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Sukkot Through the Lens of Orthodoxy

The Jewish Feast of Sukkot also known as the Feast of Tabernacles begins five days after Yom Kippur, lasting seven days in Israel and eight days in the diaspora. So the Feast begins on the eve of the 14th of the Jewish month of Tishrei and lasts until the 22nd of said month in the diaspora; 21st in Israel.  In the diaspora, the last two days of Sukkot are known as Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. In Israel, these two days are merged as one on the 7th and last day of Sukkot.
 
In this week-long Feast, the Jews live and eat in a sukkah which is a tent-like outdoor structure. Many of us may have seen sukkahs while passing through the neighborhoods of Borough Park and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Sukkot is a biblical feast, found in the Book of Leviticus, one of the five books of the Pentateuch.
 
For it says in Leviticus 23:42-43: you shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. 
 
Sukkot commemorates the forty-year period when the Jews wandered in the wilderness after the Exodus. They were living in temporary shelters or tabernacles during this period before they entered the Promised Land. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the ripe fruit of a tree, leaves of palm trees, the branches of leafy trees, and the pure willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. (ibid:40) During Sukkot the Jews also celebrate the gathering of the harvest. 
 
Christ Himself, as a pious Jew observed Sukkot, as did His disciples. There is reference made to Sukkot in John 7:1-2: After these things, Jesus walked in Galilee; for He did not want to walk in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill Him. Now the Jews’ Feast of Tabernacles was at hand. The Lord visited Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. He taught in the Temple and attracted large crowds. This is why He was cautious to walk in Judea because the Jews wanted to kill Him for being a threat to them.
 
He was a threat to the Jews, especially the Scribes and Pharisees who followed the Law to the letter because He exposed their hypocrisy. Jesus said, I desire mercy not sacrifice. (Mt 9:13) The Scribes and Pharisees followed the Law externally, not having love and compassion for their fellow man and certainly not having strong faith and love in God. 
 
There is another occasion where Jesus observed the Feast of Tabernacles: Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James and John, and led them up on a high mountain (Mk 9:2). Christ was transfigured before His three Disciples on Mount Tabor. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles, one for You, one for Moses and one for Elijah (ibid, 5).
 
A similar account is also found in Matthew 17:1-11. In Luke’s Gospel (9:28-36) there is a slightly different narrative: Now it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that He took Peter, John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. Peter’s reference to building three tabernacles signifies that Jesus and His Disciples were celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles. Also, Peter knew that the Feast of Tabernacles is the Feast of the coming of the Kingdom of God. The booths or tabernacles symbolize the clouds of glory, protection, divine presence and love. 
 
It is important for us as Orthodox Christians to be privy to the Jewish Feasts that even our Lord Himself observed. However, we do not observe them since they are Feasts of the Old Covenant. “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away (Heb 8:13).
 
The Old Covenant has been fulfilled in the New, for Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. May we who abide to the New Covenant do so with true faith in God and love and mercy to our fellow man.
 
The annual remembrance on Sukkot of the forty-years the Jews spent in the wilderness may be necessary for them since they are still awaiting the Messiah to come. We, on the other hand, as the New Jerusalem, know that the Messiah has indeed come. There is no need for us to build a sukkah or tabernacle since we have Christ. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:13).
 
The Theotokos who bore the Logos in Her womb is a Tabernacle. Did not John the Baptist leap in Elizabeth’s womb with joy when the pregnant Theotokos visited her? John leaped in her womb because he beheld Christ who was in the womb, a tabernacle, thus, Mary. Is not our own body a temple, thus a tabernacle of the Holy Spirit?
 

-John Athanasatos 

A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.

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