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Festival of Booths

October 12, 2011

Tonight, the Festival of Booths begins.  This is the Thanksgiving pilgrimage festival, and it is unique in a number of ways.

It is one of three major Biblical festivals (along the Festival of Passover and the Festival of Weeks).  Together with two major Biblical holidays (the New Year and the Day of Atonement) post-Biblical (more specifically, post-Pentateuchal) holidays (e.g., Festival of Lights, Purim, Ninth of Av), and minor holidays, this festival forms the Jewish religious calendar.

The first way that the Festival of Booths is unique is that it is universal on both Jews and gentiles (or at least it will be in the messianic era).  See Zechariah 15:16-19.

portable_sukkahFurther, the Festival is celebrated by building small, flimsy, temporary booths (or shacks):  the sukkos.  These are required to be temporary, somewhat shaky structures.  If you visit a Jewish neighborhood, you will see these next to each house.   Now, over time, some people have developed a tradition to make rather elaborate decorations of the booths, but many keep them basic.  (Indeed, check out the photo of the booth on the back of a pickup truck – portable!  Most booths are somewhat more elaborate than that.)

And then – people are supposed to live in the booths.  What does it mean to live in them?  Well, that depends on personal tradition, but most participants pray and eat their meals in them.  Some of the more zealous even sleep in them.  This can be a challenge, though, since the booths’ ceilings are required to be formed of plant material with gaps in it, so the rain will definitely come through. 

Sukka1103As spectacular as many Jewish sukkos are, the sukkos of the Samaritans are even more spectacular.  Unlike the Jews, the Samaritans build their sukkos indoors and decorate the ceiling with fruit and flowers.  See here for some amazing photographs.

One unique custom of the Festival involves shaking the four species – a topic about which I have written elsewhere.

One of my favorite aspects of the Festival is that it ends in a wonderfully joyous holiday called Simchas Torah (Happiness of the Teaching) in which sefer toros (Torah scrolls) are danced with.  The central liturgical feature of the Simchas Torah holiday is that the Torah is read continuously – ending with the last few passages in Deuteronomy and then immediately beginning with the first few verses in Genesis – just like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

Previously, Kurk has blogged on the question of what the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) mean to Christians.  I’m not sure about those holidays, but at least from the view of the theology of Zechariah, Christians have a central role in the Festival of Booths (Succos).  (Indeed, some Christians even believe that Jesus was born during the Festival and that is why there was supposedly “no room at the inn".”)

Regardless of your belief system, I hope that this fall harvest festival period brings you joy and abundance.

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