A sukkah (Heb. סֻכָּה) is a booth erected for the festival of Sukkot, in accordance with the biblical commandment “Ye shall dwell in booths seven days” (Lev. 23:42). The reason for the commandment given in the Bible is “that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:43). Since the Israelites in the desert dwelt in tents and not in booths, the Talmud records a dispute between R. Eliezer and R. Akiva on whether the sukkot in Leviticus 23:43 were actual or metaphorical booths, the latter referring to the protective “clouds of glory” (Suk. 11b) which accompanied the Israelites throughout their 40-year sojourn.
Details of the sukkah’s construction are discussed in the talmudic tractate Sukkah. According to Bet Shammai (whose ruling is here accepted, Maim. Yad, Shofar, Sukkah ve-Lulav, 6:8), the sukkah must be large enough to contain a man’s head, most of his body, and his table (Suk. 2:7), an area defined as seven handbreadths square (Sh. Ar., OḤ 634:1; Yad, loc. cit. 4:1; for a conical or circular shaped sukkah, see Suk. 8a). The height of the structure must not be less than ten handbreadths, nor more than 20 cubits (Suk. 1:1; see also Weights and Measures). The most important section in the construction of the sukkah is the roof made of covering known as sekhakh. The sekhakh must be cut from that which grew in the soil and which is not susceptible to ritual impurity (Suk. 1:4; 9b; Rashi, ad loc.; Yad, loc. cit. 5:1). An overhanging tree, for example, is invalid as sekhakh (Suk. 1:2). The sekhakh must be so arranged that the shaded area within the sukkah will exceed the unshaded (Suk. 9b–10a; Sh. Ar., OḤ 626:1). Any material may be used in the construction of the walls (Suk. 1:5), at least two of which must be complete, while the third may be partial (Suk. 6b; Yad, loc. cit. 4:2; Sh. Ar., OḤ 630:2).
It is particularly meritorious to begin construction of the sukkah at the conclusion of the Day of Atonement (Isserles to Sh. Ar., OḤ 625:1). Despite the opinions quoted in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ber. 9:4, 14a, and see also Rashi to Mak. 8a), no benediction is said on the construction of the sukkah because the biblical commandment is fulfilled by “dwelling” in it and not in its construction (Sh. Ar., OḤ 641:1).
“Throughout the seven days (‘and nights,’ Suk. 43a) of the festival, the sukkah must be regarded as one’s principal abode, and the house merely a temporary residence” (Suk. 2:9). Thus, it is forbidden to eat any major repast or to sleep outside the sukkah (Suk. 26a; Yad, loc. cit. 6:6; Sh. Ar., OḤ 639:2), and it is obligatory to eat in the sukkah on the first night of the festival (Suk. 2:6; Yad, loc. cit. 6:7; Sh. Ar., OḤ 639:3). These laws do not apply to women, slaves, and infants (Suk. 2:8; Yad, loc. cit. 6:1; Sh. Ar., OḤ 640:1); and if rain is likely to spoil one’s food, it is permitted to transfer the meal to the house (Suk. 2:9; Yad, loc. cit. 6:10; Sh. Ar., OḤ 639:5). Each time one eats in the sukkah the blessing “to dwell in the sukkah” (Suk. 46a) is recited, usually after the blessing over bread (Sh. Ar., OḤ 643:3).
On the first night of the festival these blessings are made before the Shehecheyanu benediction since the latter can thereby be made to apply both to the observance of the festival and to the first performance of the duty to dwell in the sukkah (Suk. 56a; Yad, loc. cit. 6: 12, Sh. Ar., OḤ 643:1). However, in the Diaspora, the order of the benedictions is reversed on the second day of the festival (ibid. 661).
It is customary to decorate the sukkah with fruit (which may not be eaten during the festival, Suk. 10a–b), and with the symbols of Sukkot, and to recite special welcomes to the seven “guests of the festival” (the Ushpizin), Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and David, on each day of Sukkot (see Zohar, Lev. 103b). According to the Midrash (Gen. R. 48:10), the Children of Israel were divinely protected in the wilderness by the shelter of the Tabernacles solely because the Patriarch Abraham had given shelter to three strangers beneath the tree on his property (Gen. 18:2–5). It is also customary to construct a sukkah at the synagogue (see Oẓar ha-Ge’onim, (1934), 33 nos. 51–53), where a token meal (usually a Kiddush), is held after the holiday services.
In present-day Israel, the Samaritans erect the sukkah inside their houses, while Jews construct sukkot on the sidewalks, roofs, and balconies of their houses reminiscent of what is described in Nehemiah: “So the people went forth… and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God…” (8:16–18).
Philo suggested that the sukkah was built to show misfortune at a time of good fortune and to remind the rich of the poor (Spec. Leg. 2:208–9) and Maimonides similarly interprets the lesson of the Tabernacle (Guide 3, 43). There are modern scholars who see the origin of the custom in a reinterpretation of some ancient agricultural rite but the nature of this is disputed.
S.J. Zevin, Ha-Mo'adim ba-Halakhah (196310), 90–103; E. Munk, The World of Prayer, 2 (1963), 272–4; H. Schauss, Guide to Jewish Holy Days (19664), 200–3.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.