Note: The Feast of Tabernacles began at sundown on October 16. In response to a reader request, I asked my friend, Pastor Dan Brown, a current missionary with The Navigators and a former missionary to Israel, to teach us how we can draw closer to God through this amazing feast. Below is his story! I pray you’ll be blessed as you read. – Jamie
Have you ever wondered if the Jewish feasts can be celebrated by Christians?
Or, have you wondered if these feasts–like the Feast of Tabernacles and Passover–even should be celebrated by Christians?
Starting 20 years or so ago, I started hearing about a few believers having a seder at their homes, and I wondered what that was all about. But it wasn’t until about 6 years ago that I felt brave enough to check one out.
When I did, I loved it, and I learned some really interesting things about the Jewish heritage that you and I have as Christians–things that I had never known.
A year or so later, my wife and I moved to Jerusalem to serve with a Christian ministry there. While we lived in Israel, boy, did we get an education about the Jewish feasts!
For one thing, we learned that these are not just “Jewish feasts,” but “the feasts of the Lord” (Leviticus 23:2), so nervous Christians can relax and not be worried about being seen as suddenly “becoming Jewish.” 🙂
Another thing that was quickly pointed out to us is that as Christians, we don’t HAVE to celebrate the feasts; we GET to!
Why wouldn’t we want to celebrate the feasts? Jesus and His disciples did, and the early church did too. And now that I have celebrated them in the Land of Israel, I can appreciate their importance and the deep spiritual meaning that they each convey!
Today–October 16, 2016–beginning at sundown, is the start of the Feast of Tabernacles, known in Hebrew as Sukkot.
(By the way, sukkah is the Hebrew word for “booth” or “tabernacle,” and sukkot is the plural.)
The Feast of Tabernacles is actually the third major event that occurs for the Jewish people within a 2-week period! The sequence is:
- The first feast this month—on October 2-4—was the Feast of Trumpets, known in Hebrew as Rosh HaShanah (“Head of the Year,” the Jewish New Year).
- From the evening of October 11 through sundown of October 12 was Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement—the most solemn day of the year for Jews.
- Sukkot, a time of celebration, is the third.
Another powerful tidbit:
The ten days from the beginning of the Feast of Trumpets (29 Elul) to the start of Yom Kippur (9 Tishrei) are called the Days of Awe. (Elul and Tishrei are names of months on the Jewish calendar.)
These ten days are very somber days. During these days, according to Judaism, the destiny of people’s lives are determined–especially those whose hearts are broken over their sin and whose prayers are truly heartfelt.
There are Christian leaders—including Steve Schultz of Elijah List—who claim that they are able to hear the voice of the Lord during these 10 days more clearly than any other time!
Note from Jamie: I personally noticed a huge increase in my compulsion to pray, including with fasting, during the ten Days of Awe this year which Dan mentions above. Did you? Leave a comment below if so!
So, the somber Days of Awe are followed by Sukkot—the Feast of Tabernacles—that are referred to by many Jews as “zman simchatenou” [זמן שמחתנו] — “the time of our joy!”
Joy is exactly what God had in mind when He established this celebration. He wanted there to be dancing in the streets! How do we know? Because He said:
And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days” (Leviticus 23:40).
God’s command for this annual feast—one of three feasts in which every male Israelite was to appear before the Lord in Jerusalem (Exodus 23:14-16)—also called for them to build booths, or sukkot, and to live in those booths for days. This is seen in Leviticus 23:42-43:
You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”
This final feast of the year is also known in Scripture as the “the Feast of Ingathering” (Exodus 23:16), as it was observed after all of the season’s crops had been harvested. That is more than enough reason to rejoice!
How the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated in Bible times:
The people were to live in booths and rejoice before the Lord with branches. The booths were an annual reminder of God’s provision for them during the 40-year wilderness sojourn when they lived in similar shelters. The branches, known today as a lulav, consist of a palm branch, a willow branch, a myrtle branch, and a piece of citrus fruit known as a citron or etrog.
These four branches represent Israel’s roadmap from Egypt to the interior of the Promised Land:
• Palm—the Sinai Desert;
• Willow—the Jordan Valley;
• Myrtle—the mountains; and
• The citron—the coastal plain.
During Biblical times, the Israelites flocked to Jerusalem from every village in Israel and from many foreign countries, often singing and laughing along the way.
Upon arrival, these pilgrims focused on building their simple booths, and by the afternoon of Tishrei 14 the streets, hills, and surrounding fields were filled with thousands of leafy sukkot (booths). At sundown, the blast of the shofar (ram’s horn) from the Temple announced the beginning of the holiday.
During the feast, the people brought their tithes and offerings to the Temple. They were not to “appear before the Lord empty-handed” (Deuteronomy 16:16). Each day, one goat, fourteen lambs, two rams, and a number of bullocks (thirteen on the first day, decreasing by one each day) were offered at the Temple.
Each of these sacrifices was offered with its appropriate meal offerings (flour and oil) and drink offerings of wine.
But the highlight of the Feast of Tabernacles was a set of three important ceremonies that took place during the feast.
These three ceremonies were the “water-libation” and “Temple-lighting” ceremonies that occurred each day and evening, and the “Hoshana-Rabbah” (“Great Hosanna”) ceremony that took place on the seventh and final day of the Feast.
Space does not allow for detailed descriptions of these ceremonies, but each held great spiritual significance that was highlighted by Jesus.
During the feast, the people had an intense expectation that they would receive rain–and that the rainy season would start after months of hot, dry summer days.
The expectation for rain is an expectation that continues to this day. This was reflected in each day’s Temple service in which a water libation (the sacrificial pouring out of a liquid) was offered to the Lord as a visual prayer for rain. 🙂
For Christians, the water libation ceremony has special significance as well—especially the Hoshana-Rabbah ceremony on the seventh day.
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus made His way to Jerusalem for the feast of Sukkot. On the last day, we are told in John 7:37, that Great Day of the feast, He stood with countless other worshipers in the Temple courts.
As an expectant hush fell over the congregation during the water libation sacrifice, His lone voice was heard 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” (John 7:37–38).
The Temple-lighting ceremony was a celebration of each day’s water-pouring ceremony and was SO spectacular that the sages say that “not a courtyard in all of Jerusalem remained dark, every inch of the city being illuminated by the Temple lamps.”
Many Christian scholars believe that it was in the courtyard where the giant golden lamp stands stood to illuminate the city of Jerusalem that Jesus–called Yeshua in Hebrew–proclaimed, “I am the light of the world.”
So, what is the significance of this feast for Christians today?
Here are three huge reasons that the Feast of Tabernacles matters to God’s people today:
• It is a powerful reminder of the mighty deeds that God performed for His chosen people in the desert.
• It is an important picture of the joy that God desires us to have. It also depicts the attitude of thanksgiving and celebration that enriches our lives and our relationship with Him.
• It is a reminder of the universal Feast of Booths that is yet to come, foretold by the prophet Zechariah:
And the Lord will be King over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be the only one and His name the only one … Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths” (14:9, 16 NASB).
So how can celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles—or any of the feasts—help you grow closer to God?
For me, the best way to answer this is by way of personal experience:
As Sukkot drew near in September of 2013, my wife and I started noticing a sukkah outside of our neighborhood synagogue in southeast Jerusalem. Then we noticed more booths that had gone up on the balconies of neighbors or the apartment complexes across our little valley.
Finally, they appeared in courtyards or patios of stores, on sidewalks—seemingly everywhere you looked in Jerusalem! We were in awe! Now we could picture in our minds these little, God-ordained structures all over the ancient hills of Jerusalem and throughout its streets. The Bible came alive!
As we celebrated the feast with friends, there were special foods served that are only served during the feasts. There were special blessings spoken in Hebrew and in English, as well as new songs.
During these celebrations, the book of Ecclesiastes and the Hallel (the praise psalms of 113-118) were read. All of this took place inside a sukkah, accompanied by joy and celebration, with the music and laughter of nearby neighbors mixing with our own!
How could we NOT draw closer to God as we partook of this ancient feast, realizing that God has grafted us into the life and faith of our Jewish ancestors (Romans 11)?
Another experience that made this feast so special for me was going to the Western Wall and joining thousands of worshippers early the next day.
For some reason, my friend and I forgot to bring a lulav (date palm branch) with us. However, we soon realized that it didn’t matter. Within a few minutes, an Orthodox man, dressed in the traditional black suit and black fedora, came up to us and asked if we had a lulav.
When we said no, he immediately handed his to me and proceeded to ask if I knew the proper blessings and prayers. Again, I did not.
He then showed us how to properly hold the branches and the etrog (citron fruit), how to shake them toward the four points of the compass as well as to heaven and toward the earth, and had us repeat—in Hebrew and in English—the ancient prayers. All of this from a man we had never met!
Here we were, Jew and Christians, united in the celebration of Sukkot and thanking God in our language, and his, for His great blessings of the past year. I will never be the same because of it!
Now that we are back in U.S., I wasn’t about to live my life without including at least some of the aspects of the feasts in our lives.
So last year I utilized the covered patio out my back door and, using three large tarps, I created our own sukkah and placed some traditional decorations of fruit and leaves within our unique booth. Here, we enjoyed one or more meals and introduced some friends and family to the Feast of Tabernacles!
To begin introducing the feasts in a fun and memorable way to our grandson (age 2), we decorated a large cardboard box that he used as a playhouse with a string of artificial autumn leaves and attached some Sukkot artwork as well. He loved the attention that his house was receiving and the special new decorations!
Finally, as Rabbi Curt Landry (a Messianic rabbi) of House of David Ministries in Fairland, Oklahoma, said recently:
“Each feast offering comes with a promise from God. The promise for the Feast of Tabernacles is the gift of rain, which is symbolic of provision. Observing the Feast of Tabernacles and sowing a seed at this special time of year will release the rain and open the heavens above your life according to Zechariah 14.
This year, 5777, is exceptional in that it is a Jubilee for the city of Jerusalem — it has been 50 years since the reunification of the city on June 7, 1967!” (Quoted from Rabbi Landry’s email newsletter/update dated October 14, 2016, entitled “Release the Rain and Open the Heavens Above Your Life.”)
(Note from Jamie: Rabbi Landry serves as rabbi to my church also. He visits us several times a year and it is a joy to hear his teaching!)
So as we enter into the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, let us consider a special offering of thanksgiving for God’s wonderful provision in the last year, and let us look forward with faith and joy to the blessings that are ahead!
Shalom (peace) and Chag Sameach (Joyous festival)!
Clovis, New Mexico
Dan Brown has been in full time ministry for 34 years as a pastor, church planter, missionary and teacher. He and his wife, Jan, are currently serving with The Navigators for Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico. They have previously served in California, Colorado, Texas, and Tennessee as well.
Dan graduated from Golden Gate Seminary in Mill Valley, CA (now Gateway Seminary in the L.A. Area) with an Master of Divinity in 1986. He received a strong call to Israel in 2007 and he and Jan served for two years in Jerusalem with Bridges for Peace.
Dan’s passion is still for Israel and for the Jewish people, and he anticipates additional ministry there in the future. Dan and Jan have one daughter and two young grandsons.
Howard, Kevin and Rosenthal, Marvin. The Feasts of the Lord. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997.
Hauer, Cheryl L. Israel Teaching Letter: From Mourning to Dancing, the Season of Joy. Jerusalem: Bridges For Peace, October 2015.