Sukkot: Uncovering the ancient pilgrimage to the Temple Mount

Pilgrimages to the Temple Mount were a central aspect of Sukkot in biblical times. Discoveries along the pilgrimage road in Jerusalem’s City of David shed light on this oft-forgotten custom

 IN AN excavated stall on the road to the Temple, a recreation of goods available to pilgrims. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
IN AN excavated stall on the road to the Temple, a recreation of goods available to pilgrims.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The holiday of Sukkot is known for many things. Whether it be eating meals in the sukkah or shaking the lulav and etrog every day, the symbols of this week-long holiday have lasted throughout antiquity and continue to be relevant and iconic in the modern age.

But there is another aspect of Sukkot that was essential to the holiday’s identity and function in ancient times – an aspect that has often been forgotten in the modern era. And that is Sukkot’s function as one of the pilgrimage holidays. 

But what did this pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem entail? While much of it is already described in the Bible and rabbinic literature, we now have a much better idea, thanks to excavations at the City of David revealing an ancient pilgrimage road.

Walking the Jerusalem pilgrimage road

The details surrounding this archaeological find are still developing. In fact, much of it still isn’t available to the public. 

The Second Temple-era road connects what is now the Temple Mount to the Shiloah Pool. The pool was first discovered in excavations conducted between 2004 and 2007, which uncovered a small portion of a once-enormous purification pool, filled with water derived from the Gihon Spring.

 THE CITY OF David, where the ancient Jewish pilgrimage road was discovered. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) THE CITY OF David, where the ancient Jewish pilgrimage road was discovered. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Two thousand years ago, tens if not hundreds of thousands of Jewish pilgrims from across ancient Israel would flock to Jerusalem on Sukkot and immerse themselves in the Shiloah Pool to ritually purify themselves. Afterward, they would walk out of the pool – exiting from a different place to make sure they didn’t walk back to where the impure pilgrims were still waiting their turn for a dip – and head to the Temple via the pilgrimage road. There, they would pray and offer sacrifices, as the Levites and Kohanim in the Temple bustled about, carrying out the necessary rituals and sacrifices for the holiday.

Today, much of the road is still being excavated, with modern machinery dangling from the tunnel ceiling to sift dirt and debris out of the way. While the ceiling may be new, the floor is far from it. All of the stone tiling along t he ground is thousands of years old. Every step on this road was once walked by the distant ancestors of the Jewish people on their great pilgrimages. 

And there is more than just tiling on this road. 

In ancient times, the Sukkot pilgrimage was an incredibly busy time. The sides of the roads would be crowded with stores and vendors, selling everything from food, spices and livestock. 

Some evidence of this has been found in the excavations, and the diligent archaeologists at the City of David have been busy parsing through all the ancient debris to find the shops. In fact, some of these stores have already been rebuilt for future tourists to see.

But the good times of this golden age of Israelite pilgrimages to the Temple Mount wouldn’t last. Both Temples would meet tragic fates – first by the hands the Babylonians who destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE, and later by the Romans who destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE. With the destruction of the temples, the Sukkot pilgrimages came to an end. 

There is evidence of this too, with excavations uncovering ashes that date back to the destruction of the Temples.

The City of David: A game-changer in biblical archaeology

The City of David is one of Jerusalem’s premier tourist destinations, with archaeologists drastically improving what we know about biblical-era Jerusalem and the Land of Israel.

For thousands of years, we have had to rely on halachic and biblical writings and historic accounts to get a sense of what life was like in ancient Jerusalem. However, many have cast doubt on some details and questioned the veracity of various claims.

That has all changed in the past few decades, thanks to the hard work done by archaeologists excavating the City of David, who have added volumes to the historic literature.

The City of David has provided a wealth of evidence to validate biblical claims. Most significantly, archaeologists have found ancient seals belonging to specific biblical figures. However, the discovery of the ashes, as well as the preserved Shiloah Pool, and the pilgrimage road itself, are especially significant for the Sukkot holiday.

Jewish biblical pilgrimages to Jerusalem: Why Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, stands out

Sukkot is not the only Jewish holiday associated with ritualistic pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. Known in Hebrew as the shalosh regalim, these three holidays – Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot – are often grouped together, particularly in siddurim, where they have almost identical holiday prayer services, barring a few small differences. 

These similarities belie the important ritual all Jews would undertake in biblical times: A pilgrimage to Jerusalem, specifically to the First and/or Second Temple on the Temple Mount.

But pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem are especially significant for Sukkot.

Like many holidays in Judaism, Sukkot goes by many names. These include z’man simchatenu, the time of celebration; and chag ha’asif, the harvest festival. But another name is often forgotten by many Jews – the Festival (or Feast) of Tabernacles. 

This is a term that is usually associated with Christianity or Messianic Judaism. As such, for many Jews, it has a very negative connotation. But the phrase also has Jewish meaning; even Chabad uses it. 

One notable place where it appears is in the Book of Zachariah, one of the 12 minor prophets in the Bible. Here, the text prophesizes a fate in the future where all the nations of the world will eventually go on a pilgrimage to the Temple Mount, specifically on Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, with a horrible fate awaiting those who do not.

“And it will come to pass that everyone left of the nations who came up against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to prostrate himself to the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles. And it shall be that whoever of all the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to prostrate himself to the King, the Lord of Hosts – upon them there shall be no rain. 

“And if the family of Egypt does not go up and does not come, it shall not [rain] upon them. The plague [on Egypt] will be [the same as] that with which the Lord will plague the nations who do not go up to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles. Such will be the punishment of Egypt and the punishment of all the nations who do not go up to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles” (Zachariah 14:16-19).

The meaning in the text is a matter of interpretation, and many have been offered. But it is clear that out of all the pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot is one in which making the pilgrimage to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is of extra spiritual significance. It is one that Israelites held in such high esteem that it formed the basis of a prophecy.

With the excavation of the pilgrimage road, and as more work is done to make it accessible to the public, greater awareness will focus on how the Sukkot pilgrimages were done in ancient times, and how the ancient Israelites of the Land of Israel ascended the Temple Mount multiple times a year for these rituals. 

Whether these pilgrimages will be reinstated is another matter entirely. But these discoveries are an important link that helps tie the Jewish people of today to their ancient past, taken away 2,000 years ago. It is discoveries like this that will keep the knowledge of the past alive for future generations.