Sukkos, the Feast of Tabernacles
The Date of the “Nativity”
On the night following Yom haKippurim it is customary to begin preparations for the next holy day which falls on the 15th night of Tishrei. Hag HaSuccoth, the Feast of Tabernacles, is an annual commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. During this Festival, which is observed for seven days in Biblical law and, by authoritative Jewish custom, for eight days outside Israel, we are commanded to leave our homes and dwell in temporary structures (Succos/Succot) which represent of the temporary dwelling which protected us in the wilderness for forty years. On the eighth day is another related but independent holy day known as Shemini Atzereth, outside of Israel an extra day is also observed making a total of nine days (the final day is known as Simchath Torah).
Though there is no direct indication of such in the Christian Bible, many Messianics see Succos as being a very significant time in the life of the Nazarene. In their mind it represents, and possibly was, the date of his birth,1 which would make his bris milah fall out on Shemini Atzereth. While there seems to be no traditional association between the Nazarene's birth and Succos by Christian there is a similar association made in a fairly early work known as the "Legend of Simon Peter" referenced by Alfred Edersheim. In Appendix 18 of his famous work "The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah" he summarizes this account of the apostolic period of the Church from a "Jewish" perspective. While I don't know that this work would carry much weight in Jewish tradition it is interesting to note that according to this legend Peter admonishes his followers to exchange the observance of Passover and Shavuos fifty days later with the anniversary of the Nazarene's death and his ascension forty days later. We then read "And instead of the Feast of Tabernacles observe the day of his birth, and on the eighth day after his birth observe that on which he was circumcised" (ibid page 1058). Considering the popularity of Edersheim among Messianics it is plausible that the current interest in linking Succos and the birth of the Nazarene originated here.
Of course once the link has been made there are those who find evidence in the Christian Bible for such a "Messianic" significance to Succos. When the Beis HaMikdash (Temple) stood there where 24 priestly families (see 1 Chronicles 24:7-18) that served for a week at a time each twice a year. Luke 1:5 informs us that John the Baptist's father Zechariah was in the division of Abijah. It was while serving for this division that Zechariah saw an Angel who told him that John the Baptist would be born. Using this information as a guide it is estimated that Zechariah was serving in the Beis HaMikdash approximately mid-Sivan since Abijah was the 8th division and all divisions could serve during the weeks of Passover and Shavuos making it the 10th week. Luke 1:26 then tells us that Zechariah's wife Elizabeth was six months pregnant when an angel appeared to Mary to inform her that she was going to have the Nazarene. This would bring us to mid Kislev, which would be a week or so before Chanukah. Assuming Mary conceived at that time we could then count forward nine and a half months which would bring us to a birth in Tishre, the month of Sukkos.
There are numerous problems with this but I think the most important is assuming any specific significance to the fact that someone may be born on Sukkos. The Torah gives us no indication of Sukkos being linked with the birth of Moshiach or anyone else. Furthermore at best we have presented in this theory a ball park estimate of when he was born, nothing so clear as to establish a perfect alignment. In fact my calculations of the above evidence would put the birth in early Tishrei closer to Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. As I figure, roughly one in twelve people are born in Tishrei! In my own household three of us, including myself, where born in the month of Tishrei. Without any clear indication from the Torah, or even the Christian Bible, it seems like quite a stretch to spiritually link Sukkos with the birth of the Nazarene simply because the latter may have occurred in the same month.
Furthermore the entire calculation above is a bit arbitrary. Remember each priestly family served twice annually. This calculation picks the week which the division of Abijah served from the first half of the year with no justification other than doing so causes the Nazarene's birthday to fall out "correctly". One novel approach to justify this course is through using the death of Herod as evidence. The Nazarene was very publicly presented at the Beis HaMikdosh in Jerusalem on the fortieth day after birth yet when the Magi visit Herod in search of the new born king Herod is unaware of him. It is suggested therefore that the Magi had visited him before or around the time the Nazarene was born and he must have died shortly thereafter before the Nazarene was presented in the Beis HaMikdosh. Since Josephus recorded that Herod died in September, around the time of Sukkos. As such working backward it would seem that Zechariah must have been serving in the earlier week rather than the one in the latter half of the year. Nevertheless the difficulty of this view should be apparent to any Sunday School student. Matthew clearly records that the Nazarene's family fled to Egypt to escape Herod and remained there until his death after which they moved to Nazareth (Matthew 3:13-23).
The starting point is also uncertain. Zechariah was serving as a priest when he received the visit from the angel, not from when John the Baptist was conceived. The laws of ritual purity would have prevented John from being conceived during the week his father served in the Beis HaMikdosh. Additionally when the angel visited Mary he told here that she would conceive, implying that she had yet to do so (Luke 1:31). And though the "sixth month" in Luke 1:26 seems to refer to the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist it is not certain that it does not mean the sixth month of the year. If so since Tishrei is the seventh month, then the Nazarene's birth would be nowhere in the vicinity. And note that it says "in" the sixth month, not six months later. The numbers are fuzzy enough to give quite a bit of flexibility.
On that note it is interesting to read the 7th Appendix in Edersheim's "The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah". In it, it is noted that according to Josephus and the Talmud that when the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed that the priestly family of Jehoiarib was serving. Working backwards he estimates that Zechariah was serving in early October, which would make December 25th a plausible date for the birth of the Nazarene. The very same approach used by Messianics is utilized by others to promote Christmas as being a reasonable day to celebrate the Nativity!
Looking on the positive side I believe this attempt at correlating Sukkos with the Nazarene's birth represents an attempt at carefully observing the details of the text that I think is frankly is often lacking. Nevertheless, as we see all too often, the details are arranged to fit the pre-conceived picture. A picture which is without basis in the Torah's original command. The fact that each piece of evidence contains uncertainty, some a great deal, is ignored. Furthermore this is not only presented as a possibility which a believer might accept on faith since it fits their worldview. It is presented as an apologetic tool to persuade the non believer that the Nazarene is prefigured in the Yomim Tovim, despite the shortcomings in the evidence.
Symbolism of the Sukkah
Succos takes its name from the fact that during this festival we build a temporary shelter, called a Sukkah, to dwell in. The Torah tells us (Vayikra 23:43) that these succos represent the succos that the B'nei Yisrael lived in while they traveled through the desert after the Exodus. There are two general approaches to understanding what "succos" the Torah meant. One approach is that it refers to the physical makeshift homes they made for themselves. The second is that they where the Aneinei HaKavod, the Clouds of Glory, which the Torah tells us was the true protection God provided Yisrael (Israel) from their wilderness environment. Nevertheless Messianics see in the Sukkah Christological symbolism, so that while their may be no solid evidence to date the Nazarene's birth at Sukkos they believe there is nevertheless a prophetic message contained in the Sukkah to point to the Nazarene's birth.
The first, and more basic, supposed parallel is the Nazarene's birth in a manger. It is a well known story of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem but unable to find a place to lodge. Ultimately they are forced to stay in a stable where Mary ends up giving birth. Just as we dwell in temporary shelters on Sukkos, the Nazarene was born in a temporary shelter (actually it appears from Luke 2:7 that he wasn't actually born IN the manger, just placed their after birth). And it has also been suggested that Joseph and Mary where not just going to Bethlehem for the census but for the Succos pilgrimage to Yerushalayim, Bethlehem being a very short distance away. The inn was full because of the unusual number of guests due to the pilgrimage. This is difficult to assume however since Luke says that they stayed in the manger because of the inn being full. If it was Sukkos they would have dwelt in such a temporary structure because of the commandment to do so. And with the inn being full of guests would such a readably available Sukkah have remained unclaimed? Furthermore in contrast to a Sukkah, a manger is not a temporary shelter, it is a permanent shelter for animals. Luke's account of this story does not make any connection with Sukkos nor otherwise indicate the Nazarene was born/placed in a "temporary" shelter. Rather than relate the events to Succos, Luke seems to be contrasting the Nazarene's greatness with his humble origin. The only similarity between a Sukkah and the manger is a vague mental image of visual similarities that might have been between the two.
On a "deeper" level the Sukkah is seen as a symbol of the very incarnation of the Nazarene. “Yet, did you notice the metaphor John employs to describe this incarnation of the Messiah? The Word “dwelt” among his people [John 1:14]. The Greek word skene is a rich word derived from “tabernacle.” In other words, as John sought to describe the Messiah’s first coming to his people, the most obvious picture was the holy day of Sukkot…” (Kasdan, page 95). Just as we leave our homes for a temporary dwelling during Sukkos, the Nazarene supposedly left heaven to take on physical body. This parallel is also a stretch since it doesn't fit with Christian theology. In Christianity the incarnation represents the second person of the Trinity taking on an additional human nature. But this is not a temporary occurrence but a permanent one. As Ron Rhodes writes "It is significant that the verb lives ("in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form [Col. 2:9] is a present-tense verb, indicating continuing, durative action. The thought is that in Christ the fullness of deity permanently resides...Even today, Jesus in his glorified human body is the fullness of deity in bodily form." (page 50-51). This point might be illustrated by the story of the post resurrection appearance of the Nazarene to Thomas. Thomas had scoffed at the idea of the resurrection and noted he would only believe it when he saw the Nazarene with his wound marks. When the Nazarene appeared to him, we are told, the Nazarene showed him those very wounds. The incarnation does not represent a "temporary dwelling" of the Nazarene in flesh, but his moving into a new and eternal home of flesh and blood.
So while Christians may see a number of apparent parallels between Sukkos and the birth of the Nazarene they contain more hope than substance. The concept of dwelling for a week in a temporary shelter does not have any true connection to the event of the Nazarene's birth, neither the physical surroundings nor metaphysical event which supposedly took place. And these supposed parallels are certainly not strong enough to compel us to accept them or to make it appear more likely that the doctrines of Christianity are hinted at in our Torah.
1 “The Scriptures seem to indicate to us that Yeshua was born during the festival season of Sukkot (Tabernacles). In fact, I believe that [he] was born on the Feast of Sukkot” The Seven Festivals of the Messiah Edward Chumney, page 178. “Would such an important event as the birth of the messiah go unheralded by one of these biblical feasts? Of all of the feasts of the Lord, Sukkot best illustrates the fact that…through the presence of the Messiah.” God's Appointed Times, Barney Kasdan, page 96. Lockyer, in All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible does not notice such an allusion in his presentation of the Feast of Tabernacles