By Date

Dear Friends,

The rabbis of old went to great lengths to ensure their sukkot were “built to code.” (Unlike modern construction, however, their “code” was the code of Jewish law.) They asked innumerable questions regarding the acceptable size and materials when constructing a kosher (ritually fit) sukkah.

Q. How small can it be?
A. The floor space must be large enough for a person to sit on a small chair or table. 27” x 27” is the absolute minimum.

Q. Can you build a sukkah under a tree or other type of existing covering?
A. No. The sukkah’s covering (S’chach) must be the only “roof.” (S’chach must be made from a material that grows from the ground — i.e. branches or leaves and must be cut/detached from the ground. Hence, a limb of an existing tree cannot be used.)

Q. Can you build a sukkah on a balcony?
A. Yes, so long as the sukkah is at least 27” x 27” and the balcony doesn’t have a roof. (See above)

 Q. How many walls must a sukkah have?
A. A sukkah must have at least two complete walls and part of a third wall.

Q. How high should the walls be?
A. A sukkah should be at least 38” and no more than 30’ high.

Q. What materials can be used to construct a sukkah’s walls?
A. The walls of a sukkah can be made from any material so long as they are sturdy enough to withstand a normal wind. (Please don’t ask me if today’s wind gusts would be considered “normal,” as there is nothing normal about recent weather patterns.)

Q. Can you use an existing hedge or even the side of a building as one of the walls of a sukkah?
A. Yes. While the structure as a whole must be “temporary,” the walls themselves do not have to be.

And finally, the most important burning question of all…

Q. Can an elephant be used as one of the sukkah’s walls?
A. Generally speaking, yes, an elephant can serve as one wall of a sukkah but only so long as it is properly secured.

Yes, my friends, in the Talmud there is an extensive discussion as to whether or not an elephant might be considered an appropriate wall for a kosher sukkah.

Those rabbinic authorities who objected to using an elephant as a wall for a sukkah do not object to using the elephant, per se. Their concern was that the elephant, if not secured properly, might walk away and leave the sukkah without a second wall. For that reason they ruled that an elephant cannot be used to construct a sukkah.

Other rabbinic authorities disagreed and said that, so long as the elephant was properly secured, it could serve as a wall for the sukkah.

Oh, but wait, there’s more.

The rabbis then ask whether the possibility that the elephant might die during the Sukkot Festival might disqualify the animal from serving as a wall. They ultimately concluded that the size of the elephant was sufficient that, even if the animal were to die during the Festival, it could still function as a wall and, as a result, an elephant could be used.

All of this might sound a bit ridiculous, and on many levels it is. Who would use an elephant as part of Sukkah construction? After all, the idea is absurd even if we leave aside the fact that the elephant might eat the s’chach from the roof, leaving it fully exposed, and the foul smell might make time in the sukkah unpleasant. (Also, how many rabbis owned a pet elephant in antiquity or today?)

So why would the rabbis of old have engaged in such a ridiculous debate?

Perhaps they wanted us to understand that Jewish life is never simple, never black and white, and never one size fits all. Perhaps such a discussion was intended as a reminder of the need to strike a balance between the specific laws and rituals of our tradition and the circumstances in which an individual or community finds themselves. Perhaps they wanted us to understand that Jewish life is never as clear-cut as it might initially seem.

Too often that tension between the “rules” we have inherited and the circumstances in which we are living is lost today. Even those of us on the more liberal side of our tradition often ask the “right way” to do things. We/they worry we might “do Jewish wrong.” Of course, there are normative ways of performing various Jewish rituals, but, as the rabbinic debates of old make clear, that doesn’t mean the specific needs or challenges of our times shouldn’t factor in.

Ritual IS important. But it should never overshadow the needs and challenges of the individuals who are part of the community performing them.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot!

Rabbi Daniel Cohen

PS: In that same Talmudic discussion, the rabbis ask whether a sukkah can be built on a ship. We’ll explore that burning question at services tonight.


After my sermon on Yom Kippur morning, a number of you asked how you could learn more and get more involved in the movement to protect Israel’s democracy. Beginning this week, I will be including relevant articles, videos, and action steps you might take. Here are a few:

My Sermon:

Here’s the link to a recent webinar with my friend Yossi Klein HaLevi:

To Keep Up to Date and Find Ways to Demonstrate and Donate:
USA for Israeli Democracy

To Read Daily:
The Times of Israel


Impactful Articles:
The state of our brokenness

All of Us Together: The Call and the Warning

An Open Letter to Israel’s Friends in North America

Diaspora Jews: Time to Take a Stand