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Tabernacles and Thanksgiving, Israel and America

Dear Christian Leader,

According to the biblical calendar, we are in the middle of the eight-day celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot. Sukkot (Hebrew for tabernacles) is one of a number of holidays described in Leviticus 23, including Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost), Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur.

Tabernacles is a joyous festival of thanksgiving observed by Jews worldwide in remembrance of God's protection and provision for the Israelites during their forty years in the desert. The holiday is referred to as "the season of our joy" because according to Deut. 16:11-15 and Lev. 23:39-43, those who observe Sukkot do so with rejoicing. The feast is marked by family get-togethers with food served in a sukkah, which is a temporary structure built in remembrance of shelters used by the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness.

Of all the biblical holidays the Jewish people faithfully observe, Tabernacles is unique. This is because it is the only festival that is also to be celebrated by people from all the nations who will go up to Jerusalem every year to keep the Feast (Zechariah 14:16).

The timing of Sukkot according to the biblical calendar coincides with the fall harvest season. After the Israelites entered the Land following their years in the desert, the festival also became a celebration of God’s provision through the harvest. The theme of thankfulness for provision continues to this day, which means that the observance of Tabernacles provides an ancient and continuous example of the regular giving of thanks.

The American holiday of Thanksgiving has its roots in the Jewish tradition of thankfulness to God for provision, specifically for the harvest. The practice of giving thanks in what was to become America was initiated by the Pilgrims, who adopted the custom directly from the festival of Sukkot. As serious Bible students, they likened their journey to the New World in search of religious freedom to the travels of the Israelites through the wilderness after leaving Egypt, and their arrival in a new land to the Israelites' entrance into the land of Canaan. Therefore, it was natural for them to make the Feast of Tabernacles an appropriate example for their celebration of thanksgiving.

The influence of Israel's story on America began with the Pilgrims but it didn't end there. Rather, it continued to play an important role in the thinking of America's founding fathers. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams (second president of the United States) said, "I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation."

One of the initial designs for the official Seal of the United States, which was submitted by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, depicted the Israelites crossing the Red Sea with Pharaoh in pursuit. The proposed motto for the newly formed country of America was to have been: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." As we know, another seal and motto were chosen instead. But the fact that such a scene was even considered demonstrates the significance of Israel's history in the minds of America's first leaders.

And then of course, there are such facts as the inscription from Leviticus 25:10 on the Liberty Bell, the prerequisite of Hebrew for early American scholars, and the discussion our founders had about making Hebrew the national language of the United States.

American Christian support for the millennia-old aspirations of the Jewish people to return to their ancient homeland also dates back to the colonial period, as demonstrated through the words of John Adams: "I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation for, as I believe, the most enlightened men of it have participated in the amelioration of the philosophy of the age." John Adams' son, John Quincy Adams, wrote to Major Mordecai Manuel Noah (the most important Jewish lay leader in New York in the early 19th century) that he believed in the "rebuilding of Judea as an independent nation."

And the list goes on and on throughout American history of president after president who recognized Israel's and America's shared values and demonstrated their belief in, and commitment to, Israel's right to exist.

So, during this Feast of Tabernacles - the biblical festival of thanksgiving intended for all nations - let us work to strengthen the vital relationship between Israel and America, deepen Jewish-Christian relations, and fortify American Christian support for Israel and the Jewish people.

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