By Alan Lucas
Excerpted from The Observant Life
It is not actually a mitzvah to build a sukkah, merely to “dwell” in one—which requirement, in the opinion of most authorities, is satisfied by eating there. Although one could theoretically eat solely in other people’s or a synagogue’s sukkah, the mitzvah should be pursued personally by all Jews with the space and opportunity to build one themselves. Today there are prefabricated sukkah kits that put this mitzvah within the reach of almost every one. Some synagogue communities even organize volunteers to help less able congregants put up their own sukkot. Apartment dwellers and others who cannot build their own sukkot, however, should not feel exempt from the mitzvah, nor should they imagine that they can fulfill the commandment by belonging to a community that builds a communal sukkah without actually frequenting it during the festival.
Because it is a mitzvah to use the sukkah but not technically to build one, there is no blessing recited upon the construction of a sukkah. However, there is a benediction recited as part of the pre-meal ritual when dining in a sukkah: barukh attah adonai, eloheinu, melekh ha-olam, asher kidd’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivvanu leisheiv ba-sukkah (“Praised are You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who, sanctifying us with divine commandments, has commanded us to dwell in the sukkah”). During the intermediary days of the festival, the blessing is recited whenever one takes a formal meal in the sukkah immediately after breaking bread, regardless of whether one is dining in one’s own sukkah, in someone else’s, or in a communal sukkah (MT Hilkhot Shofar V’sukkah V’lulav 6:12; cf. the gloss of the Rema to SA Orah Hayyim 643:3). On the actual festival days of Sukkot, however, the blessing is recited after Kiddush, but before the She-he˙eyyanu benediction. (There is also a widely observed custom to reverse the final two blessings, the blessing over the sukkah and the She-he˙eyyanu, on the second night of Sukkot.) One should formally sit down after reciting the blessing leisheiv ba-sukkah, even in communities in which it is customary to remain standing for Kiddush (SA Orah Hayyim 643:2).
A common misconception arises from an overly literal translation of leisheiv ba-sukkah as meaning “to sit in the sukkah.” A more accurate translation is “to dwell in the sukkah.” In fact one may say this blessing while standing in a sukkah if eating a meal while standing, and one should not say it while sitting in a sukkah if a meal is not being eaten. Eating in the sukkah is, according to the rabbis, how we fulfill the obligation of “dwelling.” A house becomes a home when we eat together in it, and similarly, eating together in a sukkah is when we fulfill the mitzvah of leisheiv ba-sukkah regardless of whether we are actually sitting or standing.
“Dwelling” in the sukkah was further understood to mean living there as much as possible during the week of Sukkot. As a result we are encouraged to also sleep in the sukkah. This was much more reasonable an expectation in Israel rather than in North America or Europe where many Jews currently find themselves. The weather in Israel at Sukkot time is very conducive to outdoor living, but this will not necessarily be so in the Diaspora. Sleeping in the sukkah has taken on an air of adventure in many parts of the world and as an adventure should be encouraged. The concept, however, needs to be balanced by issues of comfort and good judgment when the weather is less than accommodating.
Weather is a major consideration in the fulfillment of many aspects of our Sukkot observance. The observance of the mitzvot of Sukkot are supposed to bring us joy and it is not very joyful to sit in a sukkah with rain drenching us. The rabbis commented that we are supposed to dwell in the sukkah as we dwell in our homes—just as we would not remain in our homes if there was a leaky roof and we were getting wet, so we need not remain in our sukkah in inclement weather. There is some discussion as to whether the first two nights of the holiday have a higher degree of importance attached to them with respect to actually eating and saying Kiddush in the sukkah. As a result, all effort should be made to eat in the sukkah and say Kiddush and the Ha-motzi blessing there on the first two nights, even if it means delaying the start of dinner. Second best would be to find an opportunity to say Kiddush and the Ha-motzi and then finish the meal indoors. And, finally, if the weather really is unforgiving, we may rely on the exemption that certainly applies to all the rest of the nights of Sukkot, which releases us from dwelling in the sukkah in bad weather.
But when the weather is nice, we should spend time in our sukkot and enjoy their beauty, and we should use every opportunity to do so. Having coffee with friends? Do it in the sukkah. Reading or studying? Do it in the sukkah. Playing board games with the kids? Do it in the sukkah. Not only will you be truly fulfilling the mitzvah leisheiv ba-sukkah, but you will be creating wonderful memories of time well spent with family and quality time with God.