Building a Sukkah: Laws and Customs

By Alan Lucas
Excerpted from The Observant Life

The sukkah has some very basic requirements, but beyond these rules its construction is left to one’s imagination and creativity. It must be built under the open sky, rather than under a tree or in a larger room. It usually consists of four walls that may be made of any material (SA Orah Hayyim 630:1), but it will also suffice if there are at least two complete walls and part of a third. The sukkah should be made sturdy enough to survive normal weather conditions in whatever climate the sukkah is built (SA Orah Hayyim 630:10).

At best, sukkot are fragile things. In many diaspora communities, it is not uncommon to experience severe autumn weather during the holiday. Some readers may remember when Hurricane Gloria made her way up the east coast of North America just before Sukkot in 1985. In the community I served at the time, everyone came to synagogue unhappy and depressed that first morning because the wind had decimated the sukkot in our costal community. They were greeted by their rabbi, who happily informed them that any sukkah still standing after a hurricane was probably not too kosher a sukkah in the first place! (The second chapter of M Sukkot teaches that a sukkah that falls may be rebuilt on the intermediate days of the festival in order to fulfill the biblical requirement at Deuteronomy 16:13 that for “seven days you shall observe the festival of Sukkot.”)

One of the oldest rules concerning the sukkah is that it may not be more than thirty feet tall (M Sukkot 1:1), nor should it be less than about three feet high. However, it should be at least big enough to fit one person inside, although most of our sukkot are significantly larger than that (MT Hilkhot Shofar V’sukkah V’lulav 4:1). It cannot be shaped like a teepee or a lean-to because it is considered indispensable that the sukkah have a roof.

In fact, most of the requirements for a sukkah revolve around the roof and its materials.

The S’khakh

The s’khakh, or roof covering, must be material that grew from the ground but which is not still attached to the ground. (Among other reasons, this is why a sukkah may not be built under a tree.) Additionally, the material used for s’khakh must not be deemed susceptible to contamination with ritual impurity. Materials like metal or cloth can become ritually impure and therefore cannot be used as a roof covering. Hides cannot be used because they do not grow from the ground. Vines or leafy trees cannot be used because they are still attached to the ground. It should also be pointed out that, although grass and leaves meet all the technical requirements for kosher s’khakh, they should not be used because they dry out so quickly and become unattractive. The most commonly used materials for s’khakh today are some mixture of pine or other evergreen coniferous tree branches and/or bamboo poles or bamboo mats. If the s’khakh becomes dried out over the holidays, it is important to replenish it so that it is dense enough and remains attractive.

The density of the covering is also an important consideration. The general rule is that it should not be so dense that one cannot see the sky during the day or the stars at night, but neither should it be so loosely layered over the frame that the amount of light that shines through to the ground exceeds the amount of shadow cast by the s’khakh. Additionally, there should be no gaps in the s’khakh longer or wider than a single foot (Klein, p. 161; SA Orah Hayyim 631:1). Obviously, this calls for a lot of subjective judgment as to whether there is too much s’khakh or too little, but people generally tend to put too little s’khakh atop their sukkot rather than too much. Therefore, one should be especially careful in making sure the s’khakh is dense enough. It is also customary to decorate sukkot with posters, drawings, and colorful paper, and also with fruit and vegetable hangings. Many synagogues today even have “sukkah hops” during which the participants visit various sukkot in the community and admire their creativity and beauty. While not technically required, all this extra adornment falls under the general category of hiddur mitzvah, the rabbinic injunction not merely to perform the mitzvot correctly, but in as aesthetically pleasing a way as possible.