Sukkot: Biblical Evidence and Hypotheses


The festival of Sukkot is referenced in the Bible in several ways: Chag HaKatzir, Chag HaAsif, Chag HaSukkot, and Chag יהוה:

Exodus 23:16

“In the Festival of Harvest חג הקציר — Chag HaKatzir — the first fruits of your labors which you sow in the field, and the Feast of Ingathering — Chag HaAsif — at the end of the year when you gather in your labors out in the field.”

Exodus 34:22

“And you shall observe the feast of weeks, even of the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering חג האסיף — Chag HaAsif — at the turn of the year. “

No particular calendar year is indicated in references to Sukkot in the above verses, but rather, a general reference to “the end of the year when you gather the results of your work from the field” (Exodus 23:16) and “at the end of the year” (Exodus 34:22). Scholars connect the festival to two celebrations in the Book of Judges: when the residents of Shechem went out to the fields, gathered the crops, and made a festival (9:27); and the annual festival of God referred to as the “feast of the Lord” (Judges 21:19–21).

Judges 21: 19–21

“They said: The annual feast of the Lord — Chag יהוה— is now being held at Shiloh. (It lies north of Bethel, east of the highway that runs from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.) So they instructed the Benjaminites as follows: Go and lie in wait in the vineyards. As soon as you see the girls of Shiloh coming out to join in the dances, come out from the vineyards; let each of you seize a wife from among the girls of Shiloh, and be off for the land of Benjamin.” 

Sigmund Mowinckel of the Myth and Ritual School of biblical thought names Psalms 29, 65, 67, 76, and 81 as Psalms for asif or “ingathering”. The asif months mentioned in the Gezer calendar of tenth century B.C.E. corresponds to September and October when harvest was completed but when wine and oil production was still continuing.

Deuteronomy 16: 13–15

“After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, and you shall hold the Festival of Sukkot — Chag HaSukkot — for seven days. You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and your daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities. You shall hold the festival for God — Chag יהוה— seven days, in the place that God will choose, for the Lord will bless you in all your crops and with all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.”

The term Chag HaSukkot may also be derived from the ingathering of grain and wines from other processing as well as from the booths that provided shelter for pilgrims and for those who worked the fields during the summer months. The aforementioned verse from Deuteronomy indicates that Sukkot is the date of the septennial haqhel (“assembly) ritual when the Torah was read. The Mishnah stipulated that haqhel should occur on the first day of Sukkot following the completion of a shmittah or Sabbatical year in order to ensure that the people will follow religious traditions even after a year when they neither planted nor harvested. This practice has not been followed after the fall of the Jewish monarchy. When the Temple stood, the celebration on the seventh day included the circling of the Altar seven times by the priests as they waved the lulav and beat its leaves on the ground, a practice that continues to this day on Sukkot. According to Biblical historian Theodore Gaster, many cultures practiced the beating of willows which was believed to increase fertility and potency.

Leviticus 23: 33–44 and Numbers 29: 12–34 both present the most meticulous legislation of the festival. Numbers 29, which also comes from the Priestly or P source, describes in detail the sacrifices marked for each festival day except for the eighth day, which indicates that the eighth day may have been a later addition. The Priestly source (P) designated the fifteenth of the seventh month as the beginning of the Festival of Sukkot and legislated the duration of the celebration as eight days, even though the completion of harvest varied from year to year. Jeffrey Rubenstein adds that the findings of the Holiness School, one of the latest of the Pentateuchal sources whose purpose is to preserve rituals, might have been corrupted by secularization. The Holiness School extended holiness to the land and not just to the sanctuary and the cult as the Priestly source.

Leviticus 23: 39–43

“Mark on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land. You shall observe the festival of God (to last) seven days; a complete rest on the first day and a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before your God seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of God for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God.”

Within the Holiness School, the historical explanation of the booths became the theological rationale for every Israelite — not just the peasants and the poor — to build and reside in them for the festival. D and P used the term Chag HaSukkot but did not explain the utility of the booths. They suggested that the practice must have served a common function of shelter for workers or pilgrims. For the Holiness School, dwelling in the booths became a religious obligation.

King Solomon dedicates his temple as “the Festival” — החג — in the seventh month and the seventh day celebration, which also points to the autumnal festival of Sukkot. The fourteen day duration of his celebration suggests that he extended the festivities through a plethora of cultic events, gatherings and sacrifices.

1 Kings 8:65

“So Solomon and all Israel with him — a great assemblage, [coming] from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt — observed the Feast at that time before the Lord our God, seven days and again seven days, fourteen days in all.”

King Jeroboam also instituted a parallel celebration in Bethel in the north to rival the Jerusalem temple festival.

1 Kings 12:32–33

“And Jeroboam established a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, in imitation of the festival in Judah; he established one at Bethel, and he ascended the altar [there.] On the fifteenth day of the eighth month — the month in which he had contrived of his own mind to establish a festival for the Israelites — Jeroboam ascended the altar that he had made in Bethel.”

From the verses with the designations “the (autumnal) Festival”, Biblical scholars gleaned two general theories regarding the importance of Sukkot: the enthronement festival theory and the covenant renewal festival theory. The first theory proposed by Mowinckel , the “enthronement festival theory,“ argued that the autumnal festival was originally a new year festival that celebrated the “enthronement of God”, the cultic victory of God as king and the defeat of the forces of chaos by order. Mowinckel cited biblical support from Psalms containing phrases of הי מלך. The second theory, the “covenant renewal theory,” which was also a cultic approach like the enthronement festival theory, hearkens to the haqhel paradigm of covenant renewal which took place during the Sukkot festival when the Israelites re-established and renewed their commitment to the “holy assembly.” According to the Biblical scholar Arthur Weiser, the people became a holy people during the ceremony of renewed acceptance of the rule of God.

Deuteronomy 31: 10–14

“And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people — men, women, children and the strangers in your communities — that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.”

The legislation of the festival of Sukkot as evidenced in the above verses from Leviticus 23, Numbers 9, and Deuteronomy 31 defined Sukkot through the experience of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery, to nomadic wanderings, dwelling in makeshift huts, all the way to the agricultural and sedentary lifestyle of settling Canaan. The two theories of Sukkot, having been part of enthronement festivals or being a covenant renewal festival, converge into one. However, although Sukkot was a cultic festival that grew out of thanksgiving for harvest, harvest was not the essence of the celebration. Biblical texts supported the festival of Sukkot during the First Temple Period. For citations supporting Sukkot practices in the Second Temple Period, there are aspects of the celebration that can be found in the later books of Nehemiah and Ezra, Zacharia 14, the philosopher Philo, the historian Josephus, as well as the Books of Jubilees and Maccabees and in Rabbinic literature. Ezra and Nehemiah showed that attempts to rebuild the temple were frustrated by numerous difficulties like harvest failures, the opposition of the Samaritans, and all sorts of internal conflict. Ezra describes Sukkot observance in the context of the resumption of cultic sacrifices. At the beginning of the seventh month, people gathered in Jerusalem under Yeshua the High Priest and Zeruvavel, grandson of the last king who built an altar for the obligatory sacrifices. The festival of Sukkot inaugurated the cultic restoration. Until the temple was destroyed, the Temple which was the site of majestic celebrations remained as the focus of the festival. “As it is written” was a reference to the Biblical verses of Numbers 29: 12–35 which explicates the Sukkot offerings, legitimizing the renewal of sacrifices on the basis of Scriptural legislation for Sukkot.

Ezra 3: 4

“Then they celebrated the festival of Tabernacles — Chag HaSukkot — as is written, with its daily burnt offerings in the proper quantities, on each day as is prescribed for it.”

The prescription of the Holiness School was that people should dwell in booths, an ancient ritual related to agricultural life in accordance with its program of preservation of popular festival customs. With the support of Biblical verses, a practical ritual became invested with spiritual meaning and evolved into religious ritual during the Second Temple Period. Nehemiah illustrates how the people adhered to the teachings and celebrated Sukkot by building booths and by living in them during the seven day period. The impetus and success of this practice came from the absence of a priest or cultic component. The renewed ritual could be transported and observed in any part of the world.

Nehemiah 8:14–15

“They found written in the Teaching that the Lord had commanded Moses that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the festival — baSukkot beChag — of the seventh month, that they must announce and proclaim throughout the towns and Jerusalem as follows, ‘Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms, and [other] leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.”

The prophet Zechariah imagined the Sukkot celebration as the key festival in a restored Temple to which all peoples will journey and be drawn to by a flourishing cult. This vision recalls the harvest festival of the First Temple and the fourteen day festivities of the dedication of King Solomon’s Temple. Yet after apocalyptic battles, non-Jews would find difficulty in keeping Sukkot. [Zechariah 14 is read on the first day of Sukkot, according to Rashi, because it mentions “to celebrate the festival of Sukkot, Israelites and all the nations alike.”]

Zechariah 14: 16

“All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year after year to bow low to the King Lord of Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths. Any of the earth’s communities that does not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bow low to the King Lord of Hosts shall receive no rain.”

Sukkot celebrations, pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and submission to the Lord of Hosts as Sovereign were conflated into the rituals for rain, water libations, and the four species used on Sukkot. Although these rituals were derived from earlier times, during the Second Temple period, they became integrated into the larger scheme of celebrations.

Sukkot in the Rabbinic period was adapted by the Tannaim particularly in the relationship of the festival to rain. Rabbinic Judaism adopted the ancient Israelite concept that the divine judgement of rain happened during Sukkot. Instead of cultic water libations and willow processions, the Tannaim included communal prayers for rain particularly with the ritualistic use of the lulav. The connection of Sukkot to rain continues the mythic worldview into rabbinic times. The understanding that Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah is the yearly accounting for judgment, as well as the belief that rain and the abundance of nature constitute blessings for those who complied with the commandments, could have replaced the idea of Sukkot as a rain festival. The descriptions of Sukkot rituals in the Mishnah and the Talmud reflect the mythical and cultic nature of the festival.

Talmud Yoma 21B

“On the night following the last day of the festival [of Sukkot] all [the people] were gazing upon the smoke from the pile of wood [on the altar]. If it inclined northward, the poor rejoiced and the people of means were said, because the rains of the coming year would be abundant and their fruits would rot [and they would be sold fast and cheaply]. If it inclined southward, the poor were depressed and the men of means rejoiced, for thee would be little rain that year and the fruit could be preserved. If it inclined eastward, all rejoiced [for there would be an average rain beneficial to all]; [and] it westward, all were depressed [because the seeds would dry, causing famine].”

Because the Bible did not give particular significance to the ritual of the lulav, R. Eliezer in the Tannaitic period interpreted the lulav ritual as a symbol of the earth’s need for rain. Amoraic midrashim interpret the lulav as victory over non-Jews, as the joy of receiving divine judgment, as atonement for the sins of the body, and the unity of Israel. Sukkot became a festival upon which the Rabbis could project different aspirations and eschatological associations. Some circles regarded eschatological worship as Sukkot celebrations because Sukkot was their main temple experience of a festival. The Tannaim understood the sukkah as the symbol of the “clouds of glory” which would return and hover over the future temple just as the clouds overed over the people during the exodus.

Talmud Bavli Sukkah 11B

“For it was taught in a Braita, ‘…that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in Sukkot (Leviticus 23: 43).’ [The booths] were the clouds of glory [that surrounded the Jews]. These are the words of R. Eliezer. “

The later Rabbis imagined God as granting the protection of shelter over the righteous in the World to Come. Although the concept of Sukkot as a temple festival receded through the centuries, elements of temple ritual and symbolism persisted through Rabbinic Judaism. 

Talmud Bavli Sukkah 55B

R. Eliezer said: ‘Why are seventy offerings brought on Sukkot? For the (merit of the) seventy nations of the world.”

The Rabbis went as far as considering the Sukkot commandment as a relatively easy one that even non-Jews can follow. There is an element of Sukkot that pertains to all people. Since Jews have a predisposition to be concerned for the welfare of the entire world, Sukkot allows them to reach beyond the Jewish community and welcome others into the booths, its rituals and meaning-making.


Wall hanging in the Harlem Havruta Sukkah @ St Mary's 2017; Photography by Renee L. Hill

Wall hanging in the Harlem Havruta Sukkah @ St Mary's 2017; Photography by Renee L. Hill

Study GuideMira Rivera