We are not observant, but have observant relatives who have a conference in Dallas and are staying with us over the next week. They have asked us to erect a sukkah to sit in on the holiday. We have a general idea of what a sukkah is, but not the specifics, and would appreciate if you could fill us in and tell us why it is that we do this. Thanks!
Martin and Jeanette W.
Dear Martin and Jeanette,
The Torah states, “And you shall dwell in sukkahs for seven days; every resident of Israel shall dwell in sukkahs, in order that your generations should know that I brought them out of Egypt…” (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:42). One opinion in the Talmud is that this is to remember the actual booths the Jews lived in when leaving Egypt. The other view is that we sit in this temporary dwelling to remember the miraculous Clouds of Glory which protected us from the sun and the elements over our 40-year sojourn in the desert.
The details of building a kosher sukkah are many, and an entire tractate of Talmud is dedicated to it, but we’ll mention a few key points. Please feel free to contact me for more details at the e-mail address below.
1. You should have at least three walls attached to each other, with no openings at the corners. The walls should ideally be of wood or some other strong material that doesn’t move. If using a cloth prefab sukkah, the walls need to be secured in a way that they don’t move with a breeze.
2. A wall of your house could be considered one of the walls if you attach the sukkah to your home. This is as long as there’s no overhang of six feet extending from that part of your house.
3. The roof should be of natural, cut branches and leaves; bamboo is a favorite and easily found. You could also use cut wood, such as 1-by-2s which you can purchase from any lumber yard. The main rule of thumb is to have more covered than open area in the roofing. Also, the roofing needs to reach all the way to the walls, with no open areas between the walls and branches. Some use wooden or bamboo mats specially constructed for sukkah use, which you could inquire about from a local Jewish bookstore or online if you so desire.
4. The roofing (called schach, or “covering”) should not be tied down, or resting on metal supports. We put wood supports across the walls, upon which rests the covering.
5. The sukkah needs to be under the open sky, i.e. not under any trees, roofs, etc.
6. It is customary to decorate the sukkah with colorful pictures with Jewish themes. Many also hang decorations from the roof. This is a great opportunity to get the kids involved in coloring the pictures and decorations and hanging them — they get to see their masterpieces displayed prominently!
Again, many specific questions could arise; you can consult a rabbi when they do.
This is a wonderful opportunity for your family to build your first sukkah, which is such a beautiful and joyous mitzvah. Sukkot, of all holidays, is referred to as “our time of joy” (Siddur, see also Vayikra/Leviticus 23:40). Especially when you will shake the “Four Species” in your sukkah (which I’m sure your relatives will bring with them), it’s a specially joyous time for the whole family.
Best of luck building, and a joyous, meaningful holiday to you and all the readers.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.