Dear Refiner's Fire...
Help! I've been getting so many mixed messages about how to properly keep Sukkot, that I'm now totally confused. Will I be sent to hell for not sleeping in a tent for a whole week? What if my personal situation prevents it?
Great question! To learn how to keep the feasts, we suggest you obtain a copy of Barney Kasdan's "God's Appointed Times".
The word "Sukkot" means "booths," and refers to the temporary dwellings that we are commanded to live in during this holiday in memory of the period of wandering. The temporary shelter is referred to as a sukkah (which is the singular form of the plural word "sukkot"). Secondly, a sukkah can be a regular tent, or something built out of plywood, or whatever can serve as a "temporary shelter" for you. Please see this thorough article on Judaism 101.
There will be people who attempt to tell you all kinds of things, and practically send you to hell if you don't "sleep in a tent for a week" - but don't listen to them! YHWH does not expect you to kill yourself off to keep any of His Holy Days! His people are scattered all over the globe, and some are old or infirm.
To further answer your question, let's take a look at what the Bible says:
Leviticus 23: 34 "Tell the people of Isra'el, 'On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the feast of Sukkot for seven days to ADONAI. 35 On the first day there is to be a holy convocation; do not do any kind of ordinary work. 36 For seven days you are to bring an offering made by fire to ADONAI; on the eighth day you are to have a holy convocation and bring an offering made by fire to ADONAI ; it is a day of public assembly; do not do any kind of ordinary work.
39 "'But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered the produce of the land, you are to observe the festival of ADONAI seven days; the first day is to be a complete rest and the eighth day is to be a complete rest. 40 On the first day you are to take choice fruit, palm fronds, thick branches and river-willows, and celebrate in the presence of ADONAI your God for seven days. 41 You are to observe it as a feast to ADONAI seven days in the year; it is a permanent regulation, generation after generation; keep it in the seventh month. 42 You are to live in sukkot for seven days; every citizen of Isra'el is to live in a sukkah, 43 so that generation after generation of you will know that I made the people of Isra'el live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am ADONAI your God.'" 44 Thus Moshe announced to the people of Isra'el the designated times of ADONAI." (CJB)
Sukkot is both the "Festival of booths" and the "Festival of Ingathering" (See Exodus 23:16). The festival has deep significance to the Israelites (in Israel), because YHWH combined the time of the year - the first harvest - with commemoration that in the exodus from Egypt, the people did not have time for the usual harvest; and they even had to live in temporary dwellings during the 40 years in the desert.
We find in Nehemiah, chapter 8, that the people (remember, not many could read back then), had forgotten the observance of Sukkot. (See Nehemiah 8:1-18). When Ezra read to them the Torah, they were at once saddened because they had failed all these years to know and obey, yet upon rediscovery of the commands, they did so with joy.
So let's examine our "discovery" of the commandment for the observance of Sukkot, those of us in the diaspora (outside of Israel).
Leviticus 23: 35 "On the first day there is to be a holy convocation; do not do any kind of ordinary work."
This is easy. We can certainly do this, right?
Leviticus 23: 36 "For seven days you are to bring an offering made by fire to YHWH; on the eighth day you are to have a holy convocation and bring an offering made by fire to ADONAI ; it is a day of public assembly; do not do any kind of ordinary work."
Well, there is no Temple, so we can't bring an offering made by fire. Remember, YHWH even told us that His people would not be doing things in the same way once they left the desert:
Deuteronomy 12: 8 You will not do things the way we do them here today, where everyone does whatever in his own opinion seems right; 9 because you haven't yet arrived at the rest and inheritance which ADONAI your God is giving you. 10 But when you cross the Yarden and live in the land ADONAI your God is having you inherit, and he gives you rest from all your surrounding enemies, so that you are living in safety; 11 then you will bring all that I am ordering you to the place ADONAI your God chooses to have his name live -your burnt offerings, sacrifices, tenths, the offering from your hand, and all your best possessions that you dedicate to ADONAI;
Has Israel had "rest from all surrounding enemies" yet? Is she "living in safety" yet? No. So, the best we can do is bring ourselves, and make ourselves worthy of participating in the festival. And we can honor the 1st and 8th days in a holy convocation, and not work....
Leviticus 23: 39 But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered the produce of the land, you are to observe the festival of YHWH seven days; the first day is to be a complete rest and the eighth day is to be a complete rest.
We certainly can observe a festival to YHWH for 7 days, and be sure to observe the 1st and 8th day as High Holy Days. However, we are a bit out of luck when it comes to "gathering of the produce of the land" - unless we ourselves are farmers. Nonetheless, we can honor that it is harvest season.
Leviticus 23: 40 "On the first day you are to take choice fruit, palm fronds, thick branches and river-willows, and celebrate in the presence of YHWH your God for seven days."
Okay, with the above, we seem to be in a bit of a pickle as not many of us in the western United States and in the northern regions can find palm fronds or river willows, which make up part of the "Four Species". So it is somewhat difficult for us to comply with this command. However, we can take fresh fruit and branches from trees in our area, and honor YHWH with them during our local celebration of Sukkot, and thus comply. The commandment is to take these items and "celebrate in the presence of YHWH your God for seven days."
Now, here's the verse that causes great trepidation because Leviticus 23:42-43 tells YHWH's people: "You are to live in sukkot for seven days; every citizen of Isra'el is to live in a sukkah, 43 so that generation after generation of you will know that I made the people of Isra'el live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am ADONAI your God."
The problem is with the words, "live in a sukkah" which implies that one must actually "live" in the sukkah! However, "live" or "dwell" (as in some translations) does not necessarily mean "take up residence." It means to make it part of your life for that period, and center your activities on it. Even the citizens in Nehemiah understood this did not necessarily mean to "move out of your home into the sukkah", and they built theirs "each one on the roof of his house, also in their courtyards, in the courtyards of the house of God, in the open space by the Water Gate and in the open space by the Efrayim Gate." (Nehemiah 8:16).
The main thing to remember is that Sukkot is symbolic. It represents many things: The temporary dwelling, the urgency, the difficulty, the inconvenience, etc. For the 8 days of Sukkot, make the sukkah part of your life so you can remember - "dwell" or "live" among your sukkah in the same way John 1:14 tells us: "And the Miltha [Manifestation of the Ruach, the Word] became flesh and dwelt among us and we saw His glory..." Here the phrase "dwelt among us" is clear; yet in Leviticus when it says to "dwell" in a sukkah, many insist that it must mean "move into and live there."
For those who wish to and CAN do so, that's fine - they should do it! But, is it really reasonable to expect those who live in extremely cold climates to sleep in a tent for 7 days? How about those who live "in the Projects" or large apartment complexes in the middle of New York or Chicago? Should they grab their sleeping bags and put up a tent on the sidewalks outside their buildings just to uphold Leviticus 23:42?
Some live in places that are plagued by mosquitos carrying the West Nile Virus, or rattle snakes or scorpions or fire ants. Does God really expect THEM to actually "live" in a sukkah or just to make it a part of their lives during the 8 days of the fesitval? And consider the very young or the very old: Must they leave the healthy environment of their homes to "live" in a sukkah - or does making the sukkah part of their lives during those 8 days and celebrating in the presence of YHWH with the sukkah meet the intent? Would it not be prudent to exercise some common sense concerning this issue?
Here's another part of verse 4 that seems to be a sticking point: "...every citizen of Isra'el is to live in a sukkah". The question is, are we "citizens" of Israel, or not? Well, yes and no. Yes, we are spiritually a part of Israel; but do we live in Israel? That is the million dollar question.
For those who want to and CAN physically live in a tent for a week, that's fine! Some go on vacation during Sukkot and live in a hotel room with all the "creature comforts" which can certainly be defined as "a temporary dwelling." But, does it really parallel what the Israelites went through? Of course not! But it does remind us of what Sukkot is all about: The remembrance of the hard times YHWH's people endured!
Please read the following from Jewishroots.net:
"The symbolism associated with the Sukkah is one that is intended to remind us of being homeless, the feeling of living somewhere on a temporary basis. It should serve as a reminder to us not to become over confident with our wealth or influence. It should remind us that we need to look to God for our provisions, not man. It should also remind us that this earth is not our permanent home. It is also symbolic of the protection that the Jews [Hebrews] received from God in the desert after they were freed from bondage in Egypt (Lev. 23:43). It should remind us that our survival is dependent upon God."
Let's observe Sukkot without the stress of "doing it right." Unless we were present in the desert with Moshe who was receiving his instructions directly from YHWH Himself, can we truly know we are "doing it right?" Let's just concentrate on DOING it! Build a sukkah and celebrate, enjoy, fellowship, and (if we cannot physically sleep in it) dwell near it during this 8 day holiday so that generation after generation we will know that YHWH made the people of Isra'el live in sukkot when He brought them out of the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 23:43).
Sukkot is not a feast where we are to be made to feel "uncomfortable" or "put out" in any way. It is to be a time of REJOICING! Take a look:
Deuteronomy 16: 13 "You are to keep the festival of Sukkot for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing-floor and winepress. 14 Rejoice at your festival - you, your sons and daughters, your male and female slaves, the L'vi'im, and the foreigners, orphans and widows living among you. 15 Seven days you are to keep the festival for ADONAI your God in the place ADONAI your God will choose, because ADONAI your God will bless you in all your crops and in all your work, so you are to be full of joy!
As mentioned earlier, for those who want to and can sleep in tents during Sukkot, they should certainly do it - and may YHWH richly bless them for it. But no one has the right to tell us we MUST, "or else." The important thing concerning YHWH's Feasts/Appointed Times is that we DO them. Ignoring them is NOT negotiable.