Decorating the Sukkah

Snazz Up Your Sukkah with These Tips and Laws

Canvas-sided sukkah on a roof in Jerusalem topped with palm branches and bamboo mat.
Gilabrand, WikiCommons

Building the sukkah can be a laborious task, but it's the decorating of the sukkah that truly brings Sukkot alive for Jews of all ages. 

Meaning

Sukkot means "booths," and refers to the temporary dwelling that all Jews are commanded to live in during the holiday in commemoration of the wanderings in the desert. Lasting for seven days in the early fall, it is traditional to eat all meals in the sukkah and to sleep in the sukkah.

Although Chabad Jews do not decorate the sukkah, as it's considered to be an object of beauty in its own right, most people hang colorful, seasonal, and meaningful decorations in their sukkot to create a festive atmosphere. 

Schach

There are countless regulations about how to build a sukkah, and the schach (סכך), or roof, has just as many options. The only requirements are that the roof be open enough to see the stars in the sky and that it be made of something that once grew. 

Although many buy a simple bamboo mat to cover their sukkot, others will forage for foliage to build a custom schach. Popular coverings include tree branches or palm fronds, as well as seasonal items like fall foliage or cornstalks.

The Laws

According to the Talmud, it is a mitzvah to decorate and beautify the sukkah (Gemara Shabbat 133b). 

There are many different laws surrounding decorations in the sukkah, although observance of these varies from community to community.

When in doubt, check with your local rabbi. Here are some of the laws:

  • Sukkah decorations cannot be used for benefit from the first day of Sukkot until after Simchat Torah, unless the individual who hangs the objects (e.g., fruit) states that he or she intends to eat and receive benefit from the decorations during the holiday (S"A 638:2, Chazon Ovadyah (Sukkot pg 77).
  • If the decorations fall on the holiday, they are muktzah (forbidden) and cannot be moved or put back up until Chol ha'Moed (Rama 638:2). If the decorations fall during Chol Ha'Moed (the middle days of the holiday), they can be hung back up. 
  • However, if one is afraid that rain or thieves will remove or steal the decorations on Shabbat or first and last days of the holiday (when the items are muktzah), then they can be removed, even if there wasn't a specific mention of the intention to take them down as mentioned above.
  • There are concerns about decorations dangling in a way that would create a barrier (chatzitzah) that would make the sukkah no longer halachicly (legally) valid for fulfilling the commandment to reside and eat in. As such, there is a ruling that decorations should hang no more than four tefachim (handbreadths) from the schach (roof of the sukkah). 

Ready, Set, Decorate

Fresh, dried, and plastic fruit are traditionally draped about the sukkah. Some will decorate with the etrog and the seven species of Israel, including wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deuteronomy 8:8). However, Mishnah Brurah 638:11 says that you shouldn't hang nice fruit in your sukkah if you have children and it is known that that they'll rip the fruit down and eat them.

 

Others will hang streamers, Sukkot-related pictures and posters with prayers, and shiny ornaments. There is a common tradition to purchase decorations like tinsel and lights after Christmas and other holiday sales to outfit the sukkah, too. 

There are many families who will line the interior of the sukkah with clean, white linens to represent the "Clouds of Glory" that surrounded the Jewish nation throughout the time in the desert. 

Many Jews commonly will hang dried squash and corn in the sukkah, because these vegetables are in season around October when Sukkot typically falls. Many families will hang children's artwork in the sukkah, and others will paint panels for the wooden walls of their sukkot with symbolism and scenes relevant to the holiday and the wanderings in the desert. 

For craft ideas on how to decorate your sukkah, check out some of the following links:

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Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "Decorating the Sukkah." ThoughtCo, Jan. 28, 2016, thoughtco.com/decorating-the-sukkah-2076503. Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. (2016, January 28). Decorating the Sukkah. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/decorating-the-sukkah-2076503 Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "Decorating the Sukkah." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/decorating-the-sukkah-2076503 (accessed December 16, 2017).