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What’s the Right Way to Rebuild a Fallen Sukka?

October 13, 2014

.הרחמן הוא יקים לנו את סוכת דוד הנופלת

Here in Kochav Yaakov, the erratic weather that arrived with the holiday wrought havoc on quite a few neighbors’ sukkas. The first morning I heard no fewer than five stories about sukkas in various stages of destruction. Some lost their s’chach, while some collapsed, and someone was even taken to the hospital for his injuries. In one interesting case, a particular sukka lost its walls, but its roof of s’chach remained intact. The owner then wanted to know about the rebuilding process: could he merely restore the walls in order to revalidate the sukka?

Some background: A basic sukka’s structure has to consist of three halachic “walls” of minimum height and a roof of suitable s’chach. The halacha has a particular quality standard for the first two “walls” (e.g., that they not be too porous), and they can either be perpendicular to each other as seen from a bird’s eye view, or parallel to each other, and a lesser standard for the third “wall.” The sages also declared that once the “walls” are of a minimum height from the ground or the floor on which they stand, they do not have to reach the level of the “roof.” The s’chach merely needs to somehow stay suspended roughly over the area boxed in by the “three walls.” Imagine a brick horse shoe (or het shape) of three walls each one meter long, each with a height of one meter, and four metal poles at the two corners and two open ends that protrude from the ground to a height of a meter above the top of the “walls”, and the s’chach roof sits on top of those poles. This would be a perfectly valid sukka, although the walls and roof do not meet. The s’chach and the walls are both necessary components, and without either the sukka would be invalid. 

Now, the opinion of our sages (Sukka 27a) is that one may build a sukka for the purposes of the festival even on Hol Hamoed, and that one may repair damaged sukkoth during Hol Hamoed. Such is the standard practice.

Returning to the question at hand, one local rabbi ruled that if the owner restored the walls, then his sukka would still be invalid until he would remove and then replace the the s’chach. This is based on a ruling of the Rema at the end of Orah Hayim 635: “One should not place the s’chach before [erecting] the walls…” The Mishna Berura (635:9) explains that when the s’chach, the component of the sukka that gives the sukka its name and what distinguishes it from any other structure built for shelter, precedes the walls, the s’chach-roof is not considered to have satisfied the general rule of ta’aseh, w’lo min he’asui, lit. “make it, and not from that which is made,” i.e. one has to actively create the object of the commandment, and not use an object that came about passively, in this case to make the s’chach, the object of the commandment, after erecting the walls, and not allow the roof to passively come into existence by erecting the walls underneath. The Mishna Berura (635:10) continues by noting that if one ended up somehow laying the s’chach in place before erecting the walls, then according to the Bah, the sukka is still valid, “but many later authorities disagree with him and in their opinion the sukka is invalid even after the fact,” citing the L’vush, the Taz, and the Eliyah Rabba. The Taz (635:4) has a lengthy explanation of his reasoning. The rabbi apparently thought that 1. rebuilding a sukka would have the the same laws as building one from scratch and 2. as the erection of the walls must precede the laying of the s’chach, then in a case where the walls were destroyed and the s’chach was left intact and in place, replacing the walls would not revalidate the sukka. (Of course, to remedy this situation one would merely have to do a token removal and replacement of the s’chach, i.e., by lifting up each piece and then re-laying it, an act described in the Mishna, Sukka 1:7 and 2:7.)

Apparently this question made the rounds, because another local Rabbi told me that he had heard both the question and the answer, and strongly disagreed with the answer, almost blaming me for the first Rabbi relying on the ruling of the Taz as brought by the Mishna Berura. I tried to explain that indeed it is often standard practice for a rabbi to rely on major works like the Mishna Berura. He then claimed that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had already addressed the more specific question at hand, and had ruled that the law as brought by the Bah was actually correct, and that the Taz’s argumentation was incorrect. That being the case, the Rabbi should not have relied on the Mishna Berura’s ruling without first considering that perhaps a dissenting opinion was more correct.

This is actually a  long-running controversy within rabbinical circles: to what extent may a rabbi question the precedents set by his predecessors, and which predecessors may, if any, be questioned? I am aware that the first rabbi tends to believe that predecessors of the same place of former exile have greater standing, while predecessors from other places do not, whereas the second rabbi gives less regard as to whether a particular view was expressed by an Ashkenazi or a Sepharadi.

Rabbi Yosef claimed that after the fact, a sukka could be built in the wrong “order”, i.e., s’chach-roof first, then walls. Secondly and more significantly, even the Taz and the Mishna Berura might not invalidate a sukka whose walls fell down and were then re-erected due to the rule mentioned above concerning actively making the s’chach after putting up the walls, as opposed to passively creating a roof by building walls underneath the suspended s’chach. Why? Because assuming the s’chach-roof was laid properly when the sukka was first built, then even though the walls subsequently collapsed, the s’chach is still considered as though a valid roof for a sukka, except that its sukka merely lacks the required walls, and once those walls are replaced, the sukka is once again complete. I defended the first Rabbi’s position by positing that he presumed that the entire sukka was considered as non-existent once its walls ceased to exist, even if the s’chach remained in place. I also noted an analogous ruling I had received once concerning my tzitzith.

Normally, tzittzith are made by tying four strings to the corner of a garment, and then tying the doubled strings into an intricate braid. What if the strings were to rip at the point where they connect to the garment, causing the braid to separate from it, yet remaining intact: could I take the severed strings at the edge of the braid, the “base” so to speak, and reconnect it to the garment, leaving the braid as is? I had been told no, and that if I were to reconnect the strings to the garment, I would then have to undo and then retie the entire braid. The second Rabbi challenged this ruling as well.

He claimed that all would agree that if one were to take strings, braid them, and then attach them to a garment, then they would not constitute valid tzitzith. However, once strings are created into a braid after they had been attached to a garment, then even if the entire braid were to become detached from that garment, it could be reattached to that garment, or any other garment for that matter, as the “passively made therefore disqualified rule” does not apply to a braid of tzitzith once it had been made properly!

So too, once a s’chach-roof has been laid properly, it can no longer be said to have been recreated passively, even if new walls were erected underneath it.

Another analogous case would be a m’zuza attached to a a door frame. The normal procedure is to build a doorway, and then to affix the m’zuza to one of the posts. All would agree that if one were to build a doorway -two posts and a crossbeam- then affix a m’zuza to one of the posts, and then set the doorway into its place in the opening of the wall, then one has not actively affixed the m’zuza, but rather has allowed the m’zuza to come into existence. However, the rabbis would disagree in a case whereby one completely removed the doorway, posts, m’zuza, and all, completely intact from the hole in the wall, and then re-installed that door frame in its place or elsewhere. According the first rabbi’s ruling, such a m’zuza is also passively made, whereas according to the second rabbi’s reading of Rabbi Yosef, such a m’zuza is valid, as once it was affixed properly, it can no longer be invalidated with the “passively made therefore disqualified rule.”

I also offered some possible test cases to better understand these competing views. To what extent were the sukka’s walls invalidated? Let’s work with the case I described above, the sukka with the three walls each one meter long and high. In one scenario all three walls would be entirely removed, whereas in in a second scenario only one of the walls would be removed, leaving the other two intact. In the first scenario, it makes more sense to claim that even though the s’chach-roof is still intact, the sukka has ceased to exist because it has no walls whatsoever, and therefore, in order to revalidate the sukka, it would be necessary to first rebuild the walls and then relay the s’chach, whereas in the second scenario it might be more reasonable to claim that because two complete walls are still standing and the sukka merely lacks a third wall to validate its structure (the Mishna and Maimonides make it very clear that, as we said earlier, there is a lower standard for what constitutes the third wall, and the construction of the third wall is usually a halachic formality) then the s’chach is still considered as resting on the structure of the walls, and once one fixes the third wall, it is not necessary to do anymore in order to validate the s’chach. In short, there might be a difference between cases of complete removal of the walls and mere minimal invalidation of the walls.

This idea has an analog with regards to certain halachoth that apply specifically to the s’chach: If there is a sufficiently large gap within the s’chach-roof, or between the wall (or the area directly above the wall if the walls do not actually reach as high as the s’chach) and the s’chach (from a bird’s eye view) then the entire roof is invalid. However, if there was some s’chach filling in the gap, even if that section of s’chach itself is invalid due to its lack of thickness (its gaps take up more area than the shade it casts), the rest of the s’chach is valid. That is, even though the section of thin s’chach is invalid in someway, it does not invalidate the whole, but actually helps to maintain the validity of the rest, whereas a complete lack of s’chach in the wrong place invalidates the rest of the s’chach that may be present. So too, there could be a difference between just barely lacking the requisite but token third wall in the structure and a complete lack of structure.

Bottom line: according to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one does not have to relay the s’chach of a sukka whose walls collapsed, leaving the s’chach intact.


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