Building a Kosher Sukkah from the ground up. A complete guide and handy tips for the holiday.
Hebrew: איך בונים סוכה
Our ancestors wandered in the Sinai before they were allowed to enter the land of Canaan (Israel). They were instructed: “For a seven-day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your G‑d.” (Leviticus 23:42–43).
Since then we celebrate these events by dwelling in a sukkah for the duration of the festival. In the diaspora, Sukkot is celebrated for 8 days but in Israel, it is celebrated for 7 (corresponding to the 15th – 21st/22nd of the Hebrew month of Tishrei).
What is a Sukkah?
A sukkah is basically an outdoor hut – a suitable dwelling for the duration of the festival. Vegetation, known as ‘schach‘ forms the roof and covers the sukkah.
What makes a Sukkah Kosher?
There are guidelines, regulations and requirements that must be followed in order for a sukkah to be deemed “kosher” or fit for use which also include construction and location.
Assembling a Sukkah
It is a mitzvah to start building your sukkah after the Yom Kippur fast has ended. You can purchase a prefabricated sukkah in a variety of sizes. Make sure that the sukkah comes with proper rabbinical certification that deems it kosher. Get your children involved and build your own sukkah from scratch with various household bits and pieces and some extras from your local hardware store.
Build an environmentally friendly sukkah with bamboo or wooden columns for the frame, fabric sheeting instead of plastic for the sides and decorate with fruit and recycled paper ornaments.
Location, location, location!
On your balcony, in your garden, on the rooftop or on the sidewalk but wherever you choose, your sukkah must be constructed outdoors, ideally in a spot that’s conveniently accessible to your residence. The requirement is that there should be nothing between your sukkah and the open sky – which means no trees, canopies or roofs of any sort hanging over your sukkah.
What do I need to build a sukkah?
The walls can be made of any material, provided that they are sturdy enough to withstand a normal wind. You can use wood or fiberglass panels, waterproof fabrics or old sheets and blankets. You can also use pre-existing exterior walls for the sukkah as long as it is roofless or has a removable roof than can be covered with proper schach.
Schach – The sukkah needs to be covered with schach. Common kosher sukkah roof-coverings include bamboo poles, evergreen branches, palm branches, reeds, stalks, narrow strips of unfinished lumber or special schach mats. Mats made of bamboo, straw or other vegetable matter can be used only if they were made for the express purpose of serving as a roof covering. Your beach mats won’t do! The schach must have been removed from its source of growth. This means a trellis with a creeping plant, or overhanging branches still attached to a tree, cannot be used. You may use only vegetable matter that has not been previously used for another purpose. Additionally, it must never have acquired the status of a utensil nor have been capable of becoming ritually impure. Therefore an old crate or a wooden palette would not be suitable. You may also need some plain, unfinished wooden beams to construct a framework on which to lay the schach.
Sukkah Shopping List
- Unless you prefer to sit in the dark and candles can be dangerous, you will need to set up a lighting system. Make sure you have a safe source of electricity and that your electrical cord and light-bulbs are safe if it rains (and it probably will). This year some suppliers are selling a sukkah kit with a string of LED lights.
- Remember all your meals are supposed to be eaten in the sukkah for the duration of the festival. You’ll need easily transportable chairs and tables. Plastic garden furniture is ideal.
- Get the kids involved to decorate the sukkah walls with their colorful drawings and other paper craft projects. Hang fresh fruit (apples and oranges work well) or other decorations from the beams. Recycle wherever possible.
- Try avoid using disposable crockery and cutlery – let’s protect our planet
Sukkah Dimensions & Other Requirements
In order for the sukkah to be kosher, here are a few more considerations
A sukkah must have at least two full walls plus part of a third wall (the “part” needs to be a minimum of 3.2 inches wide). It is preferable, however, that the sukkah have four complete walls.
The walls must be at least 32 inches high, and the entire structure may not be taller than 30 feet. In length and breadth, a sukkah cannot be smaller than 22.4 inches by 22.4 inches. The length or breadth of a sukkah is not restricted.
There must be sufficient schach to provide enough shade so that there is more shade than sun seen on the sukkah floor. The schach must be spread out evenly over the roof of the sukkah so there are no gaps larger than 9.6 inches.
Anything that directly supports the schach should not be made out of materials that are not fit to be used as schach. This means if the schach is resting directly on the sukkah walls, and the walls are not made out of wood, strips of wood should be placed between the sukkah walls and the schach. In larger sukkahs, where a framework of beams is needed to hold up the schach, wood or bamboo poles should be used, not metal. The schach may not be tied on with wire or fastened with any metal object.
A new sukkah must be built every year. This requirement, however, applies only to the schach, since it is the schach that makes the sukkah a sukkah. Therefore you can leave the walls standing all year, and place and complete the roof covering before the chag. If the sukkah and the schach have been up all year, you must remove and replace the existing schach. This will then make your sukkah “new” as required.
The walls of a sukkah must be erected first and only then the schach put in place.
It is best that a sukkah have four solid walls (aside from the doorways and windows). However, under certain conditions, incomplete walls will qualify, as follows:
- If there is a gap between the bottom of the walls and the ground, the bottom of the walls must be less than 9.6 inches from the ground.
- If the walls are at least 32 inches high, the roof may be higher (up to the maximum height of 30 feet off the ground), as long as the walls are beneath the roof.
- There may be gaps of empty space in the walls, as long as these are less than 9.6 inches wide. (Thus, a fence made of upright or horizontal slats can be used, as long as the spaces between the slats are less than 9.6 inches.)
The schach should be placed on the sukkah by a Jewish person—one who is obligated to sit in the sukkah.
The Sukkot Mitzvah
It is a mitzvah to invite guests to share your sukkah – or “Ushpizin“. Ushpizin is an Aramaic word that means “guests.”
Blessing for Dwelling in a Sukkah
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam
Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe
asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu
Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us
leisheiv basukah (Amein).
to dwell in the sukkah (Amen)