This week we've been discussing a signal event in the history of the Jewish people: The religious revival led by Ezra as described in the eighth chapter of Nehemiah.
After Ezra publicly read from the "book of the law of Moses" we're told that the people "found written in the law... that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month."
What happened next? We join the story already in progress:
16 So the people went forth, and brought [olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees] and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim.
17 And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness
How should the concientious and believing Jew understand these verses? There are at least three approaches:
1 - The verse means what it says
This is not troubling as it may seem. We have no religious obligation to believe that sukkot was observed in all its details during the First Temple Period. It isn't one of the ikkarim, and it isn't attached to any halachic observance. One might, to paraphrase the Ramban's view on aggadot in general choose to believe that sukkot was forgotten "without suffering any spiritual harm."
Indeed, the evidence from the Book of Kings seems overwhelming that the majority of the people were idol worshippers, who likely had as much use for Sukkot as they did for the God who decreed it. Even the religiously outstanding people were mostly members of prophetic circles, who, we might deduce, were not quite as fanatical about the written word as we are. Why would they pay attention to text, with all its flaws and difficulties, when they had immediate access to an endless fountain of revelation? Its possible, therefore, even the majority of this elite lost or neglected some, or even all, of the requirements of the holiday.
The view that significant halachic material was forgotten has support, incidentally, from the tradition. The Talmud records the view that First Temple Jews forgot the hoshana ritual, until it was revived via prophesy. We're also told that at least one tanna believed that because of "Israel's sins" even the original script used to write the first Torah was lost.
What else did sinful Israel forget? The passage in Nehemiah seems to be telling us.
2 - The verse means what it says but is speaking idiomatically or employing hyperbole or it reflects the author's own misapprehension
Elsewhere Chardal argues that "from the days of X" is an idiom, and not intended literally. According to this reading, th verse means only that people really had, like, a fabulous time celebrating sukkot with Ezra, and nothing about earlier generations is intended on implied. Alternatively, the passage might reflect a mistake on the part of the author. Perhaps he sincerely thought that the Jews had forgotten sukkot during First Temple times (and given what it says in Kings, can you really blame him?) In any event, this reading (ie mistake, idiom or exaggeration) preserves the possibility that sukkot was observed correctly by the majority of the people during First Temple times.
3 - The verse does not mean what it says
By my lights, this is the most difficult approach, because those who take it have created a new problem for themselves. If, as the Talmud explains, the verse really means that the Jews abandoned idol worship and this spiritual step forward "protected them like a sukka" we must ask: Why didn't Nehemiah say so? Why is this national accomplishment being concealed? Why aren't we told about the divine blessing? In short: Why doesn't the verse just say what it means?
I anticipate Ed, and others will be quick to point out that this is often the case, with ayin tachat ayin being the most famous example. And he's right. It is true that midrash halacha often departs from the plain meaning of a verse, and provides alternative interpretations that are reflected in practice. However, unlike ayin tachat ayin the passage in Nehemia isn't halachic and the explanation given by the Talmud isn't an example of midrash halacha. (A discussion of midrash halacha and why the legal tradition and the text often seem to disagree will have to wait for another day.) This is a different category of interpretation, and the verse under a discussion is found not in the Pentateuch, but in Ketuvim; therefore it also belongs to a different category.