Booths (Tabernacles), Feast of
BOOTHS (TABERNACLES), FEAST OF
An agricultural feast of Canaanite origin celebrated at the conclusion of harvest and upon adoption by the Israelites, soon transferred to local sanctuaries and ultimately
to Jerusalem, where it became the greatest of the three pilgrimage feasts. With the passage of time, the Feast of Booths was "historicized" by symbolic connection with the desert sojourn of the Exodus. It also became an occasion for reading the Law to the assembled people. This article treats the Feast of Booths in its origins, in the Old Testament, in Rabbinic literature, in its messianic symbolism, in the New Testament and in the Christian Era.
Origins. The Hebrew appellation of the feast, ḥag hassukkôt, indicates a "pilgrimage feast" (ḥag ) that is "of the booths" (hassukkôt ). The term "booths" (Lat. tabernacula, hence Eng. Tabernacles) originally signified the temporary, leafy structure, supported by branches, built in the vineyard or field to accommodate the busy farmer during the harvest season (Gn 33.17; Jb 27.18;38.40; Is 1.8). Jews call the feast simply "Sukkot." Evidence indicates that Booths was, in its origins, an agricultural feast connected with harvest booths. It has always been celebrated during Tishri (September–October) in connection with the grape and olive harvest. Its most ancient appellation is the "feast of ingathering" (āsîp; Ex 23.16; 34.22); and it is noteworthy that the Gezer calendar mentions with this same word the season of "ingathering." The "hut" feature, plainly agricultural, has never been dropped from the solemnities of the feast. Finally, the texts show confusion in fixing the date for the celebration of the feast, partially because in Palestine, as elsewhere, the harvest season varies slightly from place to place and from year to year [Ex 34.18-23 (J); Ex 23.14-17 (E); Dt 16.13-15 (D); Lv 23.33-36, 39-43 (P); De Vaux 498–500]. Although S. Mowinckel agrees that the Feast of Booths had its harvest aspect, according to his hypothesis it was not a simple harvest feast that later became historicized, but rather the great, ancient New Year's Festival that in preexilic times had the enthronement rites of Yahweh as king, analogous to Babylonian cult; also, this great feast began with purification rites that were later separated to form the distinct cultic celebration of Yom Kippur. H. J. Kraus sees the origin of the feast in an ancient, nomadic "feast of tents" that celebrated a covenant renewal; this nomadic feast assimilated the indigenous Canaanite harvest feast. G. MacRae discusses and concedes the plausibility of Kraus's hypothesis. However, R. de Vaux rejects both Mowinckel's hypothesis of the elaborate New Year's enthronement feast and the hypothesis of nomadic origins. He considers the feast purely agricultural in its origins, pointing out that in the earlier sources the feast is always connected with the sukkâ (booth), while only in later, secondary sources is it connected with the desert tent of the Exodus (Lv 23.43) or with the Sabbatical-year reading of the Law (Dt 31.9-3).
In the Old Testament. The feast was originally celebrated in the vineyards at the conclusion of the grape and olive harvest, accompanied by dancing, merrymaking and even some licentiousness [Jgs 9.27; 21.19; (prophetic censures in) Am 5.21–27; Hos 9.1; Is 28.7-8]. Unlike the feasts of passover and pentecost, which were connected with such farm work as mowing and threshing, Booths was held after the harvest. This leisure facilitated the eventual transfer of the festivities to neighboring and more decorous sanctuaries. Shiloh assumed a certain importance in connection with this feast (1 Sm1.3). The celebration at the sanctuaries may, later on, have included a covenant renewal ceremony; the reading of the Law every seventh year in connection with Booths was prescribed in Dt 31.10-12. Solomon dedicated his Temple on the occasion of this feast (1 Kgs 8.1-3, 65-66; 2 Chr 5.2-7.10) and Jerusalem became more and more the center for Booths, as well as for the other feasts. The meaning of the feast shifted accordingly and as it became more a Temple festivity, new and more complicated rites were introduced. After the destruction of the Temple, some people continued to come up to the ruined city to keep the feast (Jer 41.5). The Jews who returned after the Exile restored the ancient feast (Neh 8.13–18; cf. Ezr 3.4) in keeping with the prescription of Dt 31.10-13.
In Rabbinical Literature. According to the Talmud the feast lasted seven days (15th to 21st of Tishri), with an eighth "day of conclusion" ([symbol omitted]emînî 'âṣeret; cf. Neh8.18) added. And rabbinical custom added a ninth day, "the joy of the Law" (sśimḥat tôrâ ), on which the yearly cycle of Scripture readings was completed. The tractate Sukkah of the Talmud, which treats of this feast, delineates the salient characteristics of the celebration that prevailed around the time of Our Lord. The hut had to be of a temporary nature and the participants were to eat and sleep in the hut during the celebration. Together with myrtle and willow branches, the lûlāb (palm) and 'etrôg (citron) were carried in procession. These two items, as important to Sukkot as the evergreen is to Christmas, have remained prominent to the present day. Two other features of the Temple celebration, water drawing and illumination, are treated in the Talmud. The priests went each day to the pool of Siloam, where they drew water in large silver ewers. Upon their returning, in joyous procession through the Water Gate to the Temple confines, a libation was poured on the southwest corner of the altar. Rain comes to Jerusalem from the southwest and a primitive rainmaking rite is perhaps at the basis of this ceremony. On the eve of the first day of the feast, a massive illumination was held in the women's court of the Temple and the huge candelabra were witness to joyful dancing and much festivity. The seventh day featured the singing of the great Hosanna (cf. Jn 7.37; "the great day of the festival"). Booths, accepted as the greatest of all feasts, was often referred to simply as "the Feast" (Lv 23.39; Ez 45.25; Josephus, Ant. 8.4.1). Rabbinical tradition considered Booths the "time of our joy."
Messianic Symbolism. The great feast acquired messianic overtones, and the Prophets taught that its observance by the faithful "remnant" and the Gentiles would herald messianic days (Zec 14.16; 8.20–23; Mi 4.1-3; Is 56.6-7). Zechariah especially stresses the messianic details of the coming feast. The illumination aspect will blossom into perpetual light (14.7), and the water drawing will evolve into the eschatological streams of living water that will flow from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (14.8).
In the New Testament. In John ch. 7, Jesus is presented as going up to Jerusalem for the feast of σκηνοπηγία (literally, "booth-building"; Jn 7.3), that is, Booths. A messianic discussion develops, and Jesus says, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink … I am the light of the world" (Jn 7.37; 8.12). Note also the three booths and the bright cloud in the Transfiguration accounts (Mt 17.1-8; Mk 9.2-13; Lk 9.28-36), as well as the palm and hosanna details of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem for the Passover (Lk 19.35–38). The description of the New Jerusalem in the Revelation juxtaposes water and light once again in a messianic context (21.23–26 and 22.1-2). Finally, it is of interest that light and water figure prominently in the Easter vigil service, the messianic feast par excellence, although a relationship of dependence upon Booths is improbable here.
In the Christian Era. Post-Biblical Judaism has considered the hut that is erected for the feast a tearful reminder of the splendorous Temple. Orthodox Jews, who build their booths in their gardens or yards, keep the first, second, eighth, and ninth days of the feast as full holidays, while the Reformed Jews observe only the first and eighth in this way. The Reformed also stress, once again, the agricultural aspects of the feast. This is the approach (somewhat secularized) to the feast also in the modern state of Israel. The Passover has overshadowed Sukkot in importance since the period of the second Temple, but the note of deep joy and messianic expectancy has proved durable and surrounds the feast to this day.
Bibliography: r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 495–502. The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, ed. g. a. buttrick, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 1:455458. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 265–270. h. j. kraus, Gottesdienst in Israel: Studien zur Geschichte des Laubhüttenfestes (Munich 1954). h. schauss, The Jewish Festivals (Cincinnati 1938; repr. New York 1958). j. van goudoever, Biblical Calendars (2d ed. Leiden 196l). g. w. macrae, "The Meaning and Evolution of the Feast of Tabernacles," The Catholic Bible Quarterly, 22 (1960) 251–276.
[w. f. barnett]