Building a sukkah is a significant and joyful part of the Jewish observance of Sukkot. The sukkah is a temporary structure that represents the shelters the Israelites lived in during their journey in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to build a sukkah, including the timeframe, halachic dimensions, requirements, and Torah sources.
Timeframe: Sukkot begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, five days after Yom Kippur. The frame of the sukkah can be standing all year, but most people have complete it, if not entirely build it, just after Yom Kippur, to move from that auspicious into another mitzvah.
Materials You’ll Need:
- Frame: Wooden or metal poles for the structure. If you have access to an alley or something else with established walls, this can be used but it may still benefit from reinforcement.
- Sides: Material to form the walls of the sukkah, which can be fabric, canvas, wood, or any other suitable material.
- Roof Covering (Schach): Materials natrually grown, unfinished, and detatched from ground can be used as schach, but not finished planks, food, metal, or anything that would dry out by the end of the week of Sukkot. Branches, leaves, bamboo etc. can be used, provided it would not dry out. There is a myth that is must be porous enough to see the stars from within, but practically speaking this will probably happen.
- Lights and Decorations: A great way to get small kids involved is to invite them to ready themed decorations. Lights aren’t technically necessary but you’ll be glad you have them for the dinners.
- Choose a Location: Select a suitable outdoor area for your sukkah. Most importantly it must not have anything else covering it, like tree branches or a man-made structure, so make note of AC units and balconies. If any part of a sukkah is obstructed from the sky, that section is not kosher for eating and sleeping
- Dimensions: The sukkah must be at least 7x7X10 handbreadths (tefachim) in size (about 27x27X39 inches or 70x70x100 cm). The maximum height is 20 cubits (about 30 feet or 9 meters). Practically speaking any normal sukkah will not have this concern. Still, check your available space.
- Concerned Citizen: It should be level and sturdy, adhering to any local building codes.
- Frame Construction: Set up the frame using the chosen poles. Especially if using temporary materials (i.e. not making use of preexisting structures) make sure is it sturdy enough to weather the elements for over a week.
- Walls: Attach the walls to the frame. They can be made of fabric, canvas, wood, or other materials. The walls need to be sturdy and provide reasonable privacy and protection from the wind. A kosher sukkah must have at least 3 walls.
- Roof (Schach): Lay the schach across the top of the sukkah. Use plant materials las described above, and make sure the schach is new for the holiday (i.e. not left up for year-round use). In many ways, the schach is the most important part of the sukkah, so take care here.
- Decorate: Decorate the sukkah with traditional artwork, pictures, and hanging fruits. These optional decorations add to the festive atmosphere.
- Furnish the Sukkah: Place a table and chairs inside the sukkah for meals. Set up some way to sleep as well. The mitzvah of the sukkah is to dwell in it as your home, meaning any meal and sleeping, as well as reading or unavoidable work is meant to be done in the sukkah. Plenty of people hold larger meals, get-togethers and so on.
- Dismantle After Sukkot: Once Sukkot ends, take down the sukkah. The plant materials used for the roof (s’chach) can often be composted, and the other materials can be stored for future use.
- Leviticus 23:42-43: “You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days; every citizen in Israel shall dwell in sukkot, in order that your generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in sukkot when I took them out of the land of Egypt.”
- Deuteronomy 16:13-14: “You shall make for yourself the festival of Sukkot for seven days… And you shall rejoice in your festival – you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maidservant, the Levite, the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow within your cities.”
- Nechemia (8:14-15): “Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms and leafy trees to make booths, as it is written. Thus the people went out and brought them, and made themselves sukkot on their roofs, in their courtyards, in the courtyards of the House of God…”
- Mesechet Sukkah: There is a tractate of the Talmud dedicated primarily to matters of sukkah construction and the holiday of Sukkot.
Dwelling in a sukkah is a special sort of mitzvah you can even do in your sleep. It brings us out into nature to enjoy the start of the new year. It is a time to connect with family, friends, and Torah, not to mention our ancestors who lived in sukkot for all the years in the desert. Whether it will be for first time in a sukka, or you are reading this just as a refresher, it’s a multifaceted mitzvah that everyone can enjoy.