Five days after the Day of Atonement, the Festival of Tabernacles begins. It is seven days long. The first day is a special Sabbath. The Hebrew name of the festival is sukkot (סוכות), a word that means "shelters, stables or huts." The same word is often translated into English as "tabernacles" or "booths." The name is derived from the commandment for all Jews to dwell in temporary shelters for the seven days of the festival as a reminder of the post-exodus years when Israel lived in huts and booths, following God in the wilderness:
You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths. (Leviticus 23:42)
The temporary shelter is referred to as a sukkah (סוכה), which is the singular form of the plural word sukkot. A traditional sukkah must have at least two and a half walls made from virtually any material. The walls don't have to be solid. They could be plywood, canvas, latticework or just about anything. One wall can be part of a permanent structure. For example, the wall of a garage would work. The rest of the booth has to be temporary and disassembled after the festival.
The sukkah booth can be any size, so long as it is large enough for the family to eat and sleep in. The roof of the sukkah is supposed to be covered with some sort of foliage or vegetation that grows from the ground: tree branches, cornstalks, bamboo reeds, sticks or even lumber. The roof material has to provide adequate shade yet be sparse enough so rain can get in and stars can be seen through it. The sukkah should leave a person vulnerable to the elements.
The process of building and living in a sukkah is a great adventure for children. It's like building a fort and camping out in the backyard. People commonly decorate their sukkot. It's fun for the kids, often more fun than decorating a Christmas tree. Families hang harvest decorations and handmade artwork from the walls.
During the course of the seven days of Sukkot, it is appropriate to eat one's meals in the sukkah, and if the climate permits, to sleep at night inside the sukkah. Hosting guests in the sukkah for special holiday meals is a big part of the festival. It's a great time of fellowship.
Sukkot is a time of joy and celebration, a time to celebrate the harvest and revel in God's goodness. The festival of sukkot comes at harvest time. The joyous mood of sukkot is a dramatic shift from the solemn and austere tone of the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The celebration of sukkot is so joyous that Jewish liturgy often refers to it as "the season of our rejoicing." The commandment to move outside of one's comfortable zone and live in a booth is meant to remind us that God is our provider, sustainer and protector. On the cycle of sanctification, sukkot is an annual opportunity to revel in God's goodness and take delight in our redemption.
Sukkot is the culmination of all the appointed times. It is to the other festivals what the Sabbath is to the other six days of the week. It is a prophetic picture of the coming kingdom. It foreshadows the great celebration when the entire world will live in peace and brotherhood under the reign and rule of the righteous Messiah King.