One of the beautiful and pleasing aspects of Sukkos is the customary Sukkah decorations. They provide children with healthy Sukkos activity prior to the festival, and adults with the pleasure of enjoying the finished product in the Sukkah.
Although there is no formal halachic obligation to decorate the Sukkah, doing so is clearly an ancient custom (decorations are mentioned in early and later writings of Chazal), and it fulfills the precept of “this is my G-d, and I will beautify Him” (Shemos 15:3). And though our principal focus concerning decorations is that they should adorn the Sukkah as best as possible, there are some important halachic issues that Sukkah decorations are liable to raise.
In the present article we will discuss some of these halachic points.
Mitzvah of Decoration
The Gemara (Shabbos 133b), citing a beraisa, notes a general obligation to beautify the mitzvos we perform. This obligation is derived from the words in Shiras Hayam “this is my G-d, and I will beautify Him” (Shemos 15:3), which is understood to mean that we must beautify the mitzvos. One of the examples that the beraisa mentions is the mitzvah of Sukkah: The Sukkah we build should be beautiful.
The Raavad (cited in Chidushei Anshei Shem, Berachos 38a) suggests that concept of beautifying a mitzvah is a full Torah commandment. While there are no formal parameters for the Sukkah, ensuring the Sukkah is well decorated will thus fulfill a Torah mitzvah. Other authorities, however, write that this is a rabbinic mitzvah, and not a full Torah precept (see, for instance, Ritva, Sukkah 11b).
Based on the idea of beautifying the Sukkah, the Mishnah Berurah (638:11) writes (citing the Shela) that there is a mitzvah to decorate the Sukkah with nice fruits and clothing. However, he adds that one should not hang fruit if there is a chance that children are likely to tear them down (which might involve a Shabbos prohibition) or eat them (see below that this, too, is forbidden).
Where to Place Decorations
Decorations are either hung on the walls of the Sukkah, or hung from the roof of the Sukkah—the sechach. Hanging decorations from the sechach raises a potential problem for the validity of the Sukkah. The obligation of sitting in the Sukkah requires sitting under proper sechach. Plastic and metallic decorations are disqualified as sechach, which raises the question: Do decorations hanging from the roof constitute a problem concerning sitting under the sechach?
This question is discussed by the Gemara (Sukkah 10a-b). Based on the Mishnah, the Gemara discusses a sheet that is placed under the sechach as a decoration, and rules that if the sheet is within four tefachim of the sechach, the Sukkah is not disqualified by the sheet. The reason for this is that the sheet becomes incidental, as it were, to the roof of the Sukkah—the sechach. Since it serves the sechach (as the Rosh explains, it decorates the sechach) it is not considered an independent entity, and therefore does not disqualify the Sukkah.
However, when Sukkah decorations are hung from the roof of the Sukkah, and hang down lower that four tefachim under the sechach, the Gemara cites Rav Huna and Rav Chidsa that the decorations disqualify the area under them. The reason for this is that beyond four tefachim the decorations can no longer be considered incidental to the sechach.
Rashi writes that under these circumstances, somebody sitting under the decorations is not considered sitting under the sechach, since he is sitting under an independent ohel— a separate roof — rather than the kosher sechach. The Rambam (Sukkah 5:18) and the Rosh (Sukkah Chap. 1, 15-16) write simply that the person is sitting under invalid sechach, and therefore cannot fulfill his mitzvah.
Based on Rashi, it seems that only a decoration that is a halachic roof will disqualify the Sukkah. This, indeed, is the ruling given by the Ra’ah (cited in the Ritva, Sukkah 10b), who states that only a decoration whose “shade is greater than its sun” disqualifies the Sukkah. However, based on the Rambam and the Rosh, any decoration wider that four tefachim—the shiur for non-sechach material to disqualify the Sukkah—will be a problem.
These principles are ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 627:4). The Mishnah Berurah (12) writes that the restriction against decorations hanging below four tefachim applies to any decoration wider than four tefachim. Moreover, if the decoration is in the middle of the Sukkah (rather than adjacent to its walls), it may disqualify the entire Sukkah, and not just the area immediately underneath it (based on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 632).
The Rema adds (citing Maharil) that one should preferably refrain from hanging any decoration more than four tefachim under the Sukkah roof—even if the decoration is less the four tefachim wide (Mishnah Berurah 15). Based on this, one who makes colored paper chains as a decoration for the Sukkah should make sure that the chain hangs within four tefachim of the sechach. Yet, if it does hang beneath four tefachim, the Sukkah remains kosher, and one can sleep under the chain, too. The Mishnah Berurah adds that concerning lamps, one should be careful not to hang them close to the sechach, for fear of the sechach catching fire.
On the question of whether the entire decoration needs to be within the four tefachim, or if being partially within the four tefachim is sufficient, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Mikra’ei Kodesh) remained in doubt. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky ruled that it is sufficient for the decorations to be partially within four tefachim of the sechach, and they do not have to be within four tefachim in their entirety (Emet LeYaakov, Orach Chaim 627). Rav Elyashiv zt”l (Sefer Heoros) proved that is indeed the case, but noted that the common custom is to hang decorations only if they are entirely within four tefachim of the sechach.
Using the Sukkah Wood
The Gemara (Sukkah 9a) derives from the shared terminology used by the Torah between a Sukkah and a korban that just as a korban is sanctified, so the wood of a Sukkah is sanctified, and is therefore forbidden for use for mundane matters in a way that interferes with their use for the Succa (Thus, one is permitted to lean on the walls, of the Succa, Mishnah Beruro 638, 4.). According to Tosafos (Beitza 30b), this is a full Torah-level prohibition.
The Rambam (Sukkah 6:15) writes that the prohibition applies not only to the sechach, but even to the walls of the Sukkah, while the Rosh (Sukkah 1:13) rules that the prohibition applies only to the sechach. Another dispute among early authorities relates to whether the prohibition applies even if the Sukkah falls down (see Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 638). On both matters, the Shulchan Aruch (638:1) rules stringently: the prohibition applies even to the walls, and the Rema adds that it applies even after the Sukkah falls down.
Elsewhere (Shabbos 22a, in discussing the prohibition of using Chanukah candles for their light), the Gemara implies that the foundation of the prohibition relates to bizuy mitzvah, showing disrespect for a mitzvah. Using the Sukkah for mundane purposes is disrespectful, and for the duration of Sukkos it is therefore forbidden to do so.
It is possible that a separate derivation is required for the Sukkah, unlike for other mitzvos, since a Sukkah is special in that there is no ritual mitzvah action related to the Sukkah. The mitzvah is simply to live in the Sukkah. Nonetheless, we learn that the Sukkah has the sanctity of mitzvah items, and therefore cannot be used for mundane purposes.
Using or Eating Decorations
Just as the Sukkah is prohibited from deriving mundane benefit for the duration of Sukkos, so it is forbidden to derive mundane benefit from the decorations (Sukkah, ibid.; Shabbos, ibid.). The decorations are part of the Sukkah (“annulled to the Sukkah”), and are prohibited together with the Sukkah. This, too, is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (638:2).
However, it is permitted to use (or eat) decorations during Sukkos if a condition is made in advance, whereby one does not “separate himself from use of the objects when each of the days of Sukkos begin (i.e. bein hashemashos of each day of Sukkos).” Based on this stipulation, which is noted in the Gemara (Beitza 30a), the decorations do not become wholly attached to the mitzva of the Sukkah, since even as Sukkos began the owner had in mind that he could make alternative use of them.
Thus, if the stipulation is made it is permitted to remove and use the decorations from the Sukkah and/or use them for other things, even if they did not first fall. This is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch and by the Mishnah Berurah (638:19).
There are, however, specific requirements for how to make the stipulation. For this reason, the Rama (638:2; but see dissenting view of various acharonim in the Mishnah Berurah 638:23) prefers that people should not rely upon it.
Muktzeh on Shabbos
Aside from the prohibition against using the decorations for alternative purposes, the decorations are actually muktzeh on Shabbos and on Yom Tov—it is forbidden to move them and handle them, as with regular muktzeh items (this is not prohibited on Chol Hamo’ed, but only on Shabbos and Yom Tov).
This prohibition is mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch, and the Gra explains that since a person may not have personal benefit from the decorations, it follows that they have muktzeh status. If the decoration fell on Shabbos or Yom Tov, it remains muktzeh for that entire day, and must not be moved. The Biur Halacha discusses the case of decorations or pines falling on the table and disrupting the Yom Tov meal: in this case, the decoration should be moved in an indirect way, to facilitate the continuation of the meal.
When a condition was made permitting the use of the decorations for mundane purposes the muktzeh prohibition will not apply, since it is permitted to use the decorations. However, many decorations are attached to the Sukkah in ways that forbid their detachment, and one must of course be careful of this regardless of the muktzeh prohibition.
Wishing all our readers a Chag Someach