Nechemiah’s description of the Sukkot celebration as something that “the Children of Israel had not done so since the days of Yehoshua bin Nun,” raises profound questions. As a Gemara asks: “Is it possible that [King] David came and yet [the Jews] did not perform Sukkot until the days of Ezra?” We can add to the Gemara’s example many more righteous rulers such as Shmuel, Shlomo, Josiah and Hezekiah who were lauded by the prophets for their punctilious observance and teaching of the Torah and under whose reign it would therefore seem inexplicable for the festival of Sukkot not to have been celebrated as mandated by the Torah.
Furthermore, other biblical sources indicate widespread and enthusiastic participation in Sukkot observance. When Yeravam ben Nevat’s Northern Kingdom seceded from Judah, he “innovated a holiday in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month,” in imitation of the holiday in Judah. The commentaries explain that the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot was so popular that Yeravam could not simply abolish it. Instead he had to fabricate a replacement festival a month later.
The importance of the Sukkot celebration in the Jewish calendar is also apparent from Shlomo’s consecration of the First Mikdash. With the construction work having been completed almost a year earlier, Shlomo waited until the Sukkot festival of the following year in order to dedicate the Mikdash “in the festival of the seventh month.” This delay enabled him to celebrate the dedication and the Sukkot festival in consecutive weeks with the amassed crowd of pilgrims.
The statement in Nechemiah, that the festival had not been observed since the days of Yehoshua, is addressed by Malbim, who highlights the fact that there is only one aspect of the celebration of Sukkot—dwelling in sukkot—which the text records as not having been performed since the days of Yehoshua:
[The people] made sukkot, each man on his roof, and in their courtyards, in the courtyards of the Temple of God, in the plaza of the Water Gate and in the plaza of the Gate of Ephraim. The entire congregation that returned from the captivity made sukkot and dwelt in sukkot. The children of Israel had not done so from the days of Joshua ben Nun until that day…
Noting the clear emphasis placed on the various public locations of the sukkot which the people built, Malbim draws upon halachic and Talmudic sources to propose a solution. Starting by citing the halachic ruling that it is forbidden to build a sukkah in the public domain, Malbim argues that this severely limited the practicality of widespread sukkah construction during the days of the First Mikdash. The festival of Sukkot, being one of the three pilgrimage festivals, would have required a significant proportion of those observing its laws to be away from their private property.
The inability of pilgrims and celebrants to build sukkot was exacerbated following the construction of the Beit Hamikdash by King Shlomo, which meant that the festival of Sukkot would have been observed primarily in Jerusalem. Malbim cites Tannaic sources which teach that the whole city of Jerusalem was not divided among the tribes and therefore remained public property. One result of this would have been that constructing sukkot within its walls was prohibited. Such a surprising phenomenon may have been considered acceptable in light of the Torah’s unusual presentation of the commandment to “every resident [ezrach]” to dwell in sukkot. This is understood by some commentators to mean that the mitzvah is primarily applicable to those in their own property and not to travellers.
When the Jews returned to Jerusalem at the start of the Second Commonwealth, Malbim continues, Ezra legislated a series of key religious and social enactments which included “permission to build sukkot in Jerusalem” [Tosefta, Baba Kama 6:13; see Magen Avraham, who uses this as basis for current halachah].
The first sukkot in the aftermath of this enactment revolutionized the national observance of Sukkot in Jerusalem, leading Nechemiah to list the key public areas which were now filled with private sukkot. It is in the immediate aftermath of this listing of public places—in reference to the new dimension to the celebration of the Sukkot festival—that we find the comment “The Children of Israel had not done so since the days of Yehoshua bin Nun.”
Adapted from Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah. Find out more at www.JudaismReclaimed.com.