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The Sekhakh (2)

  • Rav David Brofsky

the laws of THE FESTIVALS


by Rav David Brofsky


Shiur #17 – The Sekhakh (2)




Last week, we studied the laws pertaining to the sekhakh of the sukka. We discussed the materials that one may use for sekhakh and we explored whether one may use mats, which have become popular in recent years, to cover the sukka. We also discussed whether one may eat or sleep under sekhakh pasul or gaps in the sekhakh and whether they may impact upon the validity of the sukka itself.


The Tur (626) writes:


[What is the] ideal place for the sukka? It should be constructed under the sky, as it says, “And you shall sit in sukkot,” and we learn from this - not in a sukka under a sukka, or a sukka under a house, and not in a sukka under a tree.


In addition, he writes (627):


Just as the sukka should be under the sky, and there should not be another sekhakh covering it, so too there should not be another sekhakh between him and the sekhakh.


The Tur explains that there should be no interference between the sekhakh and the sky, nor should there be any obstruction between the sekhakh and the person sitting in the sukka. This week we will continue our study of the laws relating to sekhakh and its relationship to both external and internal interferences.


The Thickness of the Sekhakh - Seeing the Stars and Protecting from Rain


            One of the central themes of the laws pertaining to building a sukka relates to defining the difference between a sukka and a house. The gemara discusses in numerous contexts the concern that a sukka may be too similar to a dirat keva (a permanent abode). As we saw last week, the Rabbis prohibited using wooden planks wider than four tefachim, which would ordinarily have been valid for sekhakh, lest one think that he may simply construct a sukka in one’s house and sit under his own roof. Therefore, the gemara tries to carefully balance the need to construct a viable and sturdy structure that one can live in for the duration of the festival with avoiding building a structure too similar to a home.


            The mishna (22a) discusses the density of the sekhakh with which one must cover the sukka: “If [the covering] is close-knit like that of a house, it is valid, even though the stars cannot be seen through it.”


The gemara explains:


Our Rabbis have taught: If it is close together like a house, even though the stars cannot be seen through it, it is valid. If the rays of the sun cannot be seen through it, Beit Shammai invalidates it, and Bet Hillel declares it valid.


The gemara implies that while on the one hand, one should preferably be able to see stars through the sekhakh, on the other hand, a sukka should not be “like a house.”


The Acharonim disagree as to why and to what extent one should be able to see the stars from inside the sukka. R. Yosef Teomim (1727-1793), in his Peri Megadim (Eshel Avraham 631:2), explains that by seeing the stars from the sukka, one is reminded of “Who created them, and that one is a stranger in this world, as it says (Tehillim 8:4), ‘[When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,] the moon and the stars, which You have established.’” He rules that it is sufficient to be able to see the stars even from one part of the sukka.


Alternatively, R. Yaakov Ettlinger (1798–1871), in his commentary to Hilkhot Sukka, the Bikkurei Yaakov (631:5), argues that the ability to see the stars is a measurement of the density of the sekhakh. Therefore, one should preferably be able to see the stars through the sekhakh covering one’s entire sukka, and one should be careful that a four tefach wide area through which one cannot see the stars should not run the length of one’s sukka, similar to sekhakh pasul.


Apparently, these Acharonim dispute whether the mishna refers to one’s personal ability to properly experience sitting in a sukka, which includes seeing the stars through the sekhakh, or whether it offers a means of measuring the density of the sekhakh, in contrast to a sukka which is “like that of a house” (22a).


            The gemara (22a) also teaches that although ideally one should see the stars through the sekhakh of the sukka, be-di’avad, “If [the sekhakh] is close together like a house, even though the stars cannot be seen through it, it is valid.” According to this mishna, if the sekhakh is arranged so densely, like the roof of a house, that one cannot see the stars, the sukka is still valid. The Hagahot Maimoniyot (Hilkhot Sukka 5:9), however, records that Rabbeinu Tam disqualified a sukka whose sekhakh was so thick that the rain could not penetrate the sukka. He relates that Rabbeinu Tam‘s brother-in-law, R. Shimon, built a sekhakh from thin planks joined by nails. Rabbeinu Tam disqualified the sekhakh, as it protected the sukka from the rain. The Mordekhai (Sukka 1:732) cites the view of Rabbeinu Tam, and then notes that Rashi disagrees. According to Rashi, even if the sekhakh protect the inside from rain, the sukka is still valid.


            Why does Rabbeinu Tam disqualify a sukka just because its sekhakh is too dense and protects the sukka from rain? The Hagahot Maimoniyot (ibid.) as well as the Mordekhai and Rosh (8:2) explain that a sukka which is impervious to rain is similar to a house, and is therefore not a valid sukka.


The Shulchan Arukh omits the view of Rabbeinu Tam, leading some Acharonim to assume that he rejects Rabbeinu Tam’s view, and states that if the sekhakh protects a sukka from rain, the sukka is still valid. The Peri Megadim (Eshel Avraham 631:2) disagrees. He observes that that the Shulchan Arukh writes that a sukka from which one cannot see the stars is valid, which quite possibly implies that if the sekhakh is any denser, so that it would protect the sukka from the rain, the sukka may be invalid!


Many Acharonim, including the Bach (635), the Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav (631:5), Chayyei Adam (146:18), the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (632:6), and the Mishna Berura (632:6), write that in extenuating circumstances, one may rely upon the lenient opinions and sit in a sukka whose sekhakh is impervious to rain.


R. Ettlinger (Bikkurei Yaakov 631:4) asserts that according to Rabbeinu Tam, the sukka is only invalid if the sekhakh keeps out the rain completely. However, if it merely delays the penetration of rain, the sukka is still valid (see also Hagahot Maimoniyot, ibid.; Chayyei Adam ibid.)


Interestingly, R. Yoel Sirkis, (1561-1640), in his commentary to the Tur (Bach 631, 635) points out that although the Rosh does not cite the position of Rabbeinu Tam in the context of “If it is close together like a house,” he cites his opinion elsewhere.


The gemara (8b) teaches that sukkot known an sukkot ganba”k (an acronym for sukkot erected by non-Jews, women, or sukkot erected for animals) and sukkot rakba”sh (an acronym for sukkot used by shepherds, field-watchers, city guards, and orchard-keepers) are valid, “provided that they are covered according to the rule. What is meant by ‘according to the rule’? R. Chisda answered: Provided [the sekhakh] was made [with the intention of providing] the shade for the sukka.” The Rosh (1:12) cites Rabbeinu Tam, who explains that as long as the sukka was erected to provide shade from the sun and not to protect one from the rain, it is valid.


The Bach explains that according to the Rosh, whether or not a sukka is impervious to rain is not a significant measure of thickness of the sekhakh. Rather, it reflects the intentions of the person who built the sukka. One need not fear that a “stam” sukka impervious to rain is invalid, but a sukkat ganba”k or rakba”sh, regarding which we are extra careful about the intention of its construction, may be invalid if it is impermeable to rain, lest it was built for that intention and not to provide shade. We will return to the role of “intention” in the building of the sukka in a future shiur.


Chamata Meruba Mi-Tzilata


The mishna (2a) teaches that “A sukka… which has more sun than shade is not valid.” Later in the masekhet, the mishna (22b) asserts that “A sukka… whose shade is more than its sun is valid.” The gemara asks:


 But if they are equal it is invalid? But have we not learnt in the other chapter, “or whose sun is more than its shade, is invalid,” from which it follows that if they are equal it is valid? There is no difficulty, since the former refers to above and the latter to below. R. Pappa observed: This bears on what people say, “The size of a zuz above becomes the size of an issar below.”


The gemara does not explicate whether the shade and sunlight must be alike from above or from below.


Rashi (s.v. ha-ka-zuza) explains that even if the ratio of sekhakh to air on the top of the sukka is equal, more sunlight than shade will enter the sukka, and the sukka will be disqualified. However, if the ratio of sunlight to shade in the sukka is equal, then clearly there is more sekhakh than air, and the sukka is valid


Rabbeinu Tam (s.v. ka-zuza) offers the opposite interpretation. If one views the sukka from above and the ratio of sekhakh to sunlight appears to be equal, then the sukka is valid. However, if from below the ratio of sekhakh to air seems to be equal, then most likely he is mistaken; there is more air then sekhakh, and the sukka is invalid.


The Shulchan Arukh (631:1) rules in accordance with Rashi - the shade and sunlight must be equal from inside the sukka.


            The Shulchan Arukh (631:2) writes that if the majority of the sukka is tzilata meruba me-chamata and a minority is chamata meruba me-tzilta, the sukka is valid, and one may even sit under the area which has more sunlight. However, the Rama writes that in a large sukka, if there is an area of seven tefachim by seven tefachim (the minimal dimensions of a sukka) within which there is more sunlight than shade, one may not sit under that portion, although the rest of the sukka is valid.


            Based on the above, one should be careful to cover the sukka with enough sekhakh to ensure that it provides sufficient (i.e. a majority of) shade for the sukka, and that it is heavy enough or securely fastened so that it will not blow away. However, one should still allow for the possibility of viewing the stars through the sukka, and the sekhakh should certainly not be so thick that it renders the sukka impervious to rain.


A Sukka Under a Sukka and a Sukka Under a Tree


The Talmud teaches that not only must the sukka be considered to be “under the sky,” but one may also not build a sukka under another sukka, under a tree, or under a house. For example, the mishna (9b) teaches, “If one sukka is erected above another, the upper one is valid but the lower is invalid. R. Yehuda said: If there are no occupants in the upper one, the lower one is valid.” The gemara explains, “Our Rabbis taught, ‘You shall dwell in sukkot’ - but not in a sukka under another sukka, nor in a sukka under a tree, nor in a sukka within the house.” Minimally, this halakha teaches that there should be no interference between the sukka and the sky.


Often, one finds oneself building a sukka close to, and at times under, the branches of a tree. Regarding this scenario, the mishna (9b) discusses the impact of the shade from a tree on this principle: “If one made his sukka under a tree, it is as if he made it within the house.” The gemara cites Rava, who explains, “[Our mishna] was taught only in respect to a tree whose shade is greater than the sun [shining through its branches], but if the sun is more than its shade, it is valid.” Regarding the sukka itself, the gemara continues, “But even where the sun is more than the shade, what is the advantage, seeing that all invalid covering is joined to a valid one? R. Papa answered: [This is a case] where [the branches of the tree] were pushed down [and interwoven].”


            The Rishonim disagree as to how to properly understand this passage.


Rashi explains that if the tree branches provide more shade than sunlight, then certainly the sukka underneath the tree is invalid. However, if the tree allows more sunlight than shade, then we must look at the sukka. If the sukka itself, without the shade provided by the tree, is valid, then we ignore the branches hanging above the sukka. However, if the sekhakh allows more sunlight than shade, and only with the branches of the tree above do they together provide more shade than sunlight, then the sukka may be valid, as long as one lowers the braches and weaves them into the sekhakh.


However, R. Eliezer ben Yoel Ha-Levi (d. 1225), known as the Ra’avya, writes in his Avi Ha-Ezri (413) that even if the sukka is perfectly valid (i.e. its sekhakh ensures tzilata meruba me-chamata without the tree), even branches which allow more sunlight than shade invalidate the sekhakh located directly below. Therefore, if, without the sekhakh beneath these branches, there is not enough sekhakh for a valid sukka, the sukka is pasul. 


The Geonim and Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot 10a; Rosh 1:14) offer a third interpretation. They claim that the tree branches only disqualify the sekhakh located below if the sukka is built under the tree. However, if the sukka was built properly and the branches then grew over the sukka, then the sekhakh and sukka are valid.


            The Shulchan Arukh (626:1) cites both Rashi and the Ra’avya. The Bi’ur Halakha (s.v. ve-yesh) notes that when the Shulchan Arukh cites two opinions, both beginning with “ve-yesh omrim” (and some say), the halakha is in accordance with the second view - in this case, the view of the Ra’avya. Interestingly, both the Tur and Shulchan Arukh omit the view of the Geonim and Rabbeinu Tam.


            The Tur (626) records that based upon the stringent opinion of the Ra’avya, some prohibit the apparently once common practice of removing the bricks from one’s roof and building a sukka under the wooden beams that support the roof. Rabbeinu Yechiel reportedly would raise the sekhakh to the height of the roof, in order to “mix” the wooden beams with the sekhakh, similar to the lowering of the tree branches described above. The Tur cites the Ba’al Ha-Ittur, who claims that by removing the bricks, one demonstrates that the wooden beams are intended to be part of the sukka, and they are not to be considered sekhakh pasul. The Tur himself disagrees, insisting that even if the beams were invalid, there still remains enough sekhakh kasher in between the beams to validate the sukka.


The Shulchan Arukh (626:3) rejects this stringency and rules that one may build a sukka under the horizontal beams of a house after removing the bricks from the roof.


Making a Sukka under a Bed


            The mishna (20b) teaches that “He who sleeps under a bed in the sukka has not fulfilled his obligation.” Many (Rif 10a; Rosh 2:1; Rambam, Commentary to the Mishna 2:1, Hilkhot Sukka 5:23; Bach 626) explain that just as one may not build one’s sukka under another sukka, one similarly may not sleep under a bed. Apparently, they understand that the disqualification of a sukka built under another sukka teaches that there should be no significant interference between both the sekhakh and the sky and the sekhakh and the person. Or, as some have suggested, one should not sit under “two coverings,” but rather under only one, as it says, “and you shall sit in sukkot.”


The Ba’al Ha-Ma’or (10a), however, disagrees. He explains that one who sleeps under a bed inside the sukka is akin to one who sleeps in a tent inside a sukka. In this case, one does not fulfill his obligation, as one must sleep “under the shade of the sukka, and not under the shade of a tent.” The Ramban (Milchamot Hashem 10a) rejects this, arguing that a significant structure, such as a bed higher than ten tefachim, negates the sukka found above.


The gemara (20b, 10b–11a) discusses different types of beds and tents under which one may not sleep.


Noy Sukka - Hanging Sukka Decorations


            Although one must sit under the shade of the sukka, the Talmud allows, and even praises, one who adorns the sukka, including the sekhakh, with decorations. The gemara (10a) even describes how sukkot were beautifully adorned.


If he covered it according to the rule, and adorned it with embroidered hangings and sheets, and hung therein nuts, almonds, peaches, pomegranates, bunches of grapes, wreaths of ears of corn, [phials of] wine, oil or fine flour, it is forbidden to make use of them.


We will discuss “making use” of the sekhakh for other purposes next week.


The gemara (Shabbat 133b), for example, teaches:


For it was taught: “This is my God, and I will adorn him” (Shemot 15:2) - adorn thyself before Him in [the fulfillment of] precepts. [Thus:] make a beautiful sukka in His honor, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful tzitzit, and a beautiful sefer Torah...


Furthermore, the Rashba (Responsa 1:55) explains that not only do noy sukka beautify the mitzva, but they also make one’s living in the sukka more pleasant, especially significant in the mitzva of sukka, where we are commanded to transform the sukka into our home for the duration of the festival.


            The gemara (10b) cites a debate regarding the maximum distance that the noy sukka may be hung from the sekhakh.


It was stated: The adornments of a sukka which are removed four [tefachim from the roof] - R. Nachman declared valid and R. Chisda and Rabba son of R. Huna declared invalid. R. Chisda and Rabba son of R. Huna once came to the house of the exilarch, and R. Nachman sheltered them in a sukka whose adornments were separated four tefachim [from the roof]. They were silent and said not a word to him. Said he to them, “Have our Rabbis retracted their teaching”?  “We,” they answered him, “are on a religious errand, and [therefore] free from the obligation of the sukka.”


R. Chisda and Rabba maintain that if the sekhakh hangs lower than four tefachim from the roof, then the sukka may be invalid. R. Nachman disagrees.


            Assuming the halakha is in accordance with R. Chisda and Rabba (Rif, Rambam, Smag, Rosh, and Shulchan Arukh 629:19, 627:4), why do decorations that hang lower than four tefachim from the sekhakh potentially invalidate the sukka?


Some Rishonim (see Me’iri 10a, for example) understand that noy sukka hung lower than four tefachim may create their own sub-area within the sukka, similar to a tent within a sukka. In this case, he writes, noy sukka hung lower than four tefachim would only pose a problem if its dimensions are under seven tefachim by seven tefachim and if it provides more shade than sunlight, constituting a separate, invalid sukka within the sukka.


Other Rishonim (Rosh 1:18, for example) explain that as long as that which hangs from the sekhakh was intended for decorative purposes and it hangs within four tefachim of the sekhakh, it is considered “batel” and ignored. However, even noy sukka, it if hangs lower than four tefachim, is considered to be sekhakh pasul. Seemingly, like all sekhakh pasul, one may sit under noy sukka hung lower than four tefachim from the sekhakh as long is it is not four tefachim wide. These Rishonim debate whether we consider noy sukka hung lower than four tefachim to be sekhakh pasul even if it allows more sunlight than shade, or only if it provides more shade than sunlight (see Mishna Berura 627:11 and Sha’ar Ha-Tziyun 14-16).


            The Rama (627:4) writes that one should be careful not to hang any decorations lower that four tefachim from the sekhakh. The Mishna Berura (15) concludes that although technically, one may hang noy sukka smaller than four tefachim, one should refrain from doing so, lest one come to hang many decorations, which may add up to four tefachim. He adds that one need not be stringent regarding a light hung above the table, and in fact it may be preferable to distance it as much as possible from the sekhakh.


            If one may hang decorations from the sekhakh and they do not disqualify the sukka, then one might ask whether one may hang items from the sukka for other reasons.


The mishna (10a) teaches, “If one spreads a sheet over it because of the sun or beneath it because of falling [leaves] … [the sukka] is invalid.” The gemara explains that “R. Chisda stated, [our mishna] speaks only [of a sheet spread] because of falling [leaves], but if [it was spread] in order to beautify [the sukka], it is valid.”


The gemara implies that one may only hang a sheet above or below the sekhakh in order to beautify the sukka. Rashi and Rambam (Hilkhot Sukka 5:17) explain that one hangs the sheet in order to protect the table from falling leaves. The Mordekhai (736) adds, citing R. Peretz, that since the sheet was hung for the person’s sake and not for the sukka, it cannot be considered to be noy sukka. Noy sukka beautify the sukka, and are therefore batel (nullified) in relation to the sekhakh.


Other Rishonim, however, limit the case of the mishna and permit, at times, to hang a non-decorative sheet above or below the sekhakh. The Geonim (see Tosafot 10a), for example, explain that if the sukka was already constructed properly, that is, it provides more shade than sun, one may hang a sheet above or below the sekhakh to protect the sukka from the falling leaves. Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot ad. loc.) explains that the gemara prohibits hanging a sheet whose purpose is to prevent the sekhakh from drying out and falling; it invalidates the sukka because the sekhakh no longer provides ample shade. In other words, this sheet, according to Rabbeinu Tam, contributes to the validity of the sukka, and is therefore pasul. However, if one hangs a sheet not in order to maintain the integrity of the sekhakh, but rather to protect those sitting in the sukka from the sun or the falling leaves, it does not invalidate the sukka.


Interestingly, Tosafot (10a) and the Rosh (1:14) imply that Rabbeinu Tam believes that if the sukka is constructed properly and the sekhakh provides more shade than sunlight, the sukka is valid even if tree branches afterwards extend over the sukka or one hangs sheet above or below the sekhakh. The Tur, however, cites this view only regarding the sheet (629) and not regarding the tree branches (626). The Beit Yosef (629) writes that apparently one can distinguish between these two cases. The Bach (629) suggests that a sheet whose purpose is to make one’s stay in the sukka more pleasant by protecting the sukka from the sun or from falling leaves may be considered to be noy sukka and does not invalidate the sukka. However, the branches cannot, in any way, be considered noy sukka, and therefore they disqualify the sekhakh found below. Alternatively, he suggests that the Tur might accept both cases, the case of the sheet and that of the branches, when the sukka was erected first, but the Tur did not record this opinion in chapter 626, as there he was referring to branches found more than four tefachim above the sekhakh. If, however, the branches are within four tefachim of the sekhakh, they would certainly not disqualify the sekhakh below.


The Shulchan Arukh (629:19) cites the view of Rashi and the Rambam, and then the view of Rabbeinu Tam. The Mishna Berura (55) writes that one should follow the ruling of Rashi and the Rambam, who prohibit hanging a sheet for non-decorative purposes. He concludes, however, that in extenuating circumstances, if one cannot sit in the sukka due to falling leaves or string winds, or even rain (Magen Avraham 25), it may be preferable to hang a sheet within four tefachim of the sekhakh, but one should not recite the blessing of “le-shev ba-sukka.”


As we shall discuss next week, one may not remove or benefit from noy sukka for the duration of the festival (Shulchan Arukh 638:2).


Next week, we will study the laws relating to building the sukka and its sanctity.