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Home » Sukkot

Sukkot: The Holiday of Clouds

Submitted by on September 30, 2020 – 10:42 pmNo Comment | 1,179 views

The Sukkah, the outdoor hut in which we eat during the holiday of Sukkot, represents the canopy of clouds that surrounded our ancestors as they journeyed across the desert from Egypt to Israel.[1] Many have wondered why we celebrate Sukkot in the Fall if our ancestors embarked on their journey in the Spring?[2]

One of the answers is that G-d withdrew the canopy of clouds when our ancestors worshipped the Golden Calf and restored it when their sin was forgiven. The sin was forgiven on Yom Kippur, the tenth day of Tishrei.[3] On the eleventh of Tishrei, Moses informed the people that G-d wanted them to build a tabernacle. For two days they donated raw materials and on the fourteenth of Tishrei, the donations were sorted and counted. The next day, on the fifteenth of Tishrei, work began on the Tabernacle and the canopy of clouds was restored.[4] Thus, Sukkot is celebrated in the Fall on the fifteenth of Tishrei.

This explanation sheds light on a curious phrase in the Torah. In the book of Numbers, the Torah describes our festivals as, “the days of your rejoicing and your festivals.” Yet, in Leviticus Sukkot is described as G-d’s Festival.[5] Why is that?

The answer is that since G-d knows the future, He couldn’t rejoice on Passover at our Exodus from Egypt and on Shavuot, when we received the Torah. G-d knew well that our ancestors would turn against Him at the Red Sea. He also knew that they would rebel against him at Mount Sinai by worshipping the Golden Calf. Thus, it was only on Sukkot, once they had repented for their sins, that G-d could finally rejoice. Thus, Sukkot is called G-d’s festival.

The Cloud Canopy
This explanation, however, is not as simple as it sounds. How can we posit that the canopy of clouds was withdrawn when they worshipped the Golden Calf if the Torah itself testifies that it was not so.

In the book of Nehemiah, we read, “Although they had made themselves a molten calf, and said, ‘This is your god who brought you up from Egypt,’ and they committed great provocations. But You, with Your abundant mercies, did not forsake them in the desert; the pillar of cloud did not turn away from them by day to lead them on the way, neither did the pillar of fire at night to illuminate for them the way in which they should go.”

So, which is it, was the canopy of clouds withdrawn when they worshipped the molten calf or not?[6]

Two Sets
One way of answering this apparent contradiction is that the book of Nehemiah only referenced two of the seven clouds that surrounded our ancestors. Namely, the pillar cloud that showed them the way and the fire cloud that illuminated their nights. The clouds over their heads and under their feet, and the clouds that closed them in all four sides are not mentioned in Nehemiah.

It is quite possible that these two clouds remained with the Jews while the other clouds were withdrawn. Thus, Sukkot celebrates the clouds that were restored not the clouds that remained behind.[7]

Moses Did It
Another way to explain it is that the clouds were temporarily withdrawn, but as soon as Moses prayed for G-d to forgive the Jews, they were restored. Since Moses prayed before he even descended the mountain, the clouds were restored so soon after they had been withdrawn that their withdrawal was hardly noticeable. It was as if they had never been withdrawn, which is why Nehemiah declared that they had not been withdrawn.[8]

We might suggest that we, nevertheless, celebrate their restoration on Sukkot because they were restored in the merit of the people. Although the clouds had been in place all along, our ancestors must have been devastated to know that they had forfeited the clouds by their actions and that it had only been restored in Moses’ merit. This is especially poignant when you consider that Moses withdrew his tent from the camp and pitched it a considerable distance from the people. It was as if he was trying to put distance between himself and those who had sinned.

Thus, when they were informed that they had been forgiven and were now deserving of the clouds in their own merit, it was a cause for celebration.

In G-d’s Hands
Another way to explain it is that being within the Divine canopy of clouds was like resting in G-d’s arms. When you are carried along by G-d, you are protected. Although it was the clouds that technically protected them from the elements, laundered their clothing, flattened mountains on their path, illuminated their nights, and showed them their way, G-d was the true source of these provisions. Inasmuch as they were in G-d’s hands and nothing untoward happens to those under G-d’s protection, G-d appointed the clouds to protect them.

When they sinned, they were no longer worthy of the Divine embrace, and G-d withdrew. Technically, the clouds still provided protection, but in their hearts, the people knew the difference. They were being protected by the clouds, not as a natural result of G-d’s embrace.

On Sukkot, when they were readmitted into G-d’s embrace, they were thrilled and elated. It wasn’t so much that they were now better protected than before. It was that now the protection was an outcome of being readmitted into the Divine embrace.[9]

Essentially, the Sukkah—a Divine embrace. It is the only Mitzvah that offers a full-body embrace—like a Divine hug. The Talit wraps around most of your body, but not all. The Mikvah is a fully immersive experience, but it is temporary. You can sit in the Sukkah all day and enjoy the Divine embrace.

On Sukkot G-d resumed His embrace of our ancestors in the past and on Sukkot G-d reinforces His embrace of us today. Let us enjoy this embrace and a happy Sukkot to all.


[1] Talmud, Sukkos 11b. The Talmud records another opinion that it represents our ancestors’ tents in the desert.

[2] See Tur, Orach Chayim 625.

[3] The sin occurred on 17 Tamuz, 40 days after the Torah was given. 40 days later, on 1 Elul, Moses brought new tablets up the mountain for G-d to engrave. 40 days later, on 10 Tishrei, Moses descended with the new Tablets and told the Jews that they had been forgiven.

[4] Gra on Shir Hashirim 1:4 based on Targum Shir Hashirim 2:3 and 3:1.

[5] Numbers 10:10. Leviticus 23:39. See Toras Moshe (Alshich) ad loc.

[6] Sefas Emes (Likutim), Ki Tisa, 32:25. To support the Gra’s position, we can point to Rashi (Numbers 25:4) states that the clouds folded back over individual sinners. Presumably, if it would fold back on individual sinners, it would fold back from the nation, if they all sinned. On the other hand, we can point to Rashi (Numbers 14:14) which states explicitly that the clouds had not been withdrawn the entire time they were in the desert. See also Bamidbar Rabbah 20:19.

[7] Likutei Yehudah, Exodus 32:25; Tzitz Eliezer 15:64.

[8] Likutei Sefas Emes, Ki Tisa, 32:25.

[9] Beer Yisrael, Chulin, Perek Hashochet, p. 236.