Why Do People Carry Branches at the Feast of Tabernacles?


People who do not study the Bible find many of its practices strange. They see those following biblical commands as out of step with today’s secular, social, and scientific world. In their minds, these Bible teachings seem counterproductive:


·         You shall not do any work on the seventh day of the week (Lev. 23:3)—even though there are all kinds of work to be done and bills to pay?

·         You shall empty your house of anything made with leaven on the 14th of the first biblical month (Ex. 12:18)—throw out perfectly good food and seven days later go to the store, spend hard earned money to replace it?

·         You shall not eat pork (Lev. 11:7)—when it tastes so good and the restaurants have piles of it for their breakfast specials?

·         You shall call for the elders and be anointed with oil when you are sick (James 5:14)—how can this help, when there is no penicillin in oil?

·         You should be willing to lose your life for the sake of Christ and the Gospel (Mark 8:35)—if there is a God, isn’t religion supposed to be a way of getting Him to help me?


To the ordinary person, these Bible commands are senseless, but the serious Bible student understands that valuable lessons are taught by biblical commands, and that they impart wisdom. If a person examines Leviticus 23:40, it can be seen that it is just another “you shall” command like all the others that are sprinkled throughout the pages of the Bible.


“And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days” (Lev 23:40, NKJV).


“And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days” (Lev 23:40, KJV).


Many translations vary somewhat on the first clause—is it the fruit of the trees or is it the branches that are to be taken? But nearly all translations say branches or boughs for the remaining three. It is clear that people are told to take branches from the trees and to rejoice for seven days. Critics of carrying branches at Tabernacles have in times past pointed to references such as the NIV Study Bible, which states in its notes on Nehemiah 8:15 that the lulav (Jewish word for the branches) was added at a later date. Some people also point to a few commentaries that state the branches of Leviticus 23:40 were simply the construction materials the Feast keepers were to use for their tabernacles (or booths). Although this line of reasoning seems plausible at first, it has serious flaws when compared to the points in favor of carrying branches in hand when at the Feast of Tabernacles.


1)   One of the most recognized authorities on the Temple is Alfred Edersheim, who addresses Nehemiah 8:15 in his book, The Temple, Its Ministry and Services. He says, “ As usual, we are met at the outset by a controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The law had it (Lev. 23:40): ‘Ye shall take you on the first day [writer’s emphasis throughout] the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of thick trees and willows of the brook,’ which the Sadducees understood (as do the modern Karaite Jews) to refer to the materials with which the booths were to be constructed, while the Pharisees applied it to what the worshippers were to carry in their hands. The latter interpretation is, in all likelihood, the correct one; it seems borne out by the account of the festival in the time of Nehemiah (Neh 8:15-18), when the booths were constructed of branches of other trees than those mentioned in Leviticus 23; and it was universally adopted in practice at the time of Christ” (p. 216). Leviticus 23:40 (NASB) Nehemiah 8:15 (NASB) (to carry in hand) (material to build booths) good-looking tree material, olive branches, palm branches, wild olive branches, boughs of leafy trees, myrtle branches, willows of the brook, palm branches, branches of leafy trees


2)   Adam Clark’s Commentary points out how the worshippers carried their lulavs into the Temple. The commentary’s explanation for John 7:2 is that “this feast was celebrated in the following manner. All the people cut down branches of palm trees, willows, and myrtles (and tied them together with gold and silver cords, or with ribbons), which they carried with them all day, took them into their synagogues, and kept them by them while at prayers. On the other days of the feast they carried them with them into the temple and walked round the alter with them in their hands, singing, ‘Hosanna!’ i.e., ‘Save, we beseech thee!’ – The trumpets sounding on all sides. To this feast St. John seems to refer, Rev. 7:9-10, where he represents the saints standing before the throne, with palm branches in their hands, singing, ‘Salvation to God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.’ ”


3)   Christ’s enemies were always watching His actions to accuse him of not following the rules set down by the religious leaders of that day. This can be seen by the account of Christ healing a man on the Sabbath day (Mark 3:5-6) and the account of His disciples eating without washing their hands (Mark 7:5).  According to historical accounts, the masses of people carried branches in hand during the Feast and it would seem that a person not carrying them would stick out like a person wearing a fur coat on a summer beach. If Christ had not been carrying a lulav, much would have been said to accuse Him of such, but the New Testament is silent on this point. Also, if the masses of people were in error by carrying lulavs, why did Christ not correct them on this false practice? If carrying branches was incorrect, abolishing the practice could have saved many hours of cleaning up leaves.


4)   Because historical writers like Josephus record the worshippers carrying lulavs in the Temple and also note that the Sadducees were against the practice, we can know that the Pharisees’ ideas dominated Temple worship practices at the time of Christ (Josephus, book 3 ch. 10-4). The Unger’s Bible Dictionary’s article Pharisee further confirms this. The Dead Sea Scrolls are another witness. Lawrence Schiffman wrote in the Bible Review (June 1992 page 30-31) that “new evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls” showed that Pharisaic views were indeed dominant in the Jerusalem Temple (text 4Q Miqsat Ma’aseh ha-Torah).


5)   I think that the key to understanding and solving this controversy are the words “on the first day” in Lev.  23:40. The people were ordered to live in the booths for seven full days and as we all know, the first half of the day when the dark hours occur. If the people had to wait until the first day to take branches for their booths from the trees, as Scripture indicates, chaos would be the result with thousands of people stumbling around in the dark, attempting to gather branches from the forest to construct thousands of booths before they all could get some sleep. Remember the instructions for the Feast of Tabernacles: “On the first day there shall be a holy convocation. You shall do no customary work on it” (Lev 23:35). The booths would have to be finished before the first day and in preparation for it. On the other hand, picking up a few branches and waving them in celebration does seem to be in keeping with God’s intent for the first day of the Feast Of Tabernacles. The people (in the time of Christ), understanding this clear command (Lev. 23:40), carried branches in hand and celebrated God’s Feast with passion and excitement, as plainly recorded in all the historical accounts.


6)   Paul was a Pharisee and would have certainly celebrated The Feast of Tabernacles with a lulav in accordance with Leviticus 23:40. Paul was still claiming to be a Pharisee (in his understanding of the law) long after his conversion (Acts 23: 6). With this in mind, I can see no reason why he would have discontinued the waving of branches at the Feast of Tabernacles. Paul claimed he followed Christ’s example and told the readers of his letters that they should follow his example (1Cor 11:1).


7)   The concept of using branches for rejoicing is found in the New Testament (Matt 21:8; Mark 11:8; John 12:13). People cut fresh branches and laid them down, along with their coats, on the road as Jesus entered Jerusalem. Palm branches are specifically mentioned, though it does not say that that they waved them, as was done in the Feast of Tabernacles. From a visual point of view, its seems that in both cases, they were simply using beautiful things at hand to make a pleasing sight in their rejoicing. For millennia, men have known how to make impressive presentations by using bright costumes, flags, and streamers in parades and performances. Rather than use the designs and symbols of men, God asks us to use His creation—“beautiful trees”—to rejoice and make a pleasing sight to Him. In summary, today, if we as Christians do not want to pick up branches at Tabernacles (for whatever reason), that is our choice, but we should not criticize the brethren who do carry and wave branches, because the weight of Scripture and history are strongly on their side.

What Kind of Trees Can We Wave?


And you shall take for yourselves on the first day:

1)   the fruit of beautiful trees,

2)   branches of palm trees,

3)   the boughs of leafy trees,

4)   and willows of the brook;

and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days (Lev 23:40).

Translations vary considerably as to what they say in these verses. Nearly all say “palm trees” for #2, some as specific as “date palm”. Most say “willow” for #4 (they grow near brooks, anyway). Even the Jewish Tanakh translation says the meaning of the original Hebrew is uncertain for #1 and #3. Translations have a great variety of words in this verse.


The Orthodox Jews and even Christian groups learning from them will say they know exactly what these four species are:


Etrog - Citron - Fruit of the goodly tree

Lulav - Date Palm branch

Hadas - Myrtle - twigs of a plaited tree

Arava - Willow


If people believe that this is the way that God wants them to rejoice at the Feast—or if it is the way that they want to rejoice at the Feast, then they should either grow these trees or buy them somewhere. Vendors such as Zaide Reuven’s Esrog Farm, 972-931-5596, www.esrogfarm.com, sell a complete set for $33 ($55 to $105 for sets corresponding to various rabbinic requirements). A much less expensive approach is to cut one’s own willows, order palm and myrtle branches from a florist (about $1 per branch) and buy lemons or other fruit from a food store.


Alternatively, one could ask: If God were concerned about the exact species, why did he not better preserve the meaning of the words? Also, one could ask: Did God expect people throughout history to use all these four species even though they were not available locally?  Is part of the lesson of the Feast of Tabernacles paying significant sums of money to import trees? Or is the lesson learning to rely on the protection (“sheltering” or “tabernacling”) that God provides for us? (Lev 23:41).  This writer encourages everyone to study and pray about this issue. He would encourage Feast-goers to plan to bring or cut some branches and to wave them.  It will be a highlight and a good memory for children!  - NSE