Category: Appointed Times
Build a Kosher Sukkah
Tags: Feast of Tablernacles, sukkah, Sukkot
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 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)
On the holiday of Sukkot, the Bible gives us tangible and visual ways to worship God and to learn about Him. The Torah instructs us to live in a sukkah (plural, sukkot) for seven days.1
Jewish oral law defines specific and practical requirements for the building of a sukkah. The point of these traditional guidelines is not to make sukkah building difficult, but to provide instruction so that we may fulfill the commandment in the best way possible.
There are some Jewish laws about building the sukkah that are almost universally accepted, and there are other areas where Jewish authorities disagree. It is the function of local communities to determine which standards and traditions they will follow.
The commandments in the Torah surrounding the festival of Sukkot are seemingly straightforward, but some questions do arise when reading the text through our twenty-first-century filters: What exactly is a "booth" (or sukkah)? The Torah does not provide a definition; it assumes that we already know. Second, is there a proper way to construct a sukkah? The Torah does not give us a single detail. Third, what is meant by "all the native-born in Israel"? Are Jews and non-Jews who live outside the Land of Israel expected to carry out this instruction?
The sukkot that are built across the world today are small huts with plant material as roofing. Sukkot can take on many different styles and variations, but for our purposes in this article, we will refer to Judaism's traditional set of guidelines to give ideas about how to construct your own sukkah. In modern times, the word sukkah almost exclusively refers to this specific ritual structure used to celebrate the holiday.
Sukkot in the Bible
People in the Ancient Near East would have been familiar with the concept of a sukkah even before the Israelites celebrated the holiday because, long before the days of Moses:
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)
This verse indicates that a sukkah is different than a house. A sukkah may have been used as a shelter by farmers during the harvest seasons. At those busy times of year, it would not have been practical for someone far out in a field to return home every night or during the noonday siesta. Instead, they could have constructed a temporary shelter using nearby materials. The same could be done for a herd of animals in the intense summer sun.
This idea makes sense because the holiday of Sukkot is directly connected with the harvest.2 It is a time to thank God for providing for our needs.
In Leviticus 23, when the Israelites received the instructions about building sukkot, 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" were probably something different from the tents in which they later lived in the wilderness.
Remarkably, the first place the Israelites camped after the Exodus from Egypt was in their forefather Jacob's footsteps at Succoth.3 If the Israelites did not even have time to allow their 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 behind their homes in Egypt). Instead, they would have built makeshift huts from readily available materials.4
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 was understood as a specific type of shelter that reminded them of their deliverance from Mount Sinai and the bounty of their harvest.
Why Does a Sukkah Need to Be "Kosher"?
Some people are very interested in making sure that their sukkah meets the standards of Jewish law. Why is this? For one, these laws provide definitions to determine if a structure actually constitutes a sukkah.
The Bible does not define the term sukkah because it assumes the level of knowledge of its original recipients, who used sukkot as a part of their daily lives. But, as the world changed, the sukkah became a lost concept. The Jewish people bore the responsibility of preserving an accurate definition of a sukkah, so that the commandment could be carried out by subsequent generations. Jewish sages thus devised a set of defining characteristics to ensure that a baseline definition of the term wouldn't be lost. For the last 3500 years, Judaism has been honing that baseline definition, which exists today in the form of Jewish law.
Some kind of definition is absolutely necessary. Though not all sukkot are the same, at some point a line might be crossed at which a structure stops being a sukkah and starts becoming something else, such as a house. Once a structure falls out of the traditional definition of a "sukkah," the owner falls out of the requirements necessary to fulfill that commandment. It is extremely problematic if the term becomes defined on a person-to-person basis, since both language and Torah life must operate in the context of community.
Some of the traditional guidelines for sukkah construction are designed to ensure that important symbolic features of the sukkah are present, enhancing the festival experience. Other rules have been developed to make sure that the sukkah does not easily become invalid mid-week through Sukkot due to an unforeseen mishap. Some laws are designed to make sure that the sukkah can be used properly on the Sabbath.
The remainder of this article is a presentation of basic, traditional Jewish laws about building a sukkah. Some people may not find this information useful, since there is a wide spectrum of opinions among disciples of Yeshua as to the proper place of Jewish law in our observance. Yet it should at least be noted that although the Torah does not prohibit non-Jews or people outside the Land from building a sukkah, the practice of doing so is based on rabbinic law.
The Torah limits the scope of the commandment to "native-born in Israel." The term translated native-born is ezrach, which is consistently used to describe a Jewish person who lives in the Land of Israel. Thus, one who builds a sukkah elsewhere is already employing Jewish law in their observance.
If you like the idea of building a sukkah that meets the standards of Jewish law, but it seems daunting, you might consider buying a pre-fabricated sukkah kit. These often make it incredibly easy to build a sukkah to traditional specifications, sometimes even without tools. To find one, ask your local Jewish retailer or search online.
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 finished on the day after Yom Kippur; at the latest, it should be completed by midday before the night when Sukkot starts. This is done in order to move immediately from one mitzvah to the next.
Placement: A sukkah can be built just about anywhere outdoors, as long as it is directly below the open sky. This is because the purpose of a sukkah is to provide shade, which it can only do if it is in the sun. 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.
Size: At minimum, a sukkah should be 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 more than twenty cubits (about thirty feet) tall. The height is measured from the base of the sukkah and not 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 Hebrew letters of the word sukkah (×¡Ö¼Ö»×›Ö¼Ö¸×”) 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 (×¡). It is also permissible for the sukkah to be enclosed on three sides and open on the remaining side, like the letter kaf (×›). It is still kosher, however, if only two walls are complete and one is incomplete, like the letter hey (×”).
The walls can be made of anything solid enough to withstand a normal gust of wind. Sheets that flap in the breeze should 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.
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 are 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 number of technical rules for a proper sukkah roof.
The roofing material of a sukkah is called sechach. Sechach should consist of vegetation of some sort, such as branches, leaves, stalks or grasses. The plants used for sechach 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 be in their natural state, and not something that has already been made into a usable object, such as a broom handle or a spoon. Many authorities consider unfinished lumber natural enough, as long as it is in thin, narrow planks. Note the use of vegetative material in its natural state to construct sukkot in Nehemiah 8:14.
Be careful! Some plant materials, such as corn stalks, contain a lot 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!
Roofing material is not always easy to come by, so plan ahead; it's good to let 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.
The density of sechach is considered one of its most important features. A sukkah should have at least enough sechach to provide more shade than sun on a clear, sunny day, since its primary function is to provide shade. 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 less sechach by the end of the Sukkot week.
Ideally, the part of the wall where the sechach rests should be made out of a material that also qualifies as sechach. If a sukkah frame is made of plastic or metal, wood can be placed on top to support the sechach.
The sechach 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 sechach. These beams can be fastened down, since they are not actually a part of the roof.
Decorations: Since observing the commandments is considered to be an act of worship, we may want to enhance our sukkot in the most beautiful ways 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. Children's hand-made crafts such as paper chains and mobiles are often hung from the roof.
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.
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, ask permission first before taking branches from your neighbors or from 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 in your sukkah--it is a great way to encourage them to learn about life in Torah and Messiah.
Sources of Jewish Law
For further study, I have provided the following well-accepted sources and compendiums on the laws of building a sukkah:
- The Talmud: Tractate Sukkah (ca. 3rd to 5th century)
- Mishneh Torah (Maimonides), Hilchot Sukkah (12th century)
- Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, pp 621-644 (16th century)
- Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (a summary of the above), chapter 134 (19th century)
1. Leviticus 23:34, 42
2. Exodus 23:16, 34:22; Leviticus 23:39; Deuteronomy 16:13-15.
3. Exodus 12:37-39.
4. 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.
Adapted from Messiah Magazine #97. Â© 2012 First Fruits of Zion. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share this material with your friends for further personal study. However, this material may not be republished, in print, electronically, or any other form without our prior permission.
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