The Sukkah

A temporary dwelling

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, Oxford University Press. © Louis Jacobs, 1995.

A sukkah is a booth in which Jews are commanded to dwell during the festival of Tabernacles [Sukkot], as stated in the book of Leviticus (23:42‑5): "You shall live in booths [sukkot] seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God."

According to the talmudic rabbis, a sukkah has to have at least three walls (though the third need not be a complete wall) and a covering. It has to be at least 4 square cubits in size, but this does not necessarily mean that it has to have a square or oblong shape A circular sukkah, for instance, is valid provided it covers an area of at least 4 square cubits (a cubit is approximately 18 inches). The covering must be of things that grow from the soil (e.g. straw or leaves of trees), but it must be detached from the soil, so that it is not valid to use the leaves of a tree still growing from the soil as a sukkah covering. The covering has to have more shade than light; that is, there must be more covered than uncovered space. The covering can be quite thick, although it is customary to make the covering sufficiently sparse for the stars to be seen through it. The sukkah has to be outdoors. A sukkah under a roof is not a valid sukkah, nor is it valid to have a sukkah underneath, say, the overhang of a balcony.

All full meals should be eaten in the sukkah, that is, meals at which bread is partaken of, although some pious Jews do not eat or drink anything outside the sukkah. In Talmudic times people slept in the sukkah, treating it as their abode for the duration of the festival. In Western lands the majority of Jews do not sleep in the sukkah (some of the more pious still do, however). The rationale for this is that where to stay in the sukkah is uncomfortable, the obligation is set aside and in colder climates it is certainly uncomfortable in autumn to sleep outside in the sukkah. For the same reason there is no obligation to eat in the sukkah when it is raining and the rain comes through the covering.

One example of a sukkah.

According to the authorities, it is undesirable for a man to stay in the sukkah even when the rain comes in, on the grounds that to persist in carrying out a religious precept when the law does not demand it suggests an attitude of religious superiority, of trying to be more pious than the Torah demands. Nevertheless, it is the custom of the majority of Hasidim to stay in the sukkah even when it is raining. The Hasidic rationale is that the reason there is no obligation to stay in the sukkah when it rains is because of discomfort and a true Hasid will never find discomfort in staying in the sukkah, no matter how severe the weather. Nowadays, many sukkahs are built with a roof on pulleys so that, after the meal, the roof can be lowered so as to prevent rain coming into the sukkah during the times it is not used. When the time comes to use the sukkah the roof is raised and the sukkah is once again open to the sky. The raising and lowering of the roof does not constitute forbidden 'work' and can) therefore, be done on the Sabbath and the festival days, Synagogues often have an adjacent sukkah to which the congregation repairs for Kiddush after the service.

On the principle of adorning the precepts (i.e. carrying out the precepts of the Torah in as beautiful and elegant a manner as possible), it is the practice to decorate the sukkah and to hang fruit and fragrant plants from the covering. These must be left in place until the festival has come to an end.

Interpretations of the Sukkah

Modern biblical scholarship sees Tabernacles originally as a harvest festival, the booths being erected as temporary dwellings for the farmers at harvest times. Following the general tendency to connect the ancient seasonal festivals with events in the history of Israel, the reason for the sukkah as stated in Leviticus is to remind Jews of the booths in which the children of Israel dwelt during their journey through the wilderness.

The usual understanding of these "booths" is that they are the tents in which the Israelites dwelt. Rabbi Akiba, however, translates the word sukkot not as "booths," but as "coverings," the reference being, according to him, to the "clouds of glory," which accompanied the Israelites in order to provide them with divine protection from all hostile forces. The sukkah is called a "temporal dwelling," as distinct from the "permanent dwelling" in which people normally live. On the basis of this the idea has been read into the sukkah of a symbolic surrender of too-close an attachment to material things. The Jew leaves his house to stay in the sukkah where he enjoys divine protection. Judaism does not frown on material possessions, if these are honestly acquired, but, by leaving his home to stay in the sukkah, the Jew declares that it is the spiritual side of human existence that brings true joy into life.

Tabernacles is the festival of religious joy. In the Kabbalah, to dwell in the sukkah is to be under the "shadow of faith." A Hasidic master has said that the sukkah is unique in that while the other precepts are carried out by only one part of the body, in the sukkah the whole body enters into the precept, so to speak.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.