leviticus chapter 23 are feasts that the Children of Israel were commanded to keep throughout their generations. One of these feasts is Succoth. Succoth, which means “tabernacles” or “booths,” refers to the temporary dwelling places of the Children of Israel when they wandered through the desert after their departure from Egypt.
Succoth occurs after the “High Holy Days” during the autumn season of the year. According to biblical scriptures, Succoth is observed from the 15th day to the 22nd day of the Hebrew month Ethanim and it is characterized as a holy convocation, a sabbath, and a solemn assembly. Succoth is also a feast that has both a spiritual and an agricultural component.
Biblical Mandate: You Shall Dwell in Booths
There is ample biblical evidence that Succoth was an important holiday during ancient times. Among the references are Leviticus chapter 23 verses 29-43; Numbers chapter 29 verses 12, 35-40; Deuteronomy chapter 16 verses 12-17; II Chronicles chapter 7 verses 8-9, and Nehemiah chapter 8 verses 13-18. The reference that best describes the various aspects of the feast is Leviticus chapter 23 verses 33-36, 39-40, and 41-43 (all verses are quoted from the King James Version):
“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying: ‘Speak unto the Children of Israel: The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be a feast of tabernacles for seven days unto the LORD. On the first day shall be a holy convocation; ye shall do no servile work…on the eighth day shall be a holy convocation…it is a solemn assembly; ye shall do no servile work.’
‘…when ye have gathered in the fruit of the land, ye shall keep a feast unto the LORD seven days: on the first day shall be a sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a sabbath. And ye shall take…on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.’
‘And ye shall keep it a feast seven days…It is a statute for ever in your generations…. Ye shall dwell in booths (tabernacles) seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths: that your generations may know that I made the Children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt….'”
According to the above scriptural reference, Succoth is a festival of eight days. Its first and last days are sabbaths, and no work is permitted on these days. We discover that there also is a dual meaning of Succoth; namely a spiritual meaning and a practical (or agricultural) meaning.
The Spiritual Meaning
The exodus from Egypt by the Children of Israel is probably the most significant event in the history of the Israelite people. In fact, many Judaic festivals owe their origins to this event. After the Children of Israel departed from Egypt in route to the Promised Land, they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. During their nomadic wanderings, they dwelt in booths or tabernacles as their temporary shelters.
To commemorate this period and to serve as a reminder of the mercy of the God of Abraham, the Children of Israel were commanded to observe this eight-day festival. Thus, this feast serves partly as a reminder of the dwellings of the Children of Israel during the early part of their history.
The Practical Meaning
Leviticus chapter 23 verses 39-40 and Deuteronomy chapter 16 verse 13 reflect the agricultural aspect of the feast. During ancient times, the Children of Israel were farmers and herders. The period of Succoth occurs in the late fall season, near the final harvest time. Hence, Succoth was a time to offer sacrifices to God as a sign of praise and thanksgiving for His meeting their physical needs.
Like ancient times, Succoth remains an important festival today. For some, the most important feature of the festival is the dwelling in “booths” or succahs, according to the Biblical precept. The booth must be a temporary hut, and its construction must meet precise requirements. During the week of the festival, one resides in the booth as much as possible instead of ones’ permanent residence.
A second important characteristic of Succoth is the regulation to take the four plants; namely, the etrog, a palm tree (lulav), a myrtle branch (hadas), and a willow branch (arava), and rejoice before the LORD.
The choice of these particular plants has great symbolic meaning. According to one explanation, each plant represents a part of the body. For example, the etrog corresponds to the heart; the lulav matches with the spine; the myrtle parallels with the eye; and the willow leaves coincide with the lips.
According to a second explanation, each plant represents a segment of the household of Israel. For example, the etrog, which has a sweet taste, stands for people who are educated in the Torah and do good deeds; the lulav, which is a good fruit without a scent, symbolizes individuals who have knowledge of the Torah but do not commit good deeds; the myrtle, which has a pleasant smell without any taste, represents individuals who are not knowledgeable of the Torah, but perform good deeds; and lastly, the willow, which has neither taste nor fragrance, symbolizes those who have no knowledge of the Torah and do not perform good deeds.
Within our Congregation, Succoth is a major religious holiday. To observe it, we assemble in the tabernacle on the eve of the 15th day of Ethanim for a God-centered service consisting of singing, prayer, and thanksgiving for the many blessings we have received.