The Talmud: Selections, by H. Polano, , at sacred-texts.com
Feast of Tabernacles.
The Feast of Tabernacles begins on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, Tishri (October), and during its continuance, seven days, the Israelites are commanded to dwell in tabernacles or booths. This is designed to keep fresh in their memory the tents which formed their homes during their forty years' sojourn in the wilderness. The symbols of the festival are branches of the palm, bound with sprigs of myrtle and willow, and a citron.
On this feast we are commanded to rejoice and be glad, for it is not the desire of God that we should always afflict ourselves as upon His precious holy day, the Day of Atonement. No; after humbling our hearts and returning to our Creator, we are enjoined to rejoice with our families and neighbours; therefore, we call this holy day the season of our rejoicing.
The Lord said, "This is not to be to you a fast as the Day of Atonement; eat, drink, be merry, and sacrifice peace-offerings thereon." The Bible says, "Seven days unto the Lord;" therefore we should in all our merriment devote a few serious thoughts to Him.
The Omnipotent King has commanded us to remove from our permanent dwellings and live for seven days in booths. This precept teaches us that man should put no trust in the magnificent structures he may have raised and adorned with ornaments of value, nor to place his confidence
entirely upon human beings, even though rulers in his land; but to rely solely upon the Almighty, the One who said, "Let the universe come into being;" to Him alone is the power and the dominion. He alone will never change, or be other than He has proclaimed Himself, as it is written, "God is not a man that He should lie" (Num. 23: 19), and He alone can prove our sure protection.
The Feast of Tabernacles is held in the autumn, after the fruits of the field have been garnered in the storehouses, according to the words of the Bible, "The Feast of Tabernacles shalt thou hold for thyself seven days when thou hast gathered in the produce of thy threshing-floor and thy wine-press" (Deut. 16: 14).
At this time, when a man sees plenty around him, his heart perhaps may grow haughty, he may feel like enriching his house and furnishing it with elegance; for this reason he is commanded to leave it for a season, and dwell in booths, where his thoughts may be directed to God. That in the dwelling rudely put together, and unprotected from the rain, he may remember that through the rain sent by the Most High in its due season did the profusion of his crops result, and with this reflection appreciate the fact that all he possesses he owes to the goodness of God, and not to his own intelligence or strength.
This dwelling in booths is also to bring to mind the manner in which the Israelites lived for forty years after they left Egypt. With merely temporary walls to protect them from summer's heat and winter's cold, from wind and storm. God was with them through all their generations, and they were protected from all evil.
According to the opinion of some of the Rabbis, the Israelites did not really dwell in booths in the wilderness, but were surrounded by clouds--by seven clouds. Four
clouds, one at each of the four sides; a fifth, a shadow, to protect them from the hot rays of the sun; the sixth, a pillar of fire, to give them light by night (they being able to see as clearly by night as by day); and the seventh, to precede their journeying and direct their way.
The children of Israel departed from Egypt in Nissan (April), and obtained immediately these booths, which they made use of for forty years. Thus they were in booths during the entire cycle of the year, and we could as easily commemorate this fact in the spring as in the fall, in the summer as in the winter. Why, then, has God made autumn, and neither spring nor summer, the season of observance? Because if we dwelt in booths in the summer, it would be a question whether we did so in obedience to God's behest or for our own gratification; for many people seek airy retreats during this season; but in the fall, when the trees lose their leaves, and the air grows cold and chilling, and it is the time to fix our houses for the winter, then by inhabiting these temporary residences, we display our desire to do as our Creator has bidden us.
The Feast of Tabernacles is also the Feast of Ingathering, when we should thank God for the kindness shown us, and the treasure with which He has blessed us. When the Eternal has provided man with his sustenance, in the long evenings which follow he should meditate and study his Bible, and make this indeed a "feast to the Lord," and not entirely for personal gratification.
The four species belonging to the vegetable kingdom, which we use on this festival, are designed to remind us of the four elements of nature, which work under the direction and approval of the Most High, and without which all things would cease to exist. Therefore the Bible commands us on this "feast of the Lord" to give thanks, and
bring before Him these four species, each typifying one of the elements.
"Ye shall take for yourselves (Lev. 23: 40) the fruit of the tree hadar" (the citron). Its colour is high yellow and resembles fire. The second species is the palm branch (Heb. Lulab), The palm is a high tree, growing up straight in the air, and its fruit is sweet and delicious to the taste; this then represents the second element, air. The third is the bough of the myrtle, one of the lowliest of trees, growing close to the ground; its nature, cold and dry as earth, fits it to represent that element. The fourth is "the willow of the brook," which grows in perfection close beside the water, dropping its branches into the stream, and symbolising thus the last element, water.
The Bible teaches us that for each of these four elements we owe especial thanks to God.
The citron we hold in the left hand, and the other three we grasp together in the right. This we do because the citron contains in itself all that the others represent. The outside skin is yellow, fire; the inside skin is white and damp, air; the pulp is watery, water; and the seeds are dry, earth. It is taken into the left hand, because the right hand is strongest, and the citron is but one, while the other emblems are three.
These four emblems represent likewise the four principal members of the human body. The citron is shaped somewhat like a heart, without which we could not live, and with, which man should serve his fellows; the palm branch represents the spine, which is the foundation of the human frame, in front of which the heart lies; this signifies that we should serve God with our entire body. The branches of the myrtle resemble a human eye, with which man recognises the deeds of his fellows, and with which he may obtain a
knowledge of the law. The leaves of the willow represent the lips, with which man may serve the Eternal and thank Him. The myrtle is mentioned in the Bible before the willow, because we arc able to see and know a thing before we can call its name with our lips; man is able to look into the Bible before he can study the same. Therefore, with these four principal parts of the human frame should we praise the Creator, as David said, "All my bones shall say, O Lord, who is like unto thee?"
The great Maimonides, in his work called "Moreh Nebuchim" (The Guide of the Perplexed), explains that God commanded the Israelites to take these four emblems during this festival to remind them that they were brought out from the wilderness, where no fruit grew, and no people lived, into a land of brooklets, waters, a land flowing with milk and honey. For this reason did God command us to hold in our hands the precious fruit of this land while singing praises to Him, the One who wrought miracles in our behalf, who feeds and supports us from the productiveness of the earth.
The four emblems are different in taste, appearance, and odour, even as the sons of men are different in conduct and habits.
The citron is a valuable fruit; it is good for food and has a most pleasant odour. It is compared to the intelligent man, who is righteous in his conduct towards God and his fellow-man. The odour of the fruit is his good deeds; its substance is his learning, on which others may feed. This is perfect among the emblems, and is, therefore, always mentioned first, and taken by itself in one hand.
The palm branch brings forth fruit, but is without odour. It is compared to those people who are learned, but who
are wanting in good deeds; they who know the law, but transgress its mandates.
The myrtle is compared to those people who are naturally good, who act correctly towards God and man, but who are uneducated.
The willow of the brook has neither fruit nor odour; it is, therefore, compared to the people who have no knowledge and who perform no good deeds.
If all unite together, however, and offer supplication to the Most High, He will surely hearken to their words, and for this reason Moses said to the Israelites, "And ye shall take unto yourselves," &c.; meaning, to your own benefit, to praise the Lord during the seven days of the festival with these emblems, and to exclaim with the same "Hoshaánah" (O, save us now), and "Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for His mercy endureth for ever."
The Rabbis have said that he who has failed to participate in the keeping of the Tabernacle Festival in Jerusalem has failed to taste real enjoyment in his life. The first day of the feast was kept with great solemnity, and the middle days with joy and gladness in various methods of public amusement.
The Temple in Jerusalem was provided with a gallery or the women, which was called the apartment of the women, and the men sat below, as is still the custom of the synagogue. Thither all repaired. The young priests filled the lamps of the large chandeliers with oil, and lighted them all, even that the place was so bright that its reflection lighted the streets of the city. Hymns and praises were chanted by the pious ones, and the Levites praised the Lord with harps, cornets, trumpets, flutes, and other instruments of harmony. They stood upon fifteen
broad steps, reaching from the lower floor to the gallery, the court of the women. And they sang fifteen psalms as they ascended, beginning with "A song of Degrees," and the large choir joined voices with them. The ancient Hillel was accustomed to address the assemblages on these occasions.
"If God's presence dwells here," he was used to say, "then are ye here, each one of you, the souls of each; but if God should be removed from your midst through disobedience then which of you could be here?" For the Lord has said, "If thou wilt come to My house, then will I come to thy house, but if thou refusest to visit My dwelling, I will also neglect to enter yours;" as it is written, "In every place where I shall permit My name to be mentioned I will come unto thee and I will bless thee" (Exod. xx. 21).
Then some of the people answered:
"Happy were the days of our youth, for they have not set to blush the days of our old age." These were men of piety.
"Happy is our old age, for therein have we atoned tot the sins of our youth." These were repentants.
Then joining together, both parties said:
"Happy is the one who is free from sin; but ye who have sinned, repent, return to God, and ye will be forgiven."
The festival was continued during the entire night; for when the religious exercises concluded the people gave themselves up to innocent but thorough enjoyment.
This festival was also called the "Festival of Drawing Water."
Because, during the existence of the Temple, wine was
offered during the year for a burnt-offering, but on the Feast of Tabernacles they offered two drink-offerings, one of wine and one of water. Of the other they made a special festival on the second day of the Tabernacle assemblage, calling it the Feast of Drawing the Water. It was founded upon the words of the prophet:
"And ye shall draw water with joy from the fountains of salvation."