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There are multiple clear references to the Hebrews sleeping in tents during the Exodus. But what were they made of?

Keeping in mind that they did not have lots of time to prepare for the journey (though they knew leaving was possible for perhaps as long as a year), what materials would have been available to them?

Tent poles could have been made from bamboo or papyrus. But the tent itself is more problematic. Linen was available but not easy to come by. They had enough for clothing and other uses such as in the kitchen. It would take a monarch's wardrobe's worth of clothes to stitch together a tent able to hold a small family.

A fancy tent (of the kind we might imagine the Israelites' tents looked like) takes 58 yards (53 meters) of fabric (58-60 inches (147-152 cm) wide) and an awful lot of other materials to hold it together and stand it up. This does not include a floor. You could probably fit 8-12 people here (depending on how many are children).

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A lower tent with slanted sides, designed only for sitting up in, not for standing, would take less fabric. This one sleeps 2-4 but I could see getting 6-8 in there, if that includes small children and no storage space.

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Even if you assume they're all crammed in there pretty tight and they are slanting the roof and there's no room to stand, it's still a lot of fabric for each family. Perhaps there wasn't a roof at all? If the sukkah comes from these tents, the roof would be reeds or something pretty light. Or nothing.

  • Linen is the most likely (light and easy to carry and work with) but very difficult to get in those quantities. They did carry bolts of fabric but they were for the mishkan and not enough for everyone to sleep in.

  • Wool was readily available (they had flocks of sheep) but it's a huge amount of work to turn into fabric. Even felt (which requires no weaving) has to be sheered, cleaned/washed, and stretched, then cut and sewn up. It's moderately heavy. They would not have wool or felt stockpiled and there's no mention of this task in the Torah.

  • Animal skins also work for tents but they require a lot of preparation and are quite heavy.

Nomadic peoples (like Abraham, Issac, and Jacob) would have fully realized tents, and the pack animals to carry them. But the Hebrews fleeing Egyptian slavery (where they lived in mudbrick huts)? Would they have full tents in the first few months after they left? Where would they have gotten the materials? And how could they have carried them?

Whether the concept of "tent" is metaphorical or practical, what does that look like and what materials did they use?

  • 1. I'm not sure ohel means "tent" as much as "temporary dwelling", though i would think that a tent would be the most practical such dwelling for someone on the move. 2. I don't think when the Israelites borrowed materials from the Egyptians they had the Mishkan in mind, seeing as it was commanded later. Rather, it seems likely that they at least planned for a 3 day journey with their families and livestock into the desert - which means they likely would have planned to bring some form of portable, temporary shelter/materials... – Loewian Sep 2 at 2:13
  • ...3. Other than those materials, they should have had little need for additional storage, seeing as their garments did not wear out and food was rationed daily by G-d. – Loewian Sep 2 at 2:13
  • @Loewian No, they didn't need storage, aside for a very few basic belongings and all the stuff they brought for the mishkan. But even making enough room for a sleeping mat in a shelter is a huge big deal with that many people. What "portable temporary shelter" could they have all had? They'd never have had any use for one before, so it couldn't have been just sitting there waiting. – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 2 at 2:16
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    Thanks @RenatoGrun. I did see that one. It implies a structure that stands alone then has fabric hanging from the top (so it can be rolled up). Though it's also for nomads, who would invest in good tents over the years. – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 2 at 3:38
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    Interesting question, though it has several unsourced assumptions like "[the linen they had was] for the mishkan and not enough for everyone to sleep in". You should provide evidence for your claim that they didn't have enough linen for tents. If anything, the "multiple clear references to the Hebrews sleeping in tents during the Exodus" you refer to constitute evidence to the contrary. (Incidentally, that "multiple clear references" is another unsupported claim.) – msh210 Sep 2 at 11:50
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"…Near Mt. Sinai was a forest of Acacia trees. When they arrived there (Sinai) and were told that they would reside there for some time – and there was no (protective) cloud as I have already explained – each person constructed a hut … and they cut down the entire forest…." (Ibn Ezra . Peirush HaAroch Shemot 25:5)

http://www.alexisrael.org/booths-or-clouds-of-glory

  • Thanks. That's an awful lot of huts! That's a helpful reference, though I am specifically looking for what they used in the beginning of the journey. The author of the drosh you link to seems to reject the idea that they built huts at all (at most it was tent frames). – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 4 at 14:59
  • The Acacia was apparently chosen because of their sturdiness, fire resistance, but also because they replenish themselves pretty quickly - an entire forest can be replanted and regrown in 5 years. As for the tents - what I'm reading (still can't find anything from Hebrew sources is, simply black-haired goatskins. This would also fit in with the acacia as being the frame - the skins - the walls. It is also said that Abraham had a similar tent. Need more sources to verify and if so, there is your answer. It can't be too dissimilar as its the most suitable for desert conditions till today. – JSarai Sep 4 at 15:42
  • So are you saying they didn't use any tents until after they arrived at Mt Sinai? Plus a few days to make them. That's not unreasonable since the journey to Sinai wasn't very long. I hadn't considered this but it would work in my story to have them just take the fabric and deal with the frame later. – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 4 at 16:12
  • Bnei Yisrael definitely did not leave empty-handed. So this is a possibility. Fabric in the searing heat and winds would not hold up as well as would the goatskins, nor would they be waterproof in case of rains - which the skins are. – JSarai Sep 4 at 16:36
  • I'm including skins/leather/animal hair/wool as "fabric." There is basically no rain in Egypt or Sinai, so that's not a concern. But wind blowing sand around is. Though if part of the miracle was their clothes and shoes didn't wear out, it seems reasonable that might have extended to tent fabric... – Cyn says make Monica whole Sep 4 at 16:59

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