On Sunday, a group of friends came round to help us build our sukkah. We couldn’t do it ourselves, because last year, one of these friends decided we had to have a ‘proper’ halachic sukkah – he isn’t Jewish by the way – so he proceeded to investigate the rules for building a sukkah on the Internet. As a result of his research, he went on to create six large ply-wood wall panels, two for each of the three of the sides of his design, which we then painted and decorated with pictures. Kept in the garage since after last Sukkot, these panels are not easy to move, have to be fitted together, and then bolted into place on the deck behind the house – hence the need for a team of helpers.

So, what constitutes a ‘halachic sukkah’? The rules for the construction of a sukkah, first discussed by the rabbis in the Mishnah, the first rabbinic code of law, edited around the 200 CE, are set out clearly – minus the rabbinic discussions and disagreements – in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of law created by Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Caro, and first published in 1565, which soon became authoritative throughout the Jewish world.[1]

According to the halachah, a sukkah is a temporary structure constructed explicitly for the festival of Sukkot. It should be erected in the open air, under the sky, not in a room or under a tree (Orach Chayyim, Shulchan Aruch 626:1). It consists of a minimum of three walls. Theoretically, two complete walls and part of a third wall satisfy the minimum requirements, but it is customary to have four walls (Rama on 630:5).[2] The walls should be strong enough to withstand the impact of ordinary winds (630:10), and should not be constructed as a cone, because a sukkah implies s’khakh, the word for the covering on the top of the sukkah. S’khakh – which like the words, sukkah and Sukkot, is derived from the Hebrew root, Sameich Kaf Kaf – must be made of material that grows from soil, and has been detached from the ground (629:1), excluding grasses or leaves that dry quickly and start falling, or greenery that has an offensive odour (629:14). The s’khakh should be loose enough that one can see the sky, yet thick enough so that the shadow it casts on the ground exceeds the light thrown by the sun (631:1, 3). No gaps measuring three hand breadths, or about 12 inches, or longer, may be left in the s’khakh (632:2).  The sukkah itself should be at least seven by seven hand-breadths in area – approximately 26 inches square – the minimum space necessary for a least one person (633:1). The Mishnah records, that according to the school of Shammai, the sukkah must be large enough to contain a man’s head, most of his body, and his table (Sukkah 2:7); while the school of Hillel disagreed about the table. The sukkah should not be more than 20 cubits high – about 30 feet (631:1), since it would then require very strong walls, and would cease to be a temporary dwelling. On the basis of the rabbinic principle, that the commandments should have aesthetic appeal (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 133b), it is customary to decorate the sukkah.

The building of a sukkah is a mitzvah, an obligation for each individual, but because some people may find it difficult to build their own sukkah, since the Middle Ages, it has been customary for congregations to build a sukkah on synagogue premises.[3] It is sufficient for those who are unable to build their own sukkah, to fulfil the other mitzvah associated with the sukkah, which is to ‘dwell’ in the synagogue sukkah – during kiddush after the service, and while eating together with the congregation. The mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah may be fulfilled by sitting in the sukkah because the Hebrew root, Yud Shin Beit means, both, ‘dwell’ and ‘sit’.

So, a sukkah is a temporary dwelling; but open to the skies and the elements, it is certainly not a shelter. Our ancestors dwelt in tents – ohalim – in the wilderness, and the Torah speaks of the ohel mo’eid, ‘the tent of meeting’ at the heart of the camp (Exodus 33:7). Nevertheless the Torah relates that while the people were wandering for those forty years, the Eternal One caused them to dwell in sukkot (Leviticus 23:43) – the word used for the ‘huts’, constructed during harvest time, once the people had entered the land. So why does the Torah say that the Eternal One caused our ancestors to dwell in sukkot during the wilderness years? Have two traditions got mixed up – or may there be something else going on here?

By way of responding to that question, I want to tell you what happened before everyone got down to sukkah-building on Sunday.

Our sukkah-building friends were all going to have lunch with us beforehand, so I went out to do some shopping. I discovered that Seaford, usually a quiet and sleepy place, can get extremely busy at around 11 AM on a Sunday morning, so I found it quite difficult to find a parking space. Fortunately, after driving round a couple of times, I saw someone taking shopping to their car, so I made a beeline for the space, and waited for them to leave. While I was waiting, I noticed an old lady with a sturdy walking frame on wheels, a bag of shopping hanging from one of the handles. The car in front then moved, and by the time I was parked, I saw that she had reached the top of a steep flight of steps. Her walking frame still standing on the pavement, I quickly got out of the car and offered to carry it up for her. As I did so, I felt the heaviness of it, and when I reached the top, I asked her how she managed to carry it up and down, and how she felt about having to climb a steep flight of steps every time she went out. She thanked me and smiled, and said how much she loved her flat, because it has a bay window at the front, allowing her to sit there and watch the people going by – ‘so I never get lonely,’ she said. As I walked down the steps, I took in the view in front of the house: just the back end of Morrison’s, and a block of flats. But for her, the view wasn’t about what most of us would mean by a view, for her, having a view, meant being able to see people.

I was pondering what the old lady had taught me about what really matters, when you’re elderly and living alone, as I walked into Morrison’s. Having lived near Seaford for just 18 months so far, I haven’t quite got over how friendly people are. When I arrived at the checkout, a young man was on the till. After asking me the statutory question, ‘Can I help you with your shopping?’ he commented on how the weather had improved that morning, and we got into a conversation, as he checked items. I told him how pleased I was that the sun had come out, because a group of friends were coming round and we were going to be in the garden. He told me had planned to go out in the afternoon after work, but he was so tired, he was going to go to bed. ‘Did you have a late-night?’ I asked – expecting him to tell me he had gone to a club. ‘Yes’, he replied; ‘me and a group of mates went down to the beach because it was free, and ended up hanging round there for hours.’

It is easy to get lost in the detail of all the halachic requirements for building the sukkah, and miss the fundamental point. Again: the sukkah structure is not designed to shelter us. We build it in remembrance of our ancestors’ experience of living in the desert and sleeping under the stars, and so we build it in such a way that, while it actually conforms more to the huts built in the fields at harvest time, it also recreates the sense of being at the mercy of the elements. And yet, our ancestors survived those forty years. According to the Torah they survived because God was with them – the Eternal One, like a sukkah, not protecting them from the elements, but rather, enabling them to endure in that barren, exposed landscape nonetheless. But they had more than the Eternal One; they had one another. The presence of God may have sustained them, but it was through their own collective efforts that they created a dwelling place for the Eternal and for themselves, constructing a community together in the wilderness.[4]

Can someone living alone feel part of a neighbourhood community? Despite having to get herself up a steep flight of stairs every time she ventured out, despite having to go back down the stairs again and drag up her walking frame, each time she returned, the old lady I met on Sunday said she loved her. How often have you heard a person living on their own say that they have to get out because they can’t bear looking at the four walls? Well, she didn’t have to look at the four walls, she could look out and see people, and feeling connected to others, meant that she did not feel lonely.

Traditionally, even though technically, as the Mishnah shows us, it is possible to have a sukkah big enough for just one person, the sukkah is supposed to be an opportunity for people to get together. It is traditional to invite ushpizin, the ancestors of our people, as Divine visitors into the sukkah,[5] and it is also a mitzvah to welcome family, friends and strangers as guests. A sukkah, however perfectly constructed, according to the halachic rules, is not complete without people in it – and, indeed, ultimately, a sukkah may be understood, symbolically, as the people; as a community. What can we learn from that young man, who spent Saturday evening on the beach? Clubs and pubs are expensive, but, as he told me, the beach is ‘free’. Why did he have such a good time outside on a windy night? Because he was with a group of friends; together these young people created a sukkah, a space to be and share together and reinforce their relationships.

While sukkah-building was going on in my back garden on Sunday, a group of members and friends of the synagogue gathered to dismantle and remove the contents of the synagogue building, in preparation for the completion of the sale of 26 Farm Road. As with the gathering at my home, I’ve been told that food was an essential ingredient to the proceedings! Significantly, the word ‘synagogue’ is a Greek translation of the Hebrew, k’hillah, and both the Greek and Hebrew words mean ‘assembly’. Thinking about what a great time everyone had clearing the synagogue on Sunday, reminds us that what the synagogue is really about is not the building, but the people. While dismantling all the signs of life, and emptying the synagogue of its contents, at the same time the individuals who came together for this important task, reinforced the bonds of fellowship, and demonstrated what a strong and vibrant community we are.

This coming weekend a group of our young people will enjoy a Sukkot camping experience in the Sussex woods, organised in conjunction with the Sussex Wildlife Trust, and on Sunday afternoon, everyone is invited to the sukkah in my back garden. As we embark on a new journey, without our building, may the image of the sukkah be a source of inspiration to us wherever we gather and celebrate together, and in all the ways we support one another, over the weeks and months to come. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

Sukkot 5772 – 13th October 2011




[1] Joseph Caro was born in Toledo in 1488 and died in Safed in 1575. The abridged version of this code is known as the Kitzur Shulchan Aruchkitzur means ‘short’ – see the English translation, Code of Jewish Law, translated by Hyman E. Goldin and edited by Solomon Ganzfried, Hebrew publishing company, New York, 1961.

[2] Rama is the Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Moses ben Isserles, who was born and lived in Krakow, Poland (1520-72). The leader of Ashkenazi Jewry, Moses ben Isserles provided the glosses to Joseph Caro’s Shulchan Aruch, making it acceptable to the Ashkenazi Jewish world. His glosses are known as the mappah, meaning, ‘table cloth’.

[3] See A Jewish Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Isaac Klein (JTSA, New York, 1979,p.162 ), who provides these references: Sefer Hamo’adim (9 volumes), Sukkot, edited by Isaac Loeb Baruch, Dvir, Tel Aviv, 1961-3, p.25; Shibbolei Haleqet, edited by Salomon Buber, Vilna, 1886, p.31; Sefer Hamanhig by Abraham Ben Nathan of Lunel, Lewin-Epstein, Jerusalem, 1966/67, p.64.


[4] See the account of the building of the mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness, which opens at Exodus chapter 25. See, especially, the key verse: ‘Let them build me a sanctuary so I may dwell among them’ (25:8).

[5] Ushpizin: the word is related to the nouns, ushpizah and ushpeiz, meaning an inn, a lodging place – the opposite of a permanent home. See: Sefer Milim – the dictionary rabbinic literature, edited by Prof Marcus Jastrow, Judaica press, New York, 1982.