Messianic Education Trust

Vayikra/Leviticus 23:4   These are the appointed times of the L-rd, callings of holiness, that you shall call at their appointed times.

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Unlike the other festivals, whose Torah portions are focused tightly around the instructions for the days or days, the set portion for the first day of Sukkot runs from Vayikra 22:26 to 23:44, including not only all the main festivals - the '"appointed times" - but a few regulations about thank-offerings and the importance of keeping the commandments so as to sanctify HaShem's name. Why might this be? What did the rabbis who shaped the traditional readings of Judaism see in Sukkot that caused them to broaden the scope of the reading for the first day of the festival in this way?

A little close reading of the Hebrew text reveals that the phrase , "the appointed times of The Name ...

HaShem: literally, Hebrew for 'The Name' - an allusion used to avoid pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, the so-called 'ineffable' name of G–d
HaShem" occurs four times in chapter 23, the block of text devoted to the festivals. Starting with, "These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the L-RD, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions" (23:2, NJPS), followed by the specifications for the weekly shabbat, our text (v. 4) introduces all the annual festivals. The next occurrence is "Those are the set times of the L-RD that you shall celebrate as sacred occasions, bringing offerings by fire to the L-RD -- burnt offerings, meal offerings, sacrifices, and libations, on each day what is proper to it" (v. 37, NJPS). This serves as a summary line: these - that I have just told you about, Pesach, Matzah, Yom HaBikkurim, Shavuot, Yom Teruah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret - are HaShem's appointed times and on each one you shall bring the right festival offerings. Finally, the last verse of the chapter, after full instructions about the lulav and etrog and dwelling in tabernacles for seven days, tells us that "Moshe declared to the Israelites the set times of the L-RD" (v. 44, NJPS).

Needless to say, the Jewish commentators have opinions. Who Is ...

Abraham Ibn Ezra: (1089-1167 CE), born in Tudela, Spain; died in the South of France after wandering all around the shores of the Mediterranean and England; a philosopher, astronomer, doctor, poet and linguist; wrote a Hebrew grammar and a commentary on the Bible
Ibn Ezra makes the initial distinction between shabbat and the rest of the festivals by noticing that shabbat "always occurs on day seven of each week," because they are described as "My fixed times" (v. 2), while the other festivals are to be called or proclaimed "each its appointed time." The Who Is ...

Ramban: Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman of Gerona or Nachmanides (1194-1270 CE), Spanish rabbi, author and physician; defended Judaism in the Christian debates in Barcelona before making aliyah
Ramban stresses that it is the responsibility of the Sanhedrin to proclaim each festival at its appointed time; "Shabbat, which occurs on the same day every week need not be proclaimed. But the other festivals may occur on any day of the week." Don Isaac Who Is ...

Abravanel: Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508 CE), Statesman and biblical commentator; born in Lisbon, died in Venice; wrote commentaries on the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures
Abravanel explains that "they must be proclaimed by the court because otherwise everyone might rely on his own observation of the moon and observe the festivals at a time of his own choosing."

If the timing of these festivals is so important - Baruch Levine insists that "each festival is to occur at the same time each year" - why and how is the determination of the dates for the annual festivals left with the Sanhedrin? The Talmud records a conversation between Raba and the elders of Pumbeditha about the exact wording for a piece of liturgy. He explains their reasoning to be that "the Sabbath is permanently fixed", because it has been sanctified and determined entirely by HaShem: every seven days, no matter what. The annual festivals, on the other hand, are sanctified by the Sanhedrin on behalf of the whole of Israel, "for they intercalate the months and set [the beginnings of] the years and [the dates of festivals]" (b. Pesachim 117b). On another occasion, we overhear a conversation between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Joshua. Rabbi Joshua is concerned that the Jews of his time may have taken upon themselves the dating of the festivals when it should have been HaShem. Akiva comforts him by pointing out that "The text says, 'you', 'you', 'you', three times, (Vayikra 22.31, 23.2, 23.4) to indicate that 'you' [may set the festivals] even if you err inadvertently, 'you', even if you err deliberately, 'you', even if you are misled (by the witnesses)" (b. Rosh Hashanah 25a).

The last link in this chain is the mandate for the Sanhedrin to declare the start of each month and, hence, the year and the exact date of each festival. It starts with HaShem telling Moshe, "this month [the month of Aviv] shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you" (Shemot 12:2, NJPS), using 'you' twice to signify that Israel was to be involved in the determining of the months. Later in the Torah, when HaShem tells Moshe to make two silver trumpets, he adds, "On your joyous occasions -- your fixed festivals and new moon days -- you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being" (B'Midbar 10:10, NJPS), implying that the festivals and the new moon days belong to Israel. Traditionally, the Sanhedrin would declare the new month to have started based on the oral evidence of two reliable witnesses who had seen the new moon. Since every festival is set on a particular day of a particular month - Sukkot, for example, starts on the fifteenth day of the seventh month - that means both that the Sanhedrin set the dates for the festivals and that the festivals are always on the same day each year.

We still haven't answered our initial question though: what was it in the festival of Sukkot that caused the rabbis to include the details of all the other feasts in the Torah reading for the first day of Sukkot? The answer has a number of points, some for the rabbis and some for the followers of Yeshua today; firstly, that Sukkot comes at the end of the feast cycle for each year. Starting with the spring festivals - Pesach, Matzah, Yom HaBikkurim and Shavuot - and ending with the autumn festivals - Yom Teruah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret - there is nothing else in the year. The harvest, fruits and nuts have all been gathered in for the winter, the fields are ploughed ready for planting; the in-gathering (as Sukkot is also called) is exactly that: the fruit of all the work and the waiting has arrived: this is the representation of the whole year.

Secondly, there is the layout of the Torah reading itself: particularly the positioning of the four uses of "the appointed times of HaShem". The placement of the instructions for the lulav and etrog, the arba minim, the four species, and the instruction to live in - and therefore, of necessity, to build - a sukkah for seven days, between the last two instances of "the appointed times of HaShem", after the formal announcement of all the festivals, looks like a summation of all that is included within the list of festivals. As we remember and commemorate HaShem's provision for His people during forty years of wilderness, we recall each of the specific festivals that we have celebrated through the year and bless HaShem for His mercy and grace.

Thirdly, there is the involvement of the Gentile theme in Sukkot - it is known in tradition as the festival of the Gentiles. The detailed - and seemingly repetitive - list of sacrifices for Sukkot (B'Midbar 29:12-24) varies by the (declining) number of bulls offered each day; a total of seventy bulls are offered over the whole seven days to match the number of the nations in the world recounted after the flood (B'resheet 10). Fulfilling its priestly role, Israel offers a bull for each of the nations of the world - pointing to the conclusion of its own mandate to provide a witness to the nations when "the L-RD shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one LORD with one name" (Zechariah 14:9, NJPS). As believers in Yeshua, we too exercise a priestly role interceding for the nations and introducing them to Yeshua so that they may become reconciled with G-d.

Fourthly, although the Apostolic Writings don't tell us a lot about observing the festivals, the gospels show us how Yeshua was born around the time of Sukkot, embodied Sukkot as He "tabernacled among us" (John 1:14), celebrated the festival of Sukkot, went up to Jerusalem for the festival - "About the middle of the feast Yeshua went up into the temple and began teaching" (7:14, ESV) - and used it for some of His most dramatic announcements drawing on the sights, sounds and smells of Sukkot in the Temple: "If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water'" (vv. 37-38, ESV), speaking of the Ruach, the Holy Spirit, who would be poured out upon the people after Yeshua's resurrection.

Lastly, the prophets tell us that celebration of three festivals will continue in the world to come. Isaiah voices HaShem saying that, "new moon after new moon, and sabbath after sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship Me" (Isaiah 66:23, NJPS). These are the weekly shabbat days and the monthly sequence of days and weeks, celebrating the monthly cycle of the moon. Although the moon's light will not be needed, for the "the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb" (Revelation 21:23, ESV), it will still be reflecting G-d's glory. The only other festival that we can be sure will be celebrated is Sukkot, as the prophet tells us that those from all the nations will "go up year after year to worship the King, the L-RD of hosts, and to keep the festival of Sukkot" (Zechariah 14:16). Jew and Gentile will gather to worship the King, dwelling in a sukkah and rehearsing the His goodness throughout history and eternity, including the other annual festivals as signs of His grace.

Rav Sha'ul writes to the congregations in Colossi, telling them, "So don't let anyone pass judgment on you in connection with eating and drinking, or in regard to a Jewish festival or Rosh-Hodesh or Shabbat. These are a shadow of things that are coming, but the body is of the Messiah" (Colossians 2:16-17, CJB). This verse speaks to both Jewish and Gentile believers in Messiah: the Jewish disciples are to continue to observe the festivals without being criticised by the Gentiles; the Gentile believers are not obliged to observe the festivals - although they may, if convicted by the Spirit as a matter of personal obedience - unless they are part of a messianic Jewish community. No arguments about this stuff, Sha'ul is saying, for what we do now is only a shadow - a foretaste - of what is to come. Then, as the prophets declared above, we will all celebrate the reality of the festivals together as the people of G-d. Then we will all join the dance in the circle, feel the flow of the living water within us and around us, lift up our voices and bless the Father, our creator, Yeshua, our kinsman redeemer, and the Ruach, our comforter, guide and empowerer.

Hag Sukkot Sameach b'Yeshua!

Further Study: D'varim 16:13-17; 2 Chronicles 8:12-14; Ephesians 2:19-22

Application: You need to celebrate the festival of Sukkot this year in the One New Man context: Jews and Gentiles celebrating together as the redeemed and ransomed people of G-d. Find somewhere near you where you can go to wave the lulav and etrog, where you can sit and share fellowship - food, drink, meaningful conversation - in a sukkah.

Buy your own copy of the Drash Book for Deuteronomy/D'varim now at Amazon US or Amazon UK.

© Jonathan Allen, 2023

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