One of the most significant holidays on the Jewish calendar—Sukkot—commemorates the Clouds of Glory, which protected the Jewish people as they sojourned in the desert. But what exactly do we know about these supernatural clouds?

The Clouds’ Function

The clouds that surrounded the camp fulfilled a four-fold purpose:

  1. to protect the people from the searing desert sun;1
  2. to keep their clothing fresh and free of wrinkles;2
  3. to lead the way through the desert;3 and
  4. to assure a safe and comfortable journey by flattening mountains and raising up valleys, and killing serpents and scorpions in their path.4

In Whose Merit

When Aaron passed away on the 1st of Av5 in the year 2487, the Clouds of Glory departed. From here our sages infer that for the almost 40 years that the Jews were accompanied by the clouds, it was in his merit.6 They then returned in the merit of Moses.7

How Many Clouds Were There?

Sifri8 offers a few opinions on this matter:

  • There were seven clouds in total: one on each side, one above, one below and another guiding cloud in the front.
  • According to Rabbi Yehuda, there were 13 clouds: two on each side, two above, two below and another guiding cloud in the front.
  • According to Rabbi Yoshiya, there were four clouds.
  • According to Rebbi, there were only two clouds.

Two Types of Clouds

Based on careful analysis of the text, the Lubavitcher Rebbe inferred that the People of Israel were surrounded by two types of clouds in the desert: (1) functional clouds, which protected and guided the people; and (2) clouds that served merely as a badge of prestige and respect (and also laundered their clothing, which was not a necessity but rather a sign of honor). The “Clouds of Glory” referred to this second type of cloud.

The regular clouds never left the Jewish people even after Aaron’s death, for their function was still needed. It was the Clouds of Glory that didn’t return after Aaron’s passing.9

(The Rebbe’s explanation sheds light on a fascinating question posed by the commentaries:10 if the holiday of Sukkot commemorates the Clouds of Glory, and we follow the accepted tradition that there were seven clouds, then why aren’t we required to build a six-sided sukkah [6 walls + 1 covering = 7], instead of a minimum of two and a half walls?11

However, once we understand that some of the clouds weren’t Clouds of Glory, but rather clouds of function, we can understand that we don’t need to commemorate all the clouds; we just celebrate the idea of some of the clouds being Clouds of Glory.)

Note that some, however, understand that all clouds were Clouds of Glory.

Other Amazing Tidbits About the Clouds

  • The cloud that led the way in front is called the Pillar of Cloud in the Torah because it looked like a long pillar from the ground to the heavens.12 This was the cloud that blocked the arrows the Egyptians shot at the Jews at the Red Sea.13 (At night they were accompanied by a Pillar of Fire.)
  • The clouds gave personal attention to every individual based on his or her specific needs.14
  • The clouds created such illumination that one could see through a barrel.15

The Tabernacle Cloud

There was also a special cloud that appeared above the Tabernacle—the same cloud that had been atop Mount Sinai at the Giving of the Torah.16 Here are a few interesting details about this cloud, referred to as the Cloud of the Shechinah:17

  • When the Jews were meant to travel, the cloud would roll up into a thin pillar. When they were meant to rest, the cloud would blossom out like a palm tree at the place they were intended to camp.18
  • According to one opinion, when the cloud would depart, it was a sign that G‑d was “leaving” them, and they had to return to the right path through repentance.19
  • A voice would come out from within the cloud, telling the Jews which direction to travel.20
  • On a mystical level, this cloud is now “atop the home of the wise and pious,” surrounding them with glory and honor.21

Today, we commemorate the miracle of the clouds by sitting in a sukkah during the holiday of Sukkot. The sukkah reminds us of G‑d’s loving, protective embrace during our 40-year journey to the Promised Land.