01. A Temporary Residence

There is a mitzva to reside in a sukka throughout the seven days of the Sukkot festival, as the Torah says, “You shall dwell in sukkot seven days; all citizens in Israel shall dwell in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God” (Vayikra 23:42-43). Similarly, it states, “After the ingathering from your threshing floor and your vat, you shall hold the seven-day festival of Sukkot” (Devarim 16:13).

The sukka that we are commanded to live in during the festival is defined as a “dirat ara’i” – a “temporary residence” (Sukka 2a). Thus, a sukka must meet these two basic conditions: 1) it must be temporary; 2) it must be habitable. Therefore, if a sukka is less than 10 tefaḥim (c. 80 cm) tall or less than 7 tefaḥim (c. 56 cm) wide, it is invalid, because it is too cramped even for one person to sit in it and eat. Even if a sukka is very long, if it is less than 7 tefaḥim wide, it is invalid (Sukka 2a; MB 634:1).

Since a sukka is a temporary residence, it does not need four walls. It is sufficient for it to have two walls plus a tefaḥ of a third. This partial third wall must be within 3 tefaḥim of one of the other walls (as we explain below in section 6).

If a sukka is more than 20 amot (c. 9 meters) tall, it is invalid, because a sukka must be a temporary residence, while sekhakh placed at such a height needs the support of a permanent structure. Note, however, that the main expression of the sukka’s impermanence is the sekhakh; the walls may be permanent, as long as this is not necessary to support the sekhakh. Thus, one may retract the roof in the home and place sekhakh instead of a ceiling; since the sekhakh is less than 20 amot high, it does not need the support of a permanent structure.[1]

A house with a wooden ceiling is invalid for use as a sukka, because sekhakh must be impermanent, whereas a ceiling is permanent. To make sure that people do not mistakenly permit wooden ceilings, the Sages ruled that lumber commonly used to make ceilings may not be used as sekhakh (as we will explain below in section 4).

Since a sukka is a temporary residence, it may be built on a wagon, motor vehicle, or boat, and it remains valid even during travel, as long as its walls and sekhakh can withstand an ordinary wind (SA 628:2; SHT ad loc. 11). As a temporary residence, a sukka does not require a mezuza (SA YD 286:11).

A sukka is invalid if its walls are unable to withstand an ordinary wind or if its sekhakh is made of leaves or greenery that will wither and fall during the course of the festival. In both of these cases, it is not even considered a temporary residence (SA 628:2; 629:12).

[1]. According to R. Ḥayim Naeh (based on Rambam and other Rishonim), a tefaḥ is 8 cm (3.15 inches), so 7 tefaḥim is 56 cm (22.05 inches), 10 tefaḥim is 80 cm (31.5 inches), an ama is 48 cm (18.9 inches), and 20 amot is 9.6 meters (31.5 feet). (According to Noda Bi-Yehuda and Ḥazon Ish, a tefaḥ is 9.6 cm and an ama is 57.6 cm.) More recent measurements showed that the tefaḥ of Rambam and other Rishonim is 7.6 cm and an ama is 45.6 cm, as explained in the Harḥavot. The halakha follows this latter measurement, as we explain in Peninei Halakha: Shabbat ch. 29 n. 1 and the Harḥavot there. Nevertheless, in the text above I use R. Naeh’s measurements, for several reasons: 1) for two generations or so, this was the accepted measure; 2) to avoid any uncertainty, one should measure a tefaḥ generously (Sukka 7a; MB 633:2). According to most poskim, this “generosity” means adding c. 2% (SHT 363:60), which already brings us halfway to R. Naeh’s measurements. Some maintain that the addition should be more than 2% (as explained in the Harḥavot); 3) the main reason to use R. Naeh’s measurements is his tefaḥ is a round number in the metric system: 8 cm. The more precise measurement of 7.6 is unwieldy. In order to make things easier for the reader, it is proper to use round numbers. Indeed, this is why the Sages themselves used round measurements like tefaḥim (handbreadths) and amot (arm-lengths). However, when pertinent, the more precise measurement remains primary. Thus, when following R. Naeh’s position results in a leniency, such as when calculating 20 amot and lavud (section 7 below), I use the more precise (smaller) measurements. Even then, I round down. For example, I write that 20 amot are c. 9 meters when the exact measurement is 9.12 meters (9.6 meters according to R. Naeh), and I write that lavud applies up to 22 cm, when the exact figure is 22.8 cm.

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