This year’s festival holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) in Jerusalem echoed the glory of Jerusalem during Second Temple times as people of all faiths came from all over the world to celebrate alongside the Jews and rituals from the ancient Temple were revived.
During Temple times and in accordance with the Torah, Sukkot was a universal celebration honoring the God of Abraham, when Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, and people from fall over the world filled Jerusalem. The prophecy of the prophet Zechariah calls for all nations of the world to make “pilgrimage” to Israel annually.
All who survive of all those nations that came up against Yerushalayim shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King LORD of Hosts and to observe the festival of Sukkot. Zechariah 14:16
Undoubtedly the largest draw for Christians during Sukkot is the Feast of Tabernacles, hosted by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ). Over the past 37 years, the Feast has brought thousands upon thousands of believing Christians to the Holy Land to participate in the Biblical festival. Prayer sessions, lectures, musical and dance performances, and a chance to visit some of Israel’s holiest sites fill the week-long celebration.
This year, fulfilling Zechariah’s Biblical prophecy of nations making a pilgrimage to the holy city, the event brought over 5,000 Christians from 85 nations to Jerusalem. The theme of ingathering of the nations echoed the 70 Temple offerings made on Sukkot on behalf of the 70 nations of the world. At the ICEJ Feast of Tabernacles, Christians were invited to shake the lulav and etrog with a modified blessing.
Yet another aspect of Temple times was revived this Sukkot as approximately 50,000 people congregated at the Kotel (the Western Wall) to receive priestly blessings from hundreds of Kohanim (Jewish men of priestly caste). Similar Kohanic blessings were part of regular prayers in a rite that has Biblical roots.
During Sukkot, Jews are commanded to dwell for seven days in the sukkah, a temporary “home” representing the Tabernacle in the desert, and welcome guests in the spirit of hospitality embodied by Abraham. President Reuven Rivlin and First Lady Nechama Rivlin opened their sukkah to hundreds of visitors with the theme of connecting with the Diaspora, or Jews living outside of Israel, in partnership with the Diaspora Ministry.
“From everywhere in the Diaspora we have lived in exile, we have brought with us a wealth of culture when we returned to our land. And so we have today a vast and extraordinary mosaic of all the tribes, and still today half of the Jewish people live in the Diaspora. This year we are hosting them in a symbolic way, here in the President’s sukkah,” said President Rivlin.
Maria Lencoe, a born-again Christian from South Africa, visited the President’s sukkah to learn about the Bible and take inspiration from the Jewish people. Quoting Genesis 12:3, she explained to Breaking Israel News, “We know that the Lord will bless our nation, our community, and our generation because it says in the scripture that those who bless Israel will be blessed.”
Sukkot events brought further tourists from all faiths and origins to Judea and Samaria. This year, a Christian Zionist from Poland won the 2017 Bible Marathon, a race which winds through the Biblical heartland of Samaria, while visiting Israel over Sukkot with the mission of praying for the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
More than 2,000 runners participated in the marathon. Li Weiyi from China told Breaking Israel News, “We are believers in the Bible. We came to this race because we wanted to walk in the path of the Bible. It was amazing and spiritual and like nothing I have ever experienced before. This land is amazing. This is the Holy Land.”
During the week, hundreds of Jews gathered to participate in a rare Sukkot Temple service reenactment of the water libation ceremony, run by the nascent Sanhedrin and performed by three Kohanim wearing priestly garments. In Temple times, wine libations were offered every morning in the Temple, where Kohanim would pour wine on the Temple altar.
As the group drew one small jug of water from the Shiloah Pool, they sang and danced with silver trumpets before returning to the Old City, ending at the Southern wall of the Kotel, where they poured the wine onto a wooden altar decorated with tree branches. According to Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, founder of the Temple Institute, the reenactment mirrored Sukkot in the times of the Temple, when “Sukkot was a holiday for all the nations and the nisuch hamayim (water libation) was an essential part of that.”
Fulfilling the Bible’s description of Sukkot as a “universal” holiday, Christian tourists flooded Jerusalem and its economy in a manner reminiscent of Jerusalem in the days of the Temple, when pilgrims filled the city’s markets. According to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, 739,000 tourists visited Israel in the first quarter of the year, a 24 percent increase from the same period last year, giving an estimated $1.14 billion boost to the economy. In addition, this was a record festival for tourism, as the holiday attracted an astonishing 47,000 Christians.
In addition to tourists, 27 lawmakers from around the world came to Israel over Sukkot on a faith-based diplomacy tour with the Israel Allies Foundation (IAF) together with the World Jewish Congress, the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ), and Bridges for Peace. The group toured the country, walking through the streets of God’s promised land and visiting the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem and several holy and strategic sites throughout Samaria.
MK Yehudah Glick told the visitors,“We are all here trying to be tools in the hand of God. I am appointing you as ambassadors of Israel and God. Don’t go home and think you are finished. Take on the obligation and do it and use it, and tell people…what you saw with your own eyes, how the words of the prophets are becoming reality.”
Just as tourists and Christians celebrated Sukkot, so too did Jews in the Diaspora. Jewish actor and comedian Adam Sandler performed the mitzvah (Torah commandment) of shaking the four species – palm frond (lulav), citron (etrog), willow and myrtle- and reciting a blessing with Rabbi Baruch Hecht, Chabad Rabbi of Brentwood, Los Angeles. By performing the mitzvah, Sandler represented the ingathering of exiles from the Diaspora into the traditions proscribed by the Bible that is prophesied in the times of geula (redemption). In this way, Sukkot drew people in from all over the world with the power of connection, forging a relationship between the people of Israel and Temple practices.
The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) Feast of Tabernacles week culminated with a thousands-strong Parade of Nations in the holy city of Jerusalem. Similar to Temple times, the parade reflected an enormous, festive extravaganza bringing a colossal number of international visitors, similar to Sukkot in Biblical times.
Sukkot in Jerusalem during Temple times was more of an international circus than a religious holiday. As such, circus elements were also included, mirroring the actions of Jewish scholars described in the Gemara (rabbinical analysis of and commentary on the Oral Torah) who used to go out and juggle on the festival of Sukkot. Paraders blew the shofar (ram’s horn), waved Israeli flags, and beat drums in recreation of the joyous celebrations that filled the city thousands of years ago.
In keeping with the Sukkot theme of hosting guests from all over the world, Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi hosted 30 Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis at his sukkah. During Sukkot, Jewish guests have a tradition to ‘sukkah-hop,’ going from sukkah to sukkah. In the name of this hospitality and normalization between Israelis and Palestinians, neighboring Arabs were invited to Revivi’s sukkah.
The mayor expressed his desire for peace with his neighbors, saying, “Sukkot is out of the ordinary, we are commanded to go outside of our homes, just as the weather is beginning to change for the worst and celebrate, exposed to the elements. Making peace, like Sukkot, will only be achieved by taking extraordinary measures and utilizing out-of-the-box methods. First, we must have peace locally between neighbors and only then will we be able to foster national reconciliation.”
Last year, four Palestinians who attended similar events were arrested and detained by the Palestinian Authority (PA) for meeting with “murderers of babies.” But in the face of these Palestinian arrests, the spirit of Sukkot outshined hate, bringing Israel closer to the peace prophesied for the times of geula.
Other Sukkot victories also occurred in the face of challenge. Despite serious restrictions on Jewish visits and prayer at the Temple Mount, an enormous number of Jews went up to Temple Mount during Sukkot. In the aliyah chamonit (ascension to the Temple Mount), hundreds of pilgrims visited the Temple with fervent prayers and hopes that the full glory of the holiday of Sukkot would be restored to how it once was in Temple times.