The Sekhakh (1) Sekhakh Pasul and Gaps in the Sekhakh

  • Rav David Brofsky



Introduction – The Centrality of the Sekhakh


Last week, we discussed the laws pertaining to the walls of the sukka, including the material from which they may be fashioned, their physical stability, and the possibility of combining part of the roof and the wall (dofen akuma) in order to validate a sukka. This week, we will begin our study of the laws of the sekhakh.


Two parts come together to form a sukka: the walls and the sekhakh. A careful study of the gemara and its commentaries points to the centrality of the sekhakh. As we shall see, the gemara and Rishonim at times debate the extent to which the walls are also considered to be part of the sukka - but the centrality of the sekhakh remains clear.


For example, as we discussed previously, the gemara (2a) offers different explanations for the mishna’s assertion that “a sukka which is more than twenty amot high is not valid.”


From where do we know this? Rabba answered: Scripture says, “That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot” - [with a sukka] up to twenty amot [high], a man “knows” that he is dwelling in a sukka, but with one higher than twenty amot, he does not “know” that he is dwelling in a sukka, since his eye does not see it. R. Zeira replied: From the following verse, “And there shall be a booth for a shadow in the daytime from the heat” - [with a sukka] up to twenty amot [high] a man sits in the shade of the sukka; but with one higher than twenty amot he sits not in the shade of the sukka, but in the shade of its walls… Rava replied: [It is derived] from the following verse, “You shall dwell in booths seven days” – the Torah declared: For the whole seven days, leave your permanent abode and dwell in a temporary abode. [With a sukka] up to twenty amot [high], a man makes his abode a temporary one; [in one] higher than twenty amot, a man does not make his abode temporary, but permanent.


According to both R. Zeira and Rabba, a sukka higher than twenty amot is invalid because one cannot properly appreciate or benefit from its sekhakh. Indeed, Rashi explains that according to Rabba, “He doesn’t see the sekhakh, and the sukka is the sekhakh, after its name.” Even according to Rava, defining a sukka as a temporary or permanent abode depends upon the quality and location of the sekhakh and not the walls.


            Similarly, the gemara (9a) teaches that one may not derive benefit from the “wood of the sukka” for the duration of the festival.


From where do we know that the wood of the sukka is forbidden all the seven [days of the Festival]? From Scripture, which states, “The festival of Sukkot, seven days to the Lord;” and it was taught, R. Yehuda b. Beteira says: Just as the Name of Heaven rests upon the Festival offering, so does it rest upon the sukka, since it is said, “The festival of Sukkot, seven days to the Lord:” just as the festival [offering] is “to the Lord,” so is the sukka also “to the Lord.”


While all agree that this prohibition refers to the sekhakh, the Rishonim disagree as to whether this prohibition applies only to the sekhakh (Rosh 1:13) or to the walls as well (Rambam, Hilkhot Sukka 6:15). R. Soloveitchik suggests that the Rosh and Rambam disagree regarding this point: the Rosh believes that the walls are not inherently part of the sukka, but merely support the sekhakh, while the Rambam views both the walls and the sekhakh as part of the sukka (R. Zvi Reichman, Reshimot Shiurim [New York: 4749], p. 5). R. Soloveitchik’s grandfather, R. Chaim Soloveitchik, reportedly understood that even the Rambam agrees that the walls are not to be considered part of the sukka at all, and we can attribute the prohibition of deriving benefit from the walls of the sukka to the mitzva of yeshiva ba-sukka, which one fulfills inside the entire sukka.


            Some relate this question to another intriguing debate. The first mishna of the masekhet teaches that a sukka “which has more sun than shade (chamata meruba mi-tzilata), is not valid.” The gemara (7b) records a debate regarding how we measure the ratio of sun to shade.


Our Rabbis taught: [This applies only where] the sunshine is due to the scanty covering, but not where it is due to [gaps in] the walls, while R. Yoshiya says, Even where it is due to [gaps in] the walls. R. Yemar b. Shelemiah said in the name of Abayye: What is the reason of R. Yoshiya? Because it is written: “And you shall cover the ark with the veil” (Shemot 40:3). Now, since the “veil” was a partition and the Divine Law nevertheless called it a “covering,” it is evident that a wall must be akin to a covering.


While the first opinion clearly limits the halakha of chamata meruba mi-tzilata to the sekhakh, R. Yoshiya applies it to the walls of the sukka as well!


       Similarly, as we learned last week, the Or Zaru’a (Hilkhot Sukka 289:2; see also Hagahot Asheri 1:24) cites a Yerushalmi that derives from the same verse that one may not construct a sukka from materials that are mekabel tum’a (objects that potentially may become tamei), that is, materials which may not be used for sekhakh. Again, this source implies a similarity between the sekhakh and the walls. (Our text of the Yerushalmi [1:6], however, teaches the opposite.)


            Once again, we see a dispute regarding the definition of the sukka and the roles of the sekhakh and the walls.


Finally, the halakhot of lishma for sukka, or at least the requirement that the sukka not be “old,” refers to the sekhakh (9a). Likewise, the requisite of “ta’aseh – ve-lo min ha-asuy”- derived from the verse, “The holiday of Sukkot you shall make (ta'aseh)” (Devarim 16:13) - teaches that the sekhakh should be actively placed on the sukka and one should not construct the sukka in a manner in which the sekhakh, already placed upon the sukka, only later becomes valid. For example, one may not hollow out space within a large haystack, hoping to use the hay on top of the space as sekhakh, as the hay became sekhakh only after the walls were created by hollowing out the inside of the sukka. The Rema (635:1), based upon this principle, rules that one should only place the sekhakh upon the walls once they are erect. This may be especially relevant to canvas sukkot, where one may erect the frame before suspending the walls. The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (5) argues that be-diavad, the sukka is valid. In any case, these halakhot and others further highlight the primacy of the sekhakh in the building of the sukka: When the Torah says “you shall make,” it refers to the sekhakh. 


            Regardless of whether one focuses upon the transient nature of the sukka from a physical or spiritual perspective, as we have discussed previously, one’s experience within the sukka relates primarily to its sekhakh, and therefore, as Rashi (2a) writes, “the sukka was named for the sekhakh.”


The Definition of Valid and Invalid Sekhakh (Sekhakh Kasher and Sekhakh Pasul)


            The Talmud teaches that only materials that fulfill three conditions may be used for sekhakh: they must grow from the ground (gidulo min ha-aretz), they must not be able to contract tum’a (eino mekabel tum’a), and they must not be connected to the ground (eino mechubar le-karka). The Talmud (Sukka 11a) cites this principle:


This is the general rule: Whatever is susceptible to tum’a and does not grow from the soil may not be used for sukka-covering, but whatever is not susceptible to tum’a and grows from the soil may be used for sukka-covering.


The gemara (12a) continues:


When Rabin came, he said in the name of R. Yochanan: Scripture says, “[You shall keep the Feast of Tabernacles seven days] after you have gathered in from your threshing-floor and from your winepress” (Devarim 16:13). The verse thus speaks of the leavings of the threshing-floor and the wine-press.


The gemara interprets the verse as referring to making sukkot, “from that which you have gathered in from your threshing floor and from your winepress.”


            Regarding gidulo min ha-aretz, some Rishonim point out that animals, which receive their sustenance from the land, are sometimes considered gidulei karka. The Me’iri (11a) discusses whether leather hides may be used for sekhakh. Most Rishonim, as well as the Shulchan Arukh (629:1), rule that one may only use that which grows from the ground, such as branches, for sekhakh.


            Items that are mekabel tum’a include vessels made from metal, or even from materials that would ordinarily be valid for sekhakh, such as wood, but were shaped into a beit kibul (a receptacle) and were made into vessels; these may not be used as sekhakh. Therefore, one may not use cartons or boxes for sekhakh.


What about boxes that were broken and are no longer considered vessels? The gemara (15b) teaches that “If he covered the sukka with discarded vessels, it is invalid.” In other words, even though the broken vessel is no longer mekabel tum’a, one may not use it for sekhakh. The Rishonim dispute the reason for this prohibition. Rashi (s.v. bivlai) explains that since these broken vessels were once vessels, the Rabbis prohibited using them for sekhakh. The Rambam (Hilkhot Sukka 5:37) explains that the Rabbis prohibited using broken vessels as sekhakh lest one come to use a vessel which is still mekabel tum’a.


The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (629:5) writes that according to the Rambam, if one intentionally breaks a vessel, with the intention of “purifying” it, one may use the pieces for sekhakh. The Shevet Ha-Levi (3:95) writes that the halakha is not in accordance with the Arukh Ha-Shulchan.


What if one cannot discern whether the broken pieces were once a vessel? R. Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 13:66) relates the following story:


It once happened that a rabbi from chutz la-aretz moved to Israel right before Sukkot. He took apart the wooden crate within which his belongings were packed and made them into thin wooden strips… and used them as sekhakh for his sukka. His neighbors mocked him, claiming that his sukka is invalid since he used sekhakh which came from a vessel, as the crates were considered a davar ha-mekabel tum’a. He came to me during chol ha-mo’ed to ask if indeed they were correct. I answered him that they were… I saw he was greatly distressed at the embarrassing prospect of having to disassemble his sukka and erect a new one on chol ha-mo’ed.


Rav Waldenberg describes how he showed the man the opinion of the Arukh Ha-Shulchan cited above in an attempt to comfort him. That evening, between Mincha and Ma’ariv, he discussed the issue with another person, who related that although R. Chaim Berlin also prohibited using these wooden strips for sekhakh, R. Shmuel Salant (1816-1909), the former chief rabbi of Jerusalem, permitted using these strips if they no longer appeared as if they came from the original wooden vessel.


In addition, some suggest that a “lift” - a wooden moving container which is broken open after use - is not mekabel tum’a (Keilim 16:5), and therefore one may use its pieces for sekhakh (Sukka Ke-Hilkhata p. 59; Sefer Ha-Sukka Ha-Shalem, p. 270).


            Finally, the Rishonim search for the source of the requirement that sekhakh be detached from the ground (talush min ha-karka). Rashi (11a) explains that the verse says, “That you have gathered,” implying that it is after being cut from the ground. The Ritva (11) suggests that this requirement comes from the principle of ta’aseh ve-lo min ha-asuy (discussed above); sekhakh is intended to be placed on the sukka.


            In addition to the above, the Rabbis also prohibited certain types of sekhakh that would ordinarily have been valid. For example, one may not use sekhakh that emits a foul smell, or sekhakh from which pieces fall into the sukka, as this may cause one to leave the sukka (12b).


            The Talmud also records Rabbinic enactments that disqualify certain types of sekhakh, even if they fulfill the requirements delineated above. We will discuss one of them, which may have particular relevance.


Gezeirat Tikra


The mishna (14a) cites a debate concerning the use of wooden planks as sekhakh.


Planks may be used for the sekhakh; these are the words of R. Yehuda. R. Meir forbids them.


The gemara cites a difference of opinion regarding this mishna.


Rav said the dispute concerns planks which are four [tefachim wide], in which case R. Meir holds the preventive measure against [the possible use of] an ordinary roofing (gezeirat tikra), while R. Yehuda disregards this preventive measure against [the use of] an ordinary roofing; but in the case of planks which are less than four tefachim wide all agree that the sukka is valid. Shmuel however says… If they are four [tefachim wide], the sukka is invalid according to all; if they are less than three, it is valid according to all. What is the reason? Since they are mere sticks. What do they dispute? Regarding [planks that are] from three to four [tefachim wide].


In other words, according to Rav, all agree that one may use thin planks, and R. Yehuda and R. Meir disagree regarding planks wider than four tefachim. Shmuel maintains that they argue even regarding narrow planks, between three to four tefachim wide, while all agree that one may not use planks wider than four tefachim.


            While the Rishonim disagree as to whether we rule in accordance with Shmuel according to R. Yehuda or Rav according to R. Meir, the conclusion is the same: The Shulchan Arukh (629:18) rules that one may not use planks for sekhakh that are wider than four tefachim, even if they are placed on their narrow side.


            What is the reason behind this enactment, described by the gemara as “a preventive measure against [the possible use of] an ordinary roofing,” or gezeirat tikra?


Rashi explains that since most roofs are constructed from planks four tefachim wide or wider, one may come to justify sitting in one’s house during Sukkot: “What is the difference between using these [planks] for sekhakh and sitting under the roof of my house?” (Rashi s.v. R. Meir). In other words, Rashi believes that if one is permitted to used planks for sekhakh that are similar to the ones used for a roof, one might mistakenly conclude that one could construct a sukka under his own roof!


The Ritva (s.v. amar) and Ran (7b) question Rashi’s assumptions. First, they note that the gemara (Bava Metzia 117a) relates that most roofs are constructed from beams narrower than four tefachim. Second, the gezeira was intended for the observer, not the builder of the sukka. They conclude that that since beams which are four tefachim wide or wider are generally only used for houses (dirot keva), one who observes another sitting in a sukka covered by such beams may come to understand that constructing a sukka in one’s house and sitting under one’s roof may be acceptable as well.


            Interestingly, the Ran clarifies Rashi’s assertion that the majority of roofs are constructed from beams of four tefachim wide or wider. He explains that Rashi refers to planks that are comprised of thin boards joined together to form wider boards. Rashi believes that although the planks are composed of narrow boards, one may still not use the larger, composite planks for sekhakh. The Ritva, apparently, focuses upon the actual wooden strips, and therefore only prohibits solid planks that are four tefachim wide.


Similarly, the Teshuvot Ha-Rashba (1:213) discusses whether one may use a lattice board, consisting of thin wooden beams held together by metal nails, as sekhakh. He relates that “according to one of our teachers,” this would be prohibited due to the gezeirat tikra. He concludes that this issue is subject to debate, and one should not criticize someone who uses these boards: “Leave [it] to Israel - if they are not prophets they are the sons of prophets.”


While it is difficult to discern Rashba’s true opinion, the Magen Avraham (632:1) rules that narrow wooden strips joined together to form a plank more than four tefachim wide are invalid. The Chayyei Adam (146:31) also questions whether a lattice plank should be prohibited, even if one placed the sekhakh on top. He concludes that one should not criticize those who are lenient, since he places sekhakh on top of it.


Although the Shulchan Arukh never relates to this specific case, it appears that one should not use lattice planks more than four tefachim wide for sekhakh. We will return to this issue shortly when we discuss the use of sekhakh mats.


Using Reed Mats for Sekhakh


The mishna (19b) cites a debate regarding whether one may use a reed mat for sekhakh.


A large reed mat, if made for reclining upon, is susceptible to tum’a and is invalid as sekhakh. If made for a covering, it may be used for sekhakh and is not susceptible to tum’a. R. Eliezer ruled that whether small or large, if it was made for reclining upon, it is susceptible to tum’a and is invalid as sekhakh; if made for a covering, it is valid as sekhakh and is not susceptible to tum’a.


The gemara explains their dispute:


Rather said R. Pappa: With regard to a small [mat], all agree that ordinarily it is intended for reclining upon. In what do they dispute? In the case of a large one. The first Tanna is of the opinion that ordinarily a large one is intended for a covering, while R. Eliezer is of the opinion that ordinarily a large one is intended for reclining upon as well.


In other words, although they both agree that a small mat is ordinarily intended for reclining upon, and therefore is mekabel tum’a, they disagree whether one should make the same assumption regarding a large mat (R. Eliezer), or whether one may assume that a large mat is ordinarily made for covering (Tanna Kama) and is not mekabel tum’a. The halakha is in accordance with the Tanna Kama.


            Who determines whether a mat is intended for reclining or covering? The Rosh (Sukka 1:37) cites R. Yishaya di Trani (c.1180–c.1250), an Italian Talmudist and author of the Tosafot Rid:


R. Yishaya di Trani wrote: These mats that the merchants sell, which are generally made for reclining upon them… and they are also used for partitions - therefore we do not follow how they were made, because the artisan simply makes them to be sold to whoever need them, every person according to his need. Rather, one should follow [the intention at] the time of purchase - and if it was purchase to recline upon, it is mekabel tum’a… Therefore, a person may purchase a new mat in order to cover one’s sukka, even though it can also be used for reclining.


The Rosh disagrees. He argues:


This does not seem correct to me. Rather one should follow the custom of the local people… Therefore, in a place where [people] are accustomed to reclining on [these mats], even if he asked the artisan to prepare a mat for covering the sukka, one may not use it for sekhakh.


While the Shulchan Arukh (629:6) implies that we follow the intention of the artisan, the Rama cites the view of the Rosh that we follow the custom of the majority of people in that place. The questions of whether one may use mats purchased from public markets for sekhakh has occupied Poskim for generations. The Bi’ur Halakha (629:6) cites a few examples; in the Mishna Berura (18), he concludes that in his region, the majority of mats were made for reclining, and therefore they may not be used for sekhakh.


            Nowadays, while one may certainly not use mats intended for reclining, or even venetian blinds, as they are mekabel tum’a, even after they are not longer used for that purpose (Iggerot Moshe Orach Chaim 1:177), mats which are produced from reeds or narrow wooden sticks and sold for the purpose of using them for sekhakh may be used for sekhakh.


The Poskim, however, raise two issues concerning the use of mats for sekhakh:


1-     Mats comprised of bamboo reeds or wood strips held together must not be woven together with a material which is mekabel tum’a or materials that are not gidulo min ha-aretz, as these materials may not be used as sekhakh. One should preferably tie the reeds together with wooden fibers, flask, or other natural materials that were not processed. Some (R. Ovadya Yosef, Yechavveh Da’at 1:64; see Piskei Teshuvot 629:6).even permit using processed fibers produced from gidulei karka, as they are only invalid for sekhakh mi-derabbanan (Rambam, Hilkhot Sukka 5:6). See R. Yehuda Paris, “Keshirat Sekhakh La-Netzach al yedei Chutei Barzel,” Techumin 15, who argues for the permissibility of tying down sekhakh with copper wire.

2-     R. Binyanim Zilber (1917-2008), in his Responsa Az Nidberu (2:66) cites the view of R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (b.1910), who prohibits using these mats. He believes that since the mats of reeds or strips are so closely and strongly fastened together, using these mats violates the Rabbinic prohibition of using boards over four tefachim wide, known as gezeirat tikra, as described above. He finds precedent for this in the view of the Rashba cited above (and by the Beit Yosef 629), who reports that some prohibit using narrow boards which are nailed together and are wider than four tefachim. R. Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (1916-2006) concurs in his Tzitz Eliezer (10:29).


Most Poskim (R. Binyamin Zilber (ibid.); R. Ovadya Yosef, Chazon Ovadya p. 28); R. Shmuel Wosner (b.1913), Shevet Ha-Levi 6:74; R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Halikhot Shlomo p. 128) disagree, and permit using mats produced and sold specifically to be used as sekhakh. Some argue that these mats are thin and flexible, and therefore do not resemble the planks mentioned by the Rashba. Others note that these mats are generally made from bamboo reeds and not wooden planks, and therefore should not be included in the enactment of gezeirat tikra.


The Impact of Gaps and Sekhakh Pasul on the Sukka


            Previously, we encountered halakhot pertaining to both sekhakh pasul and gaps in the sekhakh. The Talmud discusses the extent to which sekhakh pasul or air affects the sukka, and whether or not one may eat and sleep under them.


We have already learned that if sekhakh pasul at the side of one’s sukka is less than four amot wide, we invoke the principle of dofen akuma, and the sukka is valid. However, when the sekhakh pasul is more than four amot from the side, the sukka is disqualified. What about sekhakh in the middle of the sukka? The Talmud (17a) cites a dispute between Rav and Shmuel.


In Sura they taught this decision in the above words; in Nehardea, they taught [as follows]: R. Yehuda said in the name of Shmuel: Invalid sekhakh in the middle [of the sukka] invalidates if it is four [tefachim wide]; at the side, only if it is four amot wide; while Rav says: Whether in the middle or at the sides, [it invalidates] only if it is four amot wide.


Most Rishonim, including the Rif (8b), Rambam (Hilkhot Sukka 5:14), Rosh (1:32), and Ran (8b), rule is accordance with Shmuel and disqualify a sukka even if the portion of sekhakh pasul is four tefachim wide.


Only sekhakh pasul that runs the entire length of the sukka disqualifies the sukka. Furthermore, this would only apply to a sukka constructed of three walls, when the sekhakh pasul begins from the middle wall and extends across the sukka to the side without a wall, because in that case neither remaining side has enough walls for a valid sukka. However, if a strip of sekhakh pasul runs across a sukka constructed from four walls, it may simply divide the sukka into two separate sukkot, if each has three complete walls of at least seven tefachim by seven tefachim.


The gemara (19a) teaches that although one may not sleep under a gap in the sekhakh, even one which is under three tefachim wide, one may sleep under sekhakh pasul less than four tefachim wide. Most Rishonim, including the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or (7a), permit one to sleep under a section of sekhakh pasul less than four tefachim wide. The Ra’avad (hasagot on the Rif 7a) and Ritva (19a), however, insist that while one may sleep under a portion of sekhakh pasul less than three tefachim wide, one may not sleep under a portion of sekhakh pasul over three tefachim wide. Although the Shulchan Arukh (632) does not cite this distinction, the Mishna Berura (3) cites some Acharonim who rule that preferably one should be stringent.   


Regarding air, the mishna (17a) teaches: “If one distances the sekhakh three tefachim from the walls, it is invalid.” The gemara (18a) discusses whether this principle, which overlooks a gap of less than three tefachim, applies in all cases.


This applies only to the side, but as regards the middle, R. Acha and Ravina differ. One says that the rule of lavud applies in the middle, while the other says that the rule of lavud does not apply in the middle.


The Rambam (Hilkhot Sukka 5:20), the Rosh (1:33), and the Shulchan Arukh (631) rule that lavud applies to a gap both from the side of and in the middle of the sekhakh.


            A gap in the sekhakh (avir) differs from sekhakh pasul in that sekhakh pasul only poses a problem if it is wider than four tefachim. Furthermore, the gemara (19a) teaches that one may not sleep under a gap in the sekhakh, even one which is under three tefachim wide.


Since the gemara clearly did not intend that the sekhakh of one’s sukka should be similar to the roof of a house, without any holes, as discussed above, the Rishonim differ as to when one may sleep under the gaps in the sekhakh. Some Rishonim (Ritva 18a, s.v. amar Abbaye; Ran 9a) explain that one may not sleep under a gap of less than three tefachim, within which one may fit one’s head or the majority of one’s body. Others (Rosh 1:36; Rabbeinu Yerucham, Toldot Adam Ve-Chava 8:1) however, disagree, and rules that one may not sleep under a gap which runs the entire length of the sukka. The Rama (632:2) cites both opinions; therefore, one should not sleep under a gap that either runs the length of the sukka or within which one may fit one’s head or the majority of one’s body.


Interestingly, R. Shlomo b. Yehoshua Adeni (early 17th century), in his commentary on the Mishna, Melekhet Shlomo (Sukka 2:1), suggests that although one may not sleep under a gap of less than three tefachim, one may eat there. The Bi’ur Halakha (632:2), however, rules that one should not distinguish between sleeping and eating.


Although the gemara concludes that in a large sukka, over seven tefachim by seven tefachim, sekhakh pasul does not combine with air in order to disqualify the sukka, the Rishonim (Tosafot 17a s.v. ilu; Rosh 1:33; Shulchan Arukh 632:4) ask whether a total of four tefachim of sekhakh pasul, divided by less than three tefachim of air, disqualifies the sukka. Although air cannot combine with sekhakh pasul in order disqualify the sukka, does it function, in this case, like sekhakh kasher, interrupting between the two segments of sekhakh pasul? The question remains unresolved (Bikkurei Yaakov 9; Mishna Berura 19).


Next week, we will discuss the necessary thickness of sekhakh and whether one may construct a sukka under the branches of a tree. We will also discuss whether one must sit directly under the sekhakh, even while in the sukka, and question when and how one is permitted, or even encouraged, to beautify one’s sukka with noy sukka.