We love exiting our homes and entering our sukkot (the plural of sukkah) because of the opportunity to commune with nature and the Divine. Such an opportunity is one of the reasons we are obligated to dwell in a sukkah during the festival. We are taught that, just as the Israelites were protected by ananei kavod (literally, clouds of glory) as they traveled through the wilderness, so too do we seek such protection. Our sukkot are these symbolic clouds.
Especially during this pandemic, we seek to extend that protection and that Divine grace to others. Further, inviting guests to our dinner table enhances our celebration of the festival. And it helps others start off their Jewish year with feelings of warmth, companionship, and welcome. Sukkot is indeed a festival that emphasizes such hospitality.
Still, not everyone builds a sukkah. For that reason, opening our sukkot to guests throughout the course of the festival — especially for those who do not build a sukkah — becomes a moral and religious imperative.
We build many of these temporary shelters with the elements (and some protection from them) in mind. As such, even though we build our sukkot outdoors, the nature of the design often leads to cramped sukkot with limited airflow. This of course creates quite the dilemma during this pandemic. How can we safely “open up” our sukkot?
As my colleague Rabbi Josh Heller has shared: “There is a general principle that we do not risk life to fulfill any positive mitzvah. The obligation to use a sukkah does not apply if doing so would lead to a danger of illness. In addition, there is an even more specific and lenient precedent with sukkah, in Shulhan Arukh OH 640:4, where one who is merely distressed is exempt from sukkah.” Nevertheless, many still want to build sukkot this year and host in a limited and safe way.
Because so many of us use sukkah “kits,” we do not regularly consider the different leniencies and teachings about how to build a “kosher” sukkah — simply because the design and build is already laid out. These leniencies and minimum requirements can enable (and compel us) to build our sukkot this year in a COVID19-safe way.
Though these leniencies may lead to building a very different sukkah, the air will flow freely.
First, even though our kits are often tarp or vinyl, and the sukkah is fully enclosed (except for a doorway), sukkah walls can be made of any material. However, people often do not realize that it is permissible to have “incomplete” walls, so to speak. The Talmud considers two solid surfaces separated by a gap of less than three handbreadths (tefachim) as a complete surface. This concept (called levud) permits us to use relatively porous walls — latticework for example. In addition, the walls of one’s sukkah can have a similar gap before they reach the floor—and need only be 10 tefachim off the ground (just over three feet). Further, the walls need not reach the skhakh (the roof made of ground-growth material), provided they reach that minimum height. And lastly, though most of our kits provide for four-wall, enclosed sukkot (often with a doorway) a sukkah only needs two and half walls (at a minimum).
Dwelling in a sukkah is meant to teach us about the fragility of life and the fleeting nature of our existence. We not only get in touch with the outdoors, but we also “press reset” from the regularity of our home routine. This year we surely can use a change — and we can build Covid-19 safer sukkot, allowing for proper airflow and social distancing. Not only can we build them within Jewish legal parameters, but in constructing our sukkot this way, the emphasis on the fragility of life -– and the need to honor those around us -– is ever more prominent.
Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is the rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn.