Question: Is decorating the sukkah part of the mitzvah, or does the mitzvah only require the sukkah itself?
Answer: The simple answer is that providing for the mitzvah of [dwelling in a] sukkah would seem to be limited to the requirement to erect the structure, namely, the walls and the schach [the thatch].
In Parashat Emor the Torah states regarding the Sukkot festival (Leviticus 23:42): “Basukkot teshvu shiv’at yomim, kol ha’ezrach b’Yisrael yeshvu basukkot – You shall dwell in booths for seven days; all who are natives in Israel shall dwell in booths.” This verse serves as the command for us to sit in sukkot on the Festival of Tabernacles (see Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitzvot Aseh, Mitzvah 168).
The sukkah, including the specifications of the walls and the schach, are discussed in detail in the first chapter of Tractate Sukkah. The materials one may use for the schach must be gidulei-karka, products that grow from the ground. This is in accordance with R. Meir’s teaching (op. cit. 36b-37a). R. Meir states that we may take schach 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 sukkah according to the above requirements, without noy sukkah [sukkah decorations], one will clearly fulfill the essence of the biblical command.
Yet we find the following Baraita (Sukkah 10a-b): “If one covered the sukkah with schach, 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 schach on the sukkah, 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, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the Rishon L’Zion, explains in his Yalkut Yosef (Hilchot Noy Sukkah) that it is a mitzvah to decorate the sukkah. He refers to the Gemara (Shabbat 133b), which states regarding the verse in Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 15:2), “Ozi vezimrat kah va’yehi li ly’shua; zeh keli v’anvehu Elokai 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 v’anvehu” the concept of glorifying G-d with mitzvot. Accordingly, we make for Him a beautiful sukkah; we buy a beautiful lulav, etc.
Therefore it is customary to adorn the sukkah with all kinds of decorations as well as pictures [including pictures of Gedolei Yisrael].
We see that Rabbi Yosef’s reading of the Gemara is that the mitzvah to decorate the sukkah is not part of the mitzvah of fulfilling the sukkah‘s structural requirements, but rather because of “zeh keli v’anvehu.”
The only problem with this line of reasoning is that while Rambam does cite this Gemara in reference to acquiring a beautiful lulav, etrog, and the other species (Hilchot Lulav 7:7), he does not refer at all to beautifying the sukkah as a mitzvah, but makes casual reference (Hilchot Sukkah 5:17-18) to sukkah decorations. In no way does he state that it is a mitzvah.
In fact, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, zt”l, (Responsa Chatam Sofer, Orach Chayim 184), discusses a case where a kosher etrog was hung in a sukkah as a decoration, and someone came to that sukkah on Chol HaMoed from a distant place where no etrog was available. May he use the etrog that was suspended to fulfill the mitzvah of lulav and etrog?
Since the etrog served as a decoration and thus became muktzeh, may one nevertheless use it? If adorning the sukkah is a mitzvah under the rule of noy sukkah, 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 mitzvah consists only of the sukkah itself and not its decorations.
(To be continued)