We’ve just come completed the High Holiday period known as the Yamim Nora’im. We’ve spent countless hours praying, fasting and beseeching HaShem to bless us with a sweet, healthy and happy new year.
Now that it’s behind us, we are blessed with the most joyous of our holidays, Sukkot. Yet this festival (which the Torah and Talmud simply refer to as chag, and is the only festival for which we are specifically commanded to rejoice) requires us to leave the comforts our homes and sit in a temporary hut called a sukkah. In this article, we’ll explore this most unusual of mitzvot.
The Torah tells us that in the time following the Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish People spent 40 years wandering the desert. While doing so, God protected us with a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. We also spent this time living in hut-like dwellings called sukkot.
As a commemoration of these events, we celebrate the holiday by leaving our homes and living in a similar fashion for seven days. The Shulchan Aruch states that a kosher sukkah must consist of four walls, three walls or, at the very least, 2-1/2 walls. The walls must be a minimum of 10 tefachim high (approximately 32 inches), but no more than 20 amot tall (approximately 30-35 feet).
The covering of the sukkah, known as “schach” in Hebrew, must be entirely produced of non-man-made materials, which are not susceptible to tumah (ritual impurity). Due to the complexity of the laws of ritual purity, the most common materials used today are tree branches and bamboo shoots. The schach should not be too thick, so as to allow in more sunlight than shade. The sukkah must also be situated in a location that provides an unobstructed view of the sky. No trees, canopies nor any other barrier may be above the schach.
Unlike others areas of Halachah, the laws regarding sitting in a sukkah are somewhat subjective. If someone is uncomfortable in the sukkah – for example due to rain or an abundance of insects – he or she is no longer obligated to sit there and may go inside. It’s inconceivable to imagine not having to eat matzah on Pesach simply due to not liking it, or not fasting on Yom Kippur simply because one is hungry. The mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah is dependent on our comfort level, as it’s to be our “home away from home” for the duration of the holiday. However, we should make every effort to fulfil the Torah commandment to dwell in the sukkah for seven days (Vayikra 23:42), by eating all our meals there and residing in the sukkah just as we would within our own homes. Many have the custom to sleep in the sukkah as well.
The Talmud in Tractate Sukkah states that the Sukkah symbolizes the clouds of glory that accompanied us in the desert. The Zohar emphasizes the importance of dwelling in a sukkah during sukkot as it will serve as a conduit for HaShem’s protection. The 19th-century scholar Rabbi Yonatan Eibchitz wrote in the sefer Yaarot Dvash that “praiseworthy is he who sits in the sukkah and rejoices in the mitzvah, as he will be surrounded by a heavenly cloud.” This yom tov, make every effort to spend as much time as possible in a sukkah and rejoice in fulfilling this wonderful mitzvah.