The Jewish prayerbook opens up the daily public morning prayer service with a line from Balaam’s lofty poetry that describes and praises the Israelite people camping east of the Jordan River with: “How goodly are your tents , O Y’aakov, your dwelling places O Israel’’ (Numbers 24:5). What Balaam saw in front of him were Israelite tents, not booths, for this is where they dwelled.
Rashi refers to Balaam’s observation by pointing out that the entrance to each tent did not face another entrance for the sake of modesty and privacy and that was what Balaam lauded in this iconic verse. The Sages would later resemble poetically the Israelite tents to the Torah study halls, rather than to the elusive sukkah (or hut) in the Torah.
To be sure, the big picture here is that the Israelites during their 40-year-long journey from Egypt to the Promised Land dwelled in tents rather than in huts. Indeed, people traversing the desert as nomads (or even semi-nomads, like Abraham – ‘’while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent’’, Gen. 18:1; or Isaac – ‘’… and there he pitched his tent’’, Gen. 26:25; or Jacob who was ‘’abiding in tents’’, Gen. 25:27) could fold at relative ease their tents before journeying on and pitch it again wherever they camped.
Yet the festival of Sukkot commemorates the dwelling in huts which logistically would be heavy and unwieldly, a kind of dwelling whose construction materials and carrying them for some two million Israelites plus the numerous multitudes who joined them would be incompatible with a long track through a vast desert.
Indeed, the Torah is strewn with multiple references to the tent-dwelling Israelites, rather than to sukkot (huts). The following examples are good indicators of the ubiquitous tent: Soon after the Israelite Exodus from Egypt they were informed of their staple sustenance, the manna, that would supersede the by-now exhausted little amount of flour that they brought with them upon leaving Egypt. Hence every person was entitled to gather daily ‘’an omer apiece according to the number of persons each of you has in his tent” (Exodus 16:16).
Moses too lived in a tent; And ‘’whenever Moses went out to the tent, that all the people would arise and stand, each at the entrance of his tent, and gaze after Moses until he entered the tent’’ (Ex. 33:8).
Eating the manna daily became pretty soon boring resulting in a public protest as Moses ‘’heard the people weeping throughout their families, each man at the doorway of his tent’’ (Numbers 11:10).
And when the Korah mutiny was underway, Moses warned the Israelites who were swayed by Korah and his ring leaders: “Depart now from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing that belongs to them, or you will be swept away in all their sin”… Dathan and Abiram went out erect at the entrance of their tents… (Numbers 16:26-27).
Notably, the image of the Sanctuary that God commanded the Israelites to make, so God could ”dwell’ among them, was revealed visually to Moses in the form of a tent, the Tent of Meeting, and not a hut, let alone a wooden or stone edifice.
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Where, then, do we get the idea that the Israelites dwelled in huts enroute to the Promised Land? Is it not for this reason that it is incumbent on the house of Israel to celebrate ‘’a festival for the Eternal, a seven-day period in the year, an eternal decree for your generations…you shall dwell in booths for a seven-day period; every native in Israel shall dwell in booths. So that your generations will know that I made the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them from the land of Egypt’’ (Leviticus 23:41-43)?
Even preeminent Torah commentators – Rabbi Akiva, Rashi, Onkelos and Ramban (Nachmanides) — do not see huts in this sole Torah reference to ‘’Sukkot’’ as living quarters in the desert. Rather, the ”Sukkot” were ‘’the miraculous clouds of glory that protected the nation during those years’’ (The Stone Chumash). And likely also the Egyptian city of Sukkot — Israel’s first stop in their exodus from Egypt. Commentators, Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, posit, however, that the verse in Leviticus does mean huts.
Nonetheless, no further references are found in the Torah to Israelites living in huts during their journey from Egypt to the land of Israel. Only the historically late (post First Temple) Book of Nehemiah refers to this one passage in the Torah that mentions ”sukkot” which Ezra read to the people. And it inspired them to make ‘’themselves booths, every one up on the roof of his house, and in their courts [in Jerusalem, so]… all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity [late 500s B.C.E] made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so’’ (Nehemiah 8:16-17). In a nutshell, the shocked people had never heard before of the practice of setting up a sukkah for celebrating Sukkot.
Significantly, when the Maccabees liberated occupied and defiled Jerusalem Temple from the Syrian-Greeks on Kislev 25th 164 BCE ‘’they celebrated the [Temple renewal] Festival to the Lord for eight days, like the festival of Sukkot, and they remembered the previous days when they celebrated of the festival of Sukkot in the mountains and in the caves, and they went out in the wilderness, like animals of the field. And they took the willows of the brook and the branches of palm trees, and sang a song of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, who gave them courage and salvation to purify the temple of His holiness’’ (2nd Book of Maccabees 10:9-10). Notably, we do not read here of any sukkot building, even as two of the Four Species are mentioned as a part of the first Sukkot celebration once the Temple was liberated by the Maccabees.
Contemporary Torah commentator Robert Alter (basing his remarks on Jacob Milgrom’s insights, yet in seeming to contrast to the quote above from Nehemiah) posits that huts began their association with the Biblical pilgrimage festival of Sukkot at the central sanctuary after the conquest of the Promised Land by Joshua. Since the various towns where such a center was located (i.e., Gilgal, Shiloh, Nov and Givon prior to King Solomon’s establishing Jerusalem as the ultimate center) could not provide adequate lodging for most pilgrims, the celebrants had to make do with constructing hovels for their accommodation during the seven-day holiday; hence, the late genesis of introducing huts as a foremost symbol of ‘’the festival of the ingathering at the close of the year, when you gather in your work from the field’’ (Exodus 23:16).
Given the scriptural evidence cited above it seems reasonable to infer that associating the Israelites’ dwelling in booths during their long journey through the Sinai desert was rather a late development that was projected retrospectively on the days of Sinai. For ‘’ had the goal of the law been reliving the difficult living conditions of the wilderness period, it would have commanded that the Israelites live in tents for seven days’’ (Prof. Rabbi David Frenkel).