The sukka, including the specifications of the walls and the sechach, are discussed in detail in the first chapter of Tractate Sukka. The materials one may use for the sechach must be gidulei karka, products of the ground. This is in accordance with R. Meir’s teaching (op. cit. 36b-37a). R. Meir states that we may take sechach from any available tree. The Gemara also mentions nesarim, slats of lumber, which is what many of us use today.
Thus there is no doubt that if one constructed the sukka according to the above requirements, without noy sukka (sukka decorations), one will clearly fulfill the essence of the biblical command.
Yet we find the following baraita (Sukka 10a-b): “If one covered the sukka with sechach, as halachically required, and decorated it with [any or all of these:] embroidered hangings and sheets, and hung in it nuts, almonds, peaches and pomegranates, clusters of grapes and wreaths of grain, wine, oil, or fine flour [in clear glass bottles] it is forbidden to make use of them [as they are muktzeh] until the conclusion of the last day of the festival. However, if he made a stipulation [before yom tov], everything depends on and goes according to his stipulation [and the rule of muktzeh does not apply].”
We see from this baraita that the sechach on the sukka, when used in the prescribed manner, fulfills the basic halachic requirement. All the other items listed seem to be placed there to please the eye, and since each of them has other possible uses, either as garments and covers, or food and drink, of which one might wish to avail oneself at any time, the baraita cautions us that in the event of no prior stipulation, these items are all considered muktzeh, which we may not use on the Sabbath and on holidays, or even during the Intermediate Days.
Nevertheless, R. Yitzhak Yosef explains in his Yalkut Yosef (Hilchot Noy Sukka) that it is a mitzva to decorate the sukka. He refers to the Gemara (Shabbat 133b), which states regarding the verse in Parashat BeShalach (Exodus 15:2), “Ozi vezimrat kah va’yehi li liyeshua; zeh keli ve’anvehu elokei avi va’aromemenhu - G-d is my strength and my praise, He is my salvation; this is my G-d and I will glorify (beautify) Him, the G-d of my father and I will exalt him.”
We derive from the phrase “zeh keli ve’anvehu” the concept of glorifying G-d with mitzvot. Accordingly, we make for Him a beautiful sukka, we buy a beautiful lulav, etc.
Therefore it is customary to adorn the sukka with all kinds of decorations as well as pictures (including pictures of Gedolei Yisrael).
In fact, R. Moshe Sofer, zt”l (Responsa Chatam Sofer, Orach Chayyim 184), discusses a case where a kosher etrog was hung in a sukka as a decoration, and someone came to that sukka on Chol HaMo’ed from a distant place where no etrog was available. May he use the etrog that was suspended to fulfill the mitzva of lulav and etrog?
Since the etrog served as a decoration and thus became muktzeh, may one nevertheless use it? If adorning the sukka is a mitzva under the rule of noy sukka, then perhaps this etrog should not be used. Yet we find that the Chatam Sofer permitted the etrog to be used in that case. This would sustain our original statement that the mitzva consists only of the sukka itself and not its decorations.
(To be continued)