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 — 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 or with any questions.
1. You should have at least three walls attached to each other, with no openings at the corners. The walls should ideally be from wood or some other strong material that doesn’t move. If using a cloth pre-fab sukkah, the walls need to be secured in a way 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 (called schach, or “covering,” i.e. the “shade-providing” material) 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 2’s which you can purchase from Lowe’s or Home Depot. 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 covered area. 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. Bamboo mats are sometimes available at the above stores.
4. The roofing should not be tied down or resting on metal supports. We put 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 schach (if one does so, they should be relatively small and not hang too low). 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 “branch out” and build your first sukkah, which is 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” (which I’m sure your relatives will bring with them) in your sukkah, it’s a particularly joyous time for the whole family.
Best of luck building, and a joyous, meaningful holiday to you and all the readers.