The Feast of Tabernacles at the Temple

by: Alfred Edersheim   -   The Temple: Its Ministry and Services p. 220-228


Special Service at the Temple

As at the Passover and at Pentecost, the altar of burnt-offering was cleansed during the first night-watch, and the gates of the Temple were thrown open immediately after midnight. The time till the beginning of the ordinary morning sacrifice was occupied in examining the various sacrifices and offerings that were to be brought during the day.

While the morning sacrifice was being prepared, a priest, accompanied by a joyous procession with music, went down to the Pool of Siloam, whence he drew water into a golden pitcher, capable of holding three log (rather more than two pints). But on the Sabbaths they fetched the water from a golden vessel in the Temple itself, into which it had been carried from Siloam on the preceding day. At the same time that the procession started for Siloam, another went to a place in the Kedron valley, close by, called Motza, whence they brought willow branches, which, amidst the blasts of the priests' trumpets, they stuck on either side of the altar of burnt-offering, bending them over towards it, so as to form a kind of leafy canopy.

Then the ordinary sacrifice proceeded, the priest who had gone to Siloam so timing it, that he returned just as his brethren carried up the pieces of the sacrifice to lay them on the altar. As he entered by the `Watergate,' which obtained its name from this ceremony, he was received by a threefold blast from the priests' trumpets.

The priests then went up the rise of the altar and turned to the left, where there were two silver basins with narrow holes-the eastern a little wider for the wine, and the western somewhat narrower for the water. Into these the wine of the drink-offering was poured, and at the same time the water from Siloam, the people shouting to the priest, `Raise thy hand,' to show that he really poured the water into the basin which led to the base of the altar.

For, sharing the objections of the Sadducees, Alexander Jannaeus, the Maccabean king-priest (about 95 B.C.), had shown his contempt for the Pharisees by pouring the water at this feast upon the ground, on which the people pelted him with their aethrogs (wilow boughs), and would have murdered him, if his foreign body-guard had not interfered, on which occasion no less than six thousand Jews were killed in the Temple.

The Music of the Feast

As soon as the wine and the water were being poured out, the Temple music began, and the `Hallel' (Psalms 113-118) was sung in the manner previously prescribed, and to the accompaniment of flutes, except on the Sabbath and on the first day of the feast, when flute-playing was not allowed, on account of the sanctity of the days. When the choir came to these words (Psalms 118:1), `O give thanks to the Lord,' and again when they sang (Psalms 118:25), `O work then now salvation, Jehovah;' and once more at the close (Psalms 118:29), `O give thanks unto the Lord,' all the worshipers shook their lulavs (palm branches) towards the altar.

When, therefore, the multitudes from Jerusalem, on meeting Jesus, `cut down branches from the trees, and strewed them in the way, and ...cried, saying, O then, work now salvation to the Son of David!' (Matthew 21:8, 9; John 12:12, 13), they applied, in reference to Christ, what was regarded as one of the chief ceremonies of the Feast of Tabernacles, praying that God would now from `the highest' heavens manifest and send that salvation in connection with the Son of David, which was symbolized by the pouring out of water.

For though the ceremony was considered by the Rabbis as bearing a subordinate reference to the dispensation of the rain, the annual fall of which they imagined was determined by God at that feast, its main and real application was to the future outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as predicted-probably in allusion to this very rite-by Isaiah the prophet.4 Thus the Talmud says distinctly: `Why is the name of it called, The drawing out of water? Because of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, according to what is said: "With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation."' Hence, also, the feast and the peculiar joyousness of it are alike designated as those of `the drawing out of water;' for, according to the same Rabbinical authorities, the Holy Spirit dwells in man only through joy.

The Daily Circuit of the Altar Last Day, that Great Day of the Feast

A similar symbolism was expressed by another ceremony which took place at the close, not of the daily, but of the festive sacrifices. On every one of the seven days the priests formed in procession, and made the circuit of the altar, singing: `O then, now work salvation, Jehovah! O Jehovah, give prosperity!' (Psalms 118:25). But on the seventh, `that great day of the feast,' they made the circuit of the altar seven times, remembering how the walls of Jericho had fallen in similar circumstances, and anticipating how, by the direct interposition of God, the walls of heathenism would fall before Jehovah, and the land lie open for His people to go in and possess it.

The References in John 7:37

We can now in some measure realize the event recorded in John 7:37. The festivities of the Week of Tabernacles were drawing to a close. `It was the last day, that great day of the feast.' It obtained this name, although it was not one of `holy convocation,' partly because it closed the feast, and partly from the circumstances which procured it in Rabbinical writings the designations of `Day of the Great Hosannah,' on account of the sevenfold circuit of the altar with `Hosannah;' and `Day of Willows,' and `Day of Beating the Branches,' because all the leaves were shaken off the willow boughs, and the palm branches beaten in pieces by the side of the altar. It was on that day, after the priest had returned from Siloam with his golden pitcher, and for the last time poured its contents to the base of the altar; after the `Hallel' had been sung to the sound of the flute, the people responding and worshiping as the priests three times drew (blew) the three fold blasts from their silver trumpets just when the interest of the people had been raised to its highest pitch, that, from amidst the mass of worshipers, who were waving towards the altar quite a forest of leafy branches as the last words of Psalms 118 were chanted - a voice was raised which resounded through the Temple, startled the multitude, and carried fear and hatred to the hearts of their leaders.

It was Jesus, who `stood and cried, saying, ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink.' Then by faith in Him should each one truly become like the Pool of Siloam, and from his inmost being `rivers of living water flow' (John 7:38). `This spoke He of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive.' Thus the significance of the rite, in which they had just taken part, was not only fully explained, but the mode of its fulfillment pointed out. The effect was instantaneous.

It could not but be, that in that vast assembly, so suddenly roused by being brought face to face with Him in whom every type and prophecy is fulfilled, there would be many who, `when they heard this saying, said, ‘Of a truth this is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Christ.' Even the Temple-guard, whose duty it would have been in such circumstances to arrest one who had so interrupted the services of the day, and presented himself to the people in such a light, owned the spell of His words, and dared not to lay hands on Him.

`Never man spoke like this man,' was the only account they could give of their unusual weakness, in answer to the reproaches of the chief priests and Pharisees. The rebuke of the Jewish authorities, which followed, is too characteristic to require comment. One only of their number had been deeply moved by the scene just witnessed in the Temple. Yet, timid as usual, Nicodemus only laid hold of this one point, that the Pharisees had traced the popular confession of Jesus to their ignorance of the law, to which he replied, in the genuine Rabbinical manner of arguing, without meeting one's opponent face to face: `Doth our law judge any man before it hear him, and know what he doeth?’

The Man Born Blind

But matters were not to end with the wrangling of priests and Pharisees. The proof which Nicodemus had invited them to seek from the teaching and the miracles of Christ was about to be displayed both before the people and their rulers in the healing of the blind man. Here also it was in allusion to the ceremonial of the Feast of Tabernacles that Jesus, when He saw the `man blind from his birth,' said (John 9:5): `As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world;' having `anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay,' just as He told him, `Go, wash in the Pool of Siloam (which is, by interpretation, Sent).' For the words, `I am the light of the world,' are the same which He had just spoken in the Temple (John 8:12), and they had in all probability been intended to point to another very peculiar ceremony which took place at the Feast of Tabernacles.

In the words of the Mishnah (Succah v. 2, 3, 4), the order of the services for that feast was as follows: `They went first to offer the daily sacrifice in the morning, then the additional sacrifices; after that the votive and freewill-offerings; from thence to the festive meal; from thence to the study of the law; and after that to offer the evening sacrifice; and from thence they went to the joy of the pouring out of the water.' It is this `joy of the pouring out of the water' which we are about to describe.

The Ceremonies in the Court of the Women

At the close of the first day of the feast the worshipers descended to the Court of the Women, where great preparations had been made. Four golden candelabras were there, each with four golden bowls, and against them rested four ladders; and four youths of priestly descent held, each a pitcher of oil, capable of holding one hundred and twenty log, from which they filled each bowl. The old, worn breeches and girdles of the priests served for wicks to these lamps. There was not a court in Jerusalem that was not lit up by the light of `the house of water-pouring.'

The `Chassidim' and `the men of Deed' danced before the people with flaming torches in their hands, and sang before them hymns and songs of praise; and the Levites, with harps, and lutes, and cymbals, and trumpets, and instruments of music without number, stood upon the fifteen steps which led down from the Court of Israel to that of the Women, according to the number of the fifteen Songs of Degrees in the Book of Psalms. They stood with their instruments of music, and sang hymns. Two priests, with trumpets in their hands, were at the upper gate (that of Nicanor), which led from the Court of Israel to that of the Women. At cock-crowing they drew a threefold blast. As they reached the tenth step, they drew another threefold blast; as they entered the court itself, they drew yet another threefold blast; and so they blew as they advanced, till they reached the gate which opens upon the east (the Beautiful Gate). As they came to the eastern gate, they turned round towards the west (to face the Holy Place), and said: `Our fathers who were in this place, they turned their back upon the Sanctuary of Jehovah, and their faces towards the east, and they worshiped towards the rising sun; but as for us, our eyes are towards the Lord.'

A fragment of one of the hymns sung that night has been preserved. It was sung by the `Chassidim' and `men of Deed,' and by those who did penance in their old age for the sins of their youth:

The Chassidim and Men of Deed

`Oh joy, that our youth, devoted, sage,

Doth bring no shame upon our old age!'

The Penitents

‘Oh joy, we can in our old age

Repair the sins of youth not sage!'

Both in unison

`Yes, happy he on whom no early guilt doth rest,

And he who, having sinned, is now with pardon blest’

Significance of the Illumination

It seems clear that this illumination of the Temple was regarded as forming part of, and having the same symbolical meaning as, `the pouring out of water.' The light shining out of the Temple into the darkness around, and lighting up every court in Jerusalem, must have been intended as a symbol not only of the Shechinah which once filled the Temple, but of that `great light' which `the people that walked in darkness' were to see, and which was to shine `upon them that dwell in the land of the shadow of death' (Isaiah 9:2). May it not be, that such prophecies as Isaiah 9 and 60 were connected with this symbolism?

At any rate, it seems most probable that Jesus had referred to this ceremony in the words spoken by Him in the Temple at that very Feast of Tabernacles: `I am the light of the world; he that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life' (John 8:12).

The Six Minor Days

Only the first of the seven days of this feast was `a holy convocation;' the other six were `minor festivals.' On each day, besides the ordinary morning and evening sacrifices, the festive offerings prescribed in Numbers 29:12-38 were brought. The Psalms sung at the drink-offering after the festive sacrifices (or Musaph, as they are called), were, for the first day of the feast, Psalms 105; for the second, Psalms 29; for the third, Psalms 50, from ver. 16; for the fourth, Psalms 94, from ver. 16; for the fifth, Psalms 94, from ver. 8; for the sixth, Psalms 81, from ver. 6; for the last day of the feast, Psalms 82, from ver. 5.

As the people retired from the altar at the close of each day's service, they exclaimed, `How beautiful art thou, O altar!' or, according to a later version, `We give thanks to Jehovah and to thee, O altar!'

All the four-and-twenty orders of the priesthood were engaged in the festive offerings, which were apportioned among them according to definite rules, which also fixed how the priestly dues were to be divided among them. Lastly, on every sabbatical year the Law was to be publicly read on the first day of the feast (Deuteronomy 31:10-13).5

On the afternoon of the seventh day of the feast the people began to remove from the `booths.' For at the Octave, on the 22nd of Tishri, they lived no longer in booths, nor did they use the lulav. But it was observed as `a holy convocation;' and the festive sacrifices prescribed in Numbers 29:36-38 were offered, although no more by all the twenty-four courses of priests, and finally the 'Hallel' sung at the drink-offering.

The Pouring and Lighting Post-Mosaic

It will have been observed that the two most important ceremonies of the Feast of Tabernacles - the pouring out of water and the illumination of the Temple - were of post-Mosaic origin. According to Jewish tradition, the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night had first appeared to Israel on the 15th of Tishri, the first day of the feast.

On that day also Moses was said to have come down from the Mount, and announced to the people that the Tabernacle of God was to be reared among them. We know that the dedication of Solomon's Temple and the descent of the Shechinah took place at this feast (1 Kings 8; 2 Chronicles 7). Nor can we greatly err in finding an allusion to it in this description of heavenly things: `After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God, which sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb' (Revelation 7:9, 10).

Whether or not our suggestions be adopted as to the typical meaning of the two great ceremonies of the `pouring out of the water' and the Temple Illumination, the fact remains, that the Feast of Tabernacles is the one and only type in the Old Testament which has not yet been fulfilled.


4 Isaiah 12:3. Of course, one or other of these two views is open, either, that the words of Isaiah were based on the ceremony of water-pouring, or that this ceremony was derived from the words of Isaiah. In either case, however, our inference from it holds good. It is only fair to add, that by some the expression `water' in Isaiah 12:3 is applied to the `law.' But this in no way vitiates our conclusion, as the Jews expected the general conversion of the Gentiles to be a conversion to Judaism.

5In later times only certain portions were read, the law as a whole being sufficiently known from the weekly prelections in the synagogues.

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Jesus and the Feast of Tabernacles