Judaism's 'Left Behind' Holiday

Most Jews don't realize that Sukkot, the harvest-time festival, is actually Judaism's yearly encounter with the End of Days.

The suburban, liberal Judaism that's common in the U.S. generally tries to take the hard edges off the ancestral religion. The more philosophically or emotionally challenging a particular Jewish observance might in reality be, the more likely it is to be downplayed or turned into a children's activity. So the holiday of Sukkot, the Jewish harvest-time festival that also commemorates the temporary shelters the Israelites dwelled in during 40 years in the desert, is typically reduced to one afternoon each year in which the Hebrew school kids get together to decorate a wood-framed booth with bananas, corncobs and zucchinis.

Little do most Jews know that this innocuous celebration of supermarket produce is, in the classical liturgy and literature, actually a rather edgy encounter with the apocalyptic strain in Judaism.

You didn't know there was one? When modern American Jews try to explain what makes them uneasy about Evangelical support for Israel, they often cite the Christian belief in the Apocalypse, when an evil superpower is expected to launch a world war, whose survivors then undergo religious conversions. But in broad outline, this happens to be just what Jews have traditionally believed about the End of Days.


The rabbis of the Talmud understood Sukkot as playing an educational role not unlike the one the Left Behind series of novels does for Christians today, depicting in graphic terms the sequence of events that must eventually unfold at the end of history, including details affirmed by both traditional Jews and conservative Christians.

As the Talmud explains in its clarification of the words of the biblical prophets, the apocalyptic sequence will begin with the appearance of the Messiah--or rather, two messiahs. One, a descendant of the biblical patriarch Joseph, will be killed in battle with the forces that oppose God. The second and far more important messiah, descending from King David, is then revealed. About this time, the nations of the world will begin to worship the God of Israel, seeking to join the community of Israel as Jews. (See Talmudic tractates Sukkah 52a and Avodah Zarah 24a). There follows the resurrection of the dead and a judgment of all mankind, when the righteous and the wicked will be assigned to their eternal fates.

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