A Kosher Sukkah

The holiday of Sukkot is not only lots of fun, but it is also deeply meaningful and spiritually enriching. It is a perfect time to get kids involved in keeping the commandments and to teach them important things about the Kingdom of God. On the holiday of Sukkot, the Bible gives us tangible and visual ways to worship God and learn about Him.

The Torah instructs us to live in a sukkah (sukkot is the plural form of sukkah) for seven days:

Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, “On the fifteenth of this seventh month is the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) for seven days to the LORD.”

“You shall live in booths (sukkot) for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths (sukkot), so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths (sukkot) when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 23:34,42)

What is a Sukkah?

These commandments are straightforward, but they raise a question: what exactly is meant by a “booth” (or sukkah)? The Torah does not explain how to build one. In fact, it seems to assume that the Israelites already knew what a sukkah was.

The summer sun was a formidable adversary in the Ancient Near East. During the heat of the day, one would need to find a source of shade. When away from home, a person might build a makeshift shelter out of readily available materials such as branches.

Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth [sukkah] for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. (Jonah 4:5)

A sukkah is a type of structure that can be differentiated from a house:

Jacob journeyed to Succoth (Sukkot), and built for himself a house and made booths (sukkot) for his livestock; therefore the place is named Succoth (Sukkot). (Genesis 33:17)

Soldiers camping in open fields would need a source of shade as well, so they might build sukkot:

And they went out at noon, while Ben-hadad was drinking himself drunk in the booths [sukkot], he and the thirty-two kings who helped him. (1 Kings 20:16)

But perhaps the most common sukkot bulders were farm workers during the harvest seasons.

At those busy and hot times of year, it would not have been practical for someone far out in a field or vineyard to return home every night or during the noonday siesta. Instead, they would construct a temporary shelter from nearby materials.

Similar huts are constructed even today in places like the rice paddies of southeast Asia.

And the daughter of Zion is left like a booth [sukkah] in a vineyard, like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. (Isaiah 1:8)

During the harvest season, these makeshift pavilions must have been a common sight. Sukkot thus became iconic, symbolizing the bountiful harvest. It is fitting that a harvest symbol would be employed on the holiday of Sukkot. This holiday was also known as the “Feast of Ingathering”:

You shall keep the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. (Exodus 23:16)

But Leviticus 23 states that the Israelites are to build sukkot “so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths (sukkot) when I brought them out from the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42). When the Israelites received this commandment, they were still in the wilderness, probably living in tents. The sukkot that the Israelites lived in when the LORD “brought them out of Egypt” is something different from the tents that they were living in later in the wilderness.

This makes logical sense. If the Israelites did not have time to allow bread dough to rise, it seems unlikely that they would have had time to skin animals or weave textiles in order to construct proper tents (having left their homes behind in Egypt). Instead, they would have had to build makeshift huts from readily available materials.The sages in the Talmud (b. Sukkah 11b) disagree as to whether the original sukkot were literal huts or clouds of glory. Modern interpreters generally accept both opinions as true.

In the days of the Apostles, people used sukkot in their everyday life as well as to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. For example, in the Mishnah the sages discuss whether a person can use a sukkah that they had earlier in the year for the holiday or if they have to build a new one. (m.Sukkah 1:1).

We can see that to the ancient Israelites, the term sukkah was not just a general term for a temporary or movable dwelling. Nor was it a brand new concept that had only religious significance. It would have been understood as a specific type of shelter that reminded them of their deliverance from Egypt and the bounty of the harvest.

Is Your Sukkah Kosher?

The sukkot that Jewish people across the world use today to observe the holiday are small huts with plant material as a roof. Sukkot can take on many different styles and variations, but there is a set of traditional guidelines that are used to determine whether or not a sukkah is properly constructed.

Some people are very interested in making sure that their sukkah is kosher, which means that it meets the standards of Jewish law. One function of these laws is to provide a definition that will determine whether or not a structure actually constitutes a sukkah at all. Though variation is allowed, at some point a line might be crossed at which it stops being a sukkah and becomes something else, such as a house. If what one lives in during those days is not a sukkah, then he has not fulfilled the commandment. Since most people no longer have non-ritual reasons to use sukkot, it is especially important for us to have a proper definition of the term in our day so that we remember what it is.

Some of the guidelines for a kosher sukkah are designed to ensure that important symbolic features of the sukkah are present, enhancing the holiday experience. Other rules have been developed to make sure that the sukkah does not easily lose its kosher status in the middle of the festival due to a mishap. Some laws are designed to make sure the sukkah can be used properly on the Sabbath. All in all, the point of these laws is not to make sukkah building difficult, but to fulfill the commandment in the best way possible.

With that said, there are some laws about building the sukkah that are almost universally accepted, and there are some areas where authorities disagree. It is the function of communities to determine which standards and traditions they will follow.

Building a Kosher Sukkah

It is traditional in many communities to start building the sukkah as soon as Yom Kippur is over. In many opinions, it is best if is finished on the day after Yom Kippur; at the latest, it should be completed by midday before the night when Sukkot starts.

Placement. A sukkah can be built just about anywhere outdoors, as long as it is directly below the open sky. Make sure that it is not beneath a canopy, an overhang, a balcony or a tree. It is common for sukkot to be built in backyards, driveways, patios, decks, balconies and even rooftops. Not as common, but equally kosher places to build a sukkah are on the deck of a boat, on the bed of a truck or on the back of an animal. However, be careful not to build your sukkah in a place that would require you to violate the Sabbath in order to enter it!

Size. At minimum, a sukkah should be about large enough to fit one seated adult with a small table. Specifically, it should be at least ten handbreadths (about three feet) tall, covering a square at least seven handbreadths (about two feet) on each side. There is no maximum width and length, but the sukkah should not be any more than twenty cubits (about thirty feet) tall. The height is measured from the base of the sukkah rather than the ground, so a six-foot-tall sukkah built on a high balcony is still considered six feet tall.

Walls. Some people use the forms of the letters of the word sukkah (סֻּכָּה) in Hebrew to illustrate how the walls may be constructed. It is ideal for the sukkah to be enclosed on all four sides, like the letter samech (ס). It is also permissible for the sukkah to be enclosed on three sides and open on the remaining side, like the letter kaf (כ). It is still kosher, however, if only two walls are complete and one is incomplete, like the letter he (ה).

The walls can be made of anything solid enough to withstand a normal gust of wind. Sheets that flap in the breeze should not be used, but if necessary they can be pulled tight so that they don’t wave. People often use sticks, boards, lattice or paneling. Metal can be used in the walls, but the roofing material should rest directly on plant material such as wood.

The walls don’t have to reach all the way to the bottom or the top of the sukkah, but the gap at the bottom should be no more than nine inches to a foot tall. There can be a larger gap at the top, but the wall should reach up to at least ten handbreadths (about three feet).

These parameters make sense if you consider that a wall’s purpose is to serve as a partition. Imagine what a medium-sized dog would do if he wanted to get from one side to the other. If he would probably crawl under or jump over or go through rather than walking around, it really isn’t serving as a wall, is it?

Existing walls can also be used for some or all of the walls of the sukkah. Some people construct a sukkah adjacent to their house, so that one or more of the walls are already accounted for.

On a practical note, there are generally two main ways that walls tend to be constructed. Some people construct a frame (wood and PVC tubing are common materials) and then attach the walls to the frame. Others take a more modular approach by building framed panels and then attaching them to one another.

Roof. The roof is often considered the main ingredient that makes a sukkah what it is. As such, there are a few technical rules as to the proper roof of a sukkah.

The roofing material of a sukkah is called schach, which pronounced… on second thought, let’s just call it “roofing material.” Anyway, the roofing material should consist of vegetation of some sort, such as branches, leaves, stalks or grasses. Many authorities also allow unfinished lumber, as long as it is in thin, narrow planks. The plants used for roofing material must be detached from their source. This means that one should not simply bend a live tree over the top of the sukkah as a roof. They also should not be something that has already been made into a usable object, such as a broom handle or a spoon.

Be careful: some plant materials, such as corn stalks, contain lots of bugs. While this does not affect the kosher status of your sukkah, it might affect the kosher status of your food if the bugs fall inside!

Proper roofing material is not always easy to come by, so it’s good to plan ahead by letting the trees and bushes in your yard get a little overgrown so that you can save the trimmings for Sukkot. Some people use pre-fabricated bamboo mats that can be rolled up and stored away every year. Lumber stores also often have lath, which should work just fine.

The density of the roofing material is considered one of its most important features. A sukkah should have at least enough roofing material to provide more shade than sun on a clear, sunny day. On the other hand, it should be sparse enough to allow a few bright stars to be seen from inside at night. Remember that if you use fresh leafy plants, the leaves may shrivel or fall, leaving you with a less dense roof than at first.

Ideally, the part of the wall where the roofing material rests should be made out of a material that also qualifies as roofing material. If a sukkah frame is made of plastic or metal, wood can be placed on top to support the roof.

The roofing material should not be fastened down, but heavy pieces of wood can be used to weigh it down. On a large sukkah, it is a good idea to include supporting beams for the roofing material. These beams can be fastened down, since they are not actually a part of the roof.

Decorations. Judaism considers it an act of worship to observe commandments in the most beautiful way possible. For this reason, it is common to deck the sukkah with festive and beautiful decorations. People often hang pictures on the walls, especially pictures that relate to the holiday. Fruit and other harvest produce such as gourds and corn are common decorations. Kids make paper chains and other crafts. Tables and chairs are important, and fun tablecloths make it interesting. It is a good idea to have lights, too. Party and holiday lights, tiki torches or outdoor lamps can serve this purpose. Since a sukkah is by definition not a house, it does not need to have a mezuzah.

Orthodox Judaism considers watering plants (even accidentally) a violation of the Sabbath. For this reason, some sources recommend putting flooring down if a sukkah is constructed on grass, in case of spilled drinks.

Pre-fabricated kits. If the prospect of building a sukkah seems daunting, you might consider buying a pre-fabricated sukkah kit. These often make it incredibly easy to build a kosher sukkah, sometimes even without tools. To find one, ask your local Jewish retailer or search online.

Stolen Materials. Jewish law considers a sukkah built from stolen materials to be invalid. If you stake out public property to build your sukkah, it may be considered stolen land unless you are specifically allowed to do so. Also, get permission first before taking branches from your neighbors or public parks.

Building a sukkah is a fun and creative activity that involves the whole family. It is a beautiful way to worship God, and to love him with all that we have. It reminds us both of our redemption and God’s constant provision. Invite your neighbors to join you—it is a great way to encourage them to learn about life in Torah and Messiah.

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