Judaism: The Sukkah: Ins and Outs
Obligation and Mitzvah
Anything a person usually does specifically inside his house throughout the year, he is obligated to do in the sukkah during the holiday of Sukkot. Therefore, it is obligatory to have the ‘seudot keva’ (a meal containing more than one ‘kebeitza’ [57.6 cubic cm] of bread, cake, or pasta) and sleep in the sukkah, given that the main role of the home is to provide a place to eat and sleep.
However, things that a person does occasionally in the house, and at times outside of the house, such as ‘achilat arei’ (eating a snack), Torah learning, reading a book, or conversing with friends – indeed, one fulfills a mitzvah by doing them in the sukkah, but someone who does not wish to, although he has evaded fulfilling a mitzvah, has not sinned.
This is because the mitzvah of ‘yishiva b’sukkah’ (dwelling in the sukkah) is to reside in the sukkah as he does in his house, and things that people are sometimes accustomed to do outside of the house can also be done outside of the sukkah during the holiday (Shulchan Aruch 639:1-2).
Matters that usually are always done outside of the house, such as prayers in a minyan (quorum of ten Jewish male adults) and Torah classes can be conducted ‘l’chatchila’ (from the outset) in the synagogue or beit midrash (study hall), and there is no need to make an effort to do them in the sukkah.
Torah Study in the Sukkah
Generally, our Sages said that it is a mitzvah to learn uncomplicated studies in the sukkah, but it is preferable to learn in-depth and arduous studies at home or in the beit midrash, where it is easier to concentrate (Sukkah 28b; Shulchan Aruch 639:4).
If someone who has difficulty concentrating in the sukkah due to the heat or noise, it is preferable for him to learn even uncomplicated studies in the most convenient place, seeing as Torah study is not one of the things that is done exclusively at home. Also, someone who studies and requires a number of books which are hard to bring to the sukkah, is permitted to learn in the beit midrash or his study room ‘l’chatchila’.
Women in the Sukkah
Women are exempt from the obligation of sukkah, since the mitzvah of sukkah is a ‘mitzvah sh’ha’zman gramma’ (a positive time-bound mitzvah) from which women are exempt. In any event, the mitzvah is also relevant to women, for any time they eat, sleep, or sit in the sukkah, they fulfill a mitzvah. According to the Ashkenazi custom and some of the Sephardim, women bless ‘leyshev b’sukkah’ similar to men. Since women are not obligated to dwell in the sukkah, the custom of most Sephardic women is not to make the blessing (Shulchan Aruch 589:6; P’neniei Halachah: Tefilat Nashim 2:8 footnote 9).
Respect for the Sukkah
Although a person must act in his sukkah similar to the way he does at home, nevertheless, there is a difference between the house and the sukkah. In the house, all chores are done – whether unpleasant or not; in the sukkah however, on account of its honor, chores that are not drudgery should not be performed. Rather, one should act in the sukkah the way people normally behave in the most attractive and distinguished room of their house. Consequently, utensils that are not respectable, such as a bucket or a pail, or anything that usually is not placed in such a room, should not be placed in the sukkah. Dishes should not be washed in the sukkah, and a baby’s diaper should not be changed there (Sukkah 28:2; Shulchan Aruch 639:1; Aruch Hashulchan 4).
Removal of Dirty Dishes from the Sukkah
It is forbidden to place a garbage can for food disposal in the sukkah, but it is permitted place a wastebasket for papers and the like, similar to what people place in their living room. After eating, plates and cutlery should be removed as soon as possible, because it is disrespectful to the sukkah to have dirty dishes remain there.
However, the drinking glasses can be left in the sukkah, because they are not as dirty, and occasionally, people like to drink more. If people are used to bringing pots to the table in their home, they are also permitted to do so in the sukkah. Where doing so is considered undignified, they should not be brought to the sukkah (Sukkah 29a; Shulchan Aruch 639:1, Mishna Berura 3-6).
Some authorities say that after the meal is finished, if the dirty plates and cutlery were not removed immediately, the sukkah is ‘p’sula l’mitzvah’ (invalid), and a person who enters such a sukkah should not recite the blessing ‘leyshev b’sukkah’ (Rabeinu Manoach, Ra’avad). Although the halacha does not follow their opinion, nevertheless, we can learn from it just how careful one must be to respect the sukkah.
Everyday Conversation in the Sukkah
It is not a dishonor for a person to speak of secular matters in the sukkah. Therefore, someone who wishes to speak with a friend face-to-face or by telephone, would do well to speak in the sukkah, similar to the way he would in his house, for whenever he is in the sukkah, he fulfills a mitzvah (Shulchan Aruch 639:1).
Someone who wishes to play chess, Monopoly, or the like, would do well to play in the sukkah (see, Mahari Weil 191, Divrei Moshe 639:1).
There are those who ‘mehadrim’ (enhance) the mitzvah by spending a lot of time in the sukkah, and also ‘mehadrim’ not to engage in secular activities there (Shla HaKadosh, Kaf HaChaim 639:5-6; see, Mishna Berura 2). In any event, for people who wish to engage in secular activities, it is better to do them in the sukkah, thereby fulfilling a mitzvah, than leaving the sukkah to evade engaging in secular activities there.
Soldiers in the Sukkah
Q: Are soldiers engaged in guard duty and regular security activities, and do not have any spare time, obligated to build a sukka for themselves which is liable to take several hours, at the expense of their limited sleep-time (six hours a day)?
A: The soldiers are considered as ‘oskim b’mitzvah’ (engaged in a mitzvah), and consequently, do not need to make the effort of building a sukkah for themselves at the expense of their sleep-time, the lessening of which would directly affect their alertness on guard duty. The commanders, though, who ought to care for the soldier’s welfare, must ensure the building of a comfortable sukkah where the soldiers can eat, and when there is no a security concern – even sleep in it.
An Ill Person is Exempt from the Sukkah
If dwelling in the sukkah causes one grief, he is exempt from the sukkah. This also includes someone who is ill, and dwelling in the sukkah is difficult for him. Even an ill person whose life is not in danger, such as someone who has a headache, is included in this ‘heter’ (permission), provided that dwelling in the house will ease his grief (Sukkah 26a; Shulchan Aruch 640:3).
The Law for One Who Causes Himself to be Ill on Sukkot
A person, who was required to have medical treatment on Sukkot, and as a result, is ill and considered ‘mitzta’air’ (distressed) – as long as his grief lasts, he is exempt from the sukkah. However, if the treatment can be performed before or after Sukkot, yet he decided to do it on Sukkot, although in effect he is distressed – he is obligated to dwell in the sukkah. Given that he unnecessarily placed himself in a situation of distress, this does not exempt him from the sukkah (Ohr Zarua, Rema 640:3).
Travelers are Obligated in Mitzvah of Sukkah
A person who wishes to take a trip with his family must plan the trip in such a way that they can eat their meal in the sukkah. If they decided to go to a place where there is no sukkah, they must make sure not to eat a ‘seudat keva’ while on the trip, but rather settle for fruits and vegetables and a little ‘mezanot’ (foods made from the five grains).
Indeed, there are authorities who are of the opinion that a person who goes on a trip is permitted to eat a meal outside of the sukkah, because just as one who goes on a trip during the rest of the year is not meticulous to eat indoors, so too, on Sukkot – someone who decides to go on a trip does not need to be particular to eat in a sukkah.
However, it seems that in practice, one should not be lenient in this matter, because only those required to travel are exempt from the sukkah. On the other hand, someone who decided to go for a pleasure trip, thereby decides to annul himself from the mitzvah unnecessarily. Consequently, only if he is meticulous to eat a meal in the sukkah, may he go on a trip (Igrot Moshe, Orech Chaim 3:93; Yichevei Daat 3:47; Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach; Ohalah Shel Torah, 2:93).
Torah Study and Outings on Chol HaMoed
In general, one should be careful not to squander the sacred days of Chol HaMoed (intermediate days of Sukkot) on outings, because the holidays were given to Israel in order for them to engage in Torah study joyfully. For during the year a person is preoccupied with his work, and it is difficult to concentrate on studying Torah. And thus we find in the Jerusalem Talmud (Moed Katan, chap.2, halacha 3): “Rabbi Abba bar Memal said: If there was someone else who would be counted [agree] with me, I would permit [Israel] to work on Chol HaMoed! Work is only forbidden [on Chol HaMoed] so that they [Israel] can eat, drink, be joyful, and labor in Torah, but now, they eat, drink, and are frivolous.”
When a person devotes the holidays for his personal enjoyment, God says of him: “These are not My appointed feast, but rather your appointed feasts, concerning which it is said: “Your new moons and appointed feasts my soul hates; they are a trouble to me; I am weary of enduring them” (Isaiah 1:14). But those who devote the holidays to Torah, prayer, and ‘seudot mitzvah’ (festive meals) are loved and cherished by God, May He be blessed (Shla Hakadosh, Talmud Sukkah, Ner Mitzvah 31).
There are some outings which are a mitzvah, such as traveling to greet one’s rabbi, who he does not normally meet once a month. Also, a person who travels to Jerusalem to spend time in the Holy City, to approach the Temple Mount, and pray by the Western Wall – this is akin to the mitzvah of ‘aliyah l’regel’ (pilgrimage). People who go out on such trips where a mitzvah is involved, if it is difficult for them to find a sukkah to eat in, may eat ‘achilat keva’ (a meal) outside the sukkah.