Advice for Sukkah Use and Sukkah Building in the Time of COVID-19

Rabbi Joshua Heller[1]

Please note that this is not an official responsum of the CJLS.

O.H. 630:1

Sukkah is one of the most beautiful and meaningful mitzvot in our tradition. Under normal circumstances, we are encouraged to eat and sleep in the sukkah, and in particular invite guests. However, it is unlikely that the COVID pandemic will be behind us by Sukkot 5781. We offer the following advice for how to maximize fulfillment of this Mitzvah while minimizing potential risk. It is widely assumed that outdoor activities are safer than indoors. However, there is also the risk that being “outdoors” in a sukkah will lead to a false sense of security. In fact, a sukkah is meant to be an enclosed space (albeit temporarily) and as such may not have better airflow than a well-ventilated indoor space. Furthermore, one of the primary uses of a sukkah is eating, which means that mask use would not be practical. Therefore, competent medical experts familiar with local conditions must be consulted to determine what uses are safe for a given sukkah structure.

1. We have always encouraged Jews to build and enjoy their own sukkot. This year in particular, if possible, it is preferable for a household to have use of its own sukkah rather than rely on a shared or community sukkah, but there may be a wide range of circumstances where this may be impractical.

2.  Sukkah construction may require several people working together. Care should be taken to reduce the possibility of transmitting the disease among those engaged in construction.

3. There is a general principle that we do not risk life to fulfill any positive mitzvah. As such, the obligation to use a sukkah does not apply if doing so would lead to a danger of illness. In addition, there is an even more specific and lenient  precedent with sukkah, in Shulhan Arukh OH 640:4 , where one who is merely distressed is exempt from sukkah. Furthermore the Rema adds that a person who uses a sukkah where there is a concern for one’s physical wellbeing (in that case, due to criminal activity) has not fulfilled the mitzvah by doing so, even if they wish to.  

4. One who is ill is exempt from the sukkah, so anyone experiencing possible COVID symptoms or awaiting clearance following an exposure may be considered exempt from sukkah, and certainly should not enter a sukkah that will be used by others.

5. While ideally, one would also sleep and partake in the majority of one’s activities in the sukkah, the most minimal observance of the mitzvah of sukkah is to eat an olive’s worth of bread in it the first night of the holiday.[2]  At other times it would be  considered obligatory to eat in the sukkah if one were eating bread, or other grain products, but not if one were consuming other foods.  So, under normal circumstances, if a sukkah is not available, the practice would be to only engage in achilat arai, food that is not considered a meal.   However, under the current circumstances, if there is any concern about the availability of a safe sukkah experience, one is actually exempt from the mitzvah, and may eat one’s meals indoors.

6. Some communities will seek ways for people to have safe access to a sukkah, either by having a sukkah available to the community, or having individuals offer access to their own sukkot.  Clearly it is not safe to have members of multiple households share a sukkah at the densities that we might experience in other years.  Competent medical advice should be consulted as to whether a particular sukkah is large enough to accommodate multiple families at the same time.  A reservation system should be used to ensure that this density is not exceeded, and those who are showing symptoms or have been exposed should not attend. Care should also be taken that those who might be waiting to use the sukkah do not congregate and are able to maintain distance from each other.

7. Some communities may be advised that a sukkah may be used safely by different households one after the other.   Even if multiple households are not in the sukkah at the same time, it is  preferable to have an opportunity for air to clear, and to sanitize high-touch surfaces between households occupying the same space

8  There are some individuals and communities who have developed the practice of  beginning a meal in the sukkah with bread (and kiddush if it is Yom Tov/Shabbat) so that one may recite the blessings, and then leaving the sukkah to continue the meal elsewhere. Some object to this practice under normal circumstances[3] but in the current time it could be helpful in ensuring that there is sufficient time for more members of a community to have the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah safely.

9. We offer the following advice to increase airflow in a sukkah, whether one intended for a household that allows others to “borrow” its sukkah, or for communal use.   This is not an attempt at a systematic review of all of the laws of sukkah construction, so the assumption is that one is familiar with the general principles. Using any or all of these techniques does not make it safe to fill the sukkah to regular capacity, but may reduce the risk level of less dense uses or decrease the time between uses.  

The measurements for a Sukkah are based on a “tefach”- a handbreadth. Estimates of the dimensions  of a tefach range between 3 and 4 inches.  In the measurements below, we use the most conservative calculations.

A.     The Sukkah walls may be made of any material[4]. The sukkah walls must reach down to within 3 tefachim of the ground (9 inches by the most strict measure)

B.     The sukkah walls must reach at least 10 tefachim off the ground (40 inches by the most strict measure)

C.     The walls must be sturdy enough to withstand a common wind (which is an issue with some fabric walls under the best of circumstances.

D.     There is a principle called “Levud” which means that gaps of less than 3 tefachim may be considered to be filled.

E     If there is the appearance of a doorframe, and 16 inches of kosher wall on either side, a gap of up to 10 amot (15 feet) would be permitted in a wall.

F.     The sukkah must have at least three walls.  Two must be “full”  (though they may be interrupted by doorways, so long as those doorways are not at the corner) The third may be partial, and need not be wider than 4 inches, but only certain configurations of such a short wall are permitted:

Acceptable vs. unacceptable

10. Based on these principles, those building a sukkah that is to be used by multiple households should consider the following techniques to create walls which are technically kosher but would allow for significantly increased airflow.

A.     Use a fencing material  (for example poultry netting or hardware mesh [5]) at least 4 feet in height, which reaches close to the ground. Mesh which provides more privacy may still reduce airflow.

B.     Have horizontal strings tied at intervals of less than nine inches surrounding the sukkah horizontally (leaving room for doors)  starting with a height below 9 inches, and continuing to a minimum height of 40 inches.  You will need a minimum of 5 such strings).  Caution: It may be difficult to keep the strings from sagging or falling over the course of the holiday.

3.     Have the walls (or sections thereof)  be made of vertical boards, or strings that are connected tightly  to the outside roof beam and the floor, with a horizontal space of less than 9 inches between then

4.      Use wooden latticework at least 40 inches tall.

It is possible to combine these techniques and materials with more traditional walls (for example, a sukkah where one wall is the wall of a building and the remainder follow this approach.

In all cases, the s’khach should be placed after the walls are in place.


It is always encouraged to have a sukkah for one’s household, and that practice is particularly encouraged this year.  One is exempt from using the sukkah if one is ill or distressed, and in fact one is forbidden from being in a sukkah, and does not fulfill the mitzvah by doing so, if conditions in the sukkah are unsafe or being in a sukkah would make it unsafe for others.  There are ways to construct a sukkah that may improve airflow, but even with these precautions, the number of different households present in a sukkah at the same time, or even one after the other, will be less than in ordinary times, and should be determined in consultation with medical experts based on the configuration of the sukkah and local circumstances.




[1] With thanks to Dr. Lisa Koonin, DrPH, MN, MPH, a Public Health professional with over 30+ years of experience at the CDC in health emergency response, for reviewing and offering guidance on these recommendations.

[2] Shulhan Arukh OH 639:3

[3] Sha’ar Hatziyun 639:29

[4] Shulhan Arukh OH 630:1, and see the rest of the siman

[5] Thank you to Dr. Mitchell Garber for this suggestion, and other helpful guidance.