By Dr. Anne Davis
Sukkot is also called The Festival of Lights. Before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, four enormous pillars were erected in the Court of the Women during this joyous time. Their bases were said to be fifty feet high. On top of the pillars were set candelabras which contained holders for burning oil. The illumination from these fires was said to light up the entire city of Jerusalem.
These four giant pillars of light burned during the first six nights of the festival. The ceremony was accompanied by singing the 15 Songs of Ascent (psalms 120-134) as well as by much fraternizing and exuberant rejoicing. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher and the leader of the Sanhedrin, was said to have juggled eight burning torches simultaneously as part of the festivities.
The question lingers. “Why was a fire festival part of the Sukkot Temple celebration?” Certainly fire is a recurring biblical theme. God appears in fire (in the burning bush and in the pillar of fire in the Sinai wilderness). God accepts sacrifices by fire (Elijah’s sacrifice on Mount Carmel). Although fire can be a destroying force, God also uses it for purification and baptism (Mal 3:2-3; Mat 3:11). Fire delivers (Is 43:2). Fire protects (Zech 2:5). And finally, God will ultimately use fire to destroy all the forces of evil (Rev 20:9-10).
Chag Sameach for this year’s Festival of Lights.
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Dr. Anne Davis is a professor of Biblical Studies who enjoys working with graduate students to enhance their exegetical skills for exploring the depth of Scripture.