“In the U.S., we celebrate Thanksgiving as a harvest festival. Did the Jews celebrate a ‘Thanksgiving’ too?”
Virtually every agricultural based civilization has developed and celebrated some sort of a harvest festival over the years, and the ancient Israelites are no exception. While the origin of the U.S. festival is somewhat less than noble and was first celebrated only 380 years ago, the origins of the Israelite festival is both ancient and respectable (for the historical origins of Thanksgiving, see the Thanksgiving column on my website).
The Israelite harvest festival was originally called the Feast of Ingathering and was celebrated in the fall “when you gather in your crops from the fields” (Exodus 23.16). This feast, or haj, was one of the three most important festivals on the Israelite calendar and originally all Jewish men were required to make a pilgrimage to the sanctuary to make an offering to God. According to scholars, this feast is probably one of the oldest feasts celebrated by the Israelites and may even predate the exodus. However, when Israel was under the Egyptian captivity, it is likely that the festival would not have been kept, since the enslavement likely didn’t include many opportunities to practice the cult (cult: the practices of a religion), and their captors certainly didn’t afford the Israelites a chance to make their annual pilgrimage.
Following the exodus and the resettlement in Palestine, the Feast of Ingathering took on a different meaning. The festival was renamed Sukkot, or the Feast of Booths, and celebrated the journey from Egypt to Israel under God’s guidance. Once again the festival was proclaimed to be one of the three annual pilgrimages required of all men, only this time the pilgrimage destination was set to Jerusalem rather than to a local sanctuary.
The “new” festival included elements meant to remind the celebrants of the exodus journey. Since the wandering Israelites traveled across the desert for forty years, the shelters were temporary by necessity. Only the wealthy could afford tents, and so the average Israelite lived in a “booth,” which was a structure built of indigenous materials and often used date palm branches for woven roof. To commemorate this, the Israelites constructed temporary booths and “lived” in them for seven days (Leviticus 23.42). The festival was to be a joyous occasion marked by feasting and by sharing the festivities with virtually everyone: “Be joyful at your Feast—you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns” (Deuteronomy16.14).
Today, Jews celebrate Sukkot as both a Thanksgiving festival and an exodus commemoration. Booths, or sukkah, are built in homes, on porches or decks, or in the backyard for the hearty. Young kids, of course, love the sense of adventure as they construct the sukkah, and during the seven day festival the main meals are eaten in the structures and the family is even supposed to spend at least the first night in the sukkah. The whole week is filled with prayers and blessings and other rituals that heighten the meaning of the event. And, of course, the week is marked by great food, pomegranates, and wine.
Christians could learn a bit from the celebration
of Sukkot, especially the emphasis on God’s
deliverance and the cornucopia of prayer and blessings
that accompany the festival. And besides, any
festival that lets kids help build a “tent” in
the living room has just got to be a lot of fun and
a great family festival.