Question: Is decorating the Sukkah part of the mitzvah, or does the mitzvah only require the Sukkah itself?
Synopsis: Last week we referred to the biblical commandment to dwell in booths on Sukkot (Leviticus 23:42). A covering of schach (thatch), defined as any substance that grows in the ground, has to be used, as discussed in the Gemara (Sukkah 36b-37a). While we understand that the walls and schach together form a halachically acceptable sukkah, mention is made (Sukkah 10a-b) of decorations hung on the walls and from the schach. In fact, the Rishon LeZion, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (in Yalkut Yosef) informs us that decorations are part of the commandment to “beautify” and glorify G-d, “zeh keli ve’anvehu.” Rambam, however, applies that to the Four Species (including the lulav and etrog) that we are commanded to take on Sukkot, rather than to the sukkah decorations. If the decorations are seen as an integral part of the mitzvah, that will affect their muktzeh status on the holiday as well.
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Answer: The Gaon Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Responsa Teshuvot Ve’Hanhagot, Orach Chayim 307) comments on the baraita (Sukkah 102-116) which we cited last week: “Therefore it seems that there is a din [a halachic requirement] of noy Sukkah as a mitzvah, and therefore [the decorations] are forbidden [to be used] since they are muktzeh because they were set apart for a mitzvah.”
Rabbi Sternbuch then cites the Mishnah Berurah (638:11), who quotes Elyahu Rabbah stating that it is a mitzvah to hang up decorations in the sukkah. The Mishnah Berurah also quotes the Shelah, who says that it is “proper” to beautify the sukkah and decorate it (we understand the Shelah’s usage of the word “proper” to mean “a mitzvah”).
Rabbi Sternbuch also notes that he has seen some Gedolei Yisrael who refrain from decorating the sukkah.
We also have to make note of the minhag (custom) of Chabad to refrain from decorating the Sukkah, according to the hosafot (additions) at the end of Seder Orach Chayim in Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Chabad edition of the Codes). We also find it in a sicha, a halachic discourse (Sukkot 1943) of the Rebbe Rayatz (Grand Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l).
Therefore, continues Rabbi Sternbuch, we have to explain this matter according to Teshuvot HaRashba (Volume 1:55): “The main matter here, according to my understanding, is what we derive from the verse (Leviticus 23:42), ‘You shall dwell in booths for seven days; all who are natives in Israel shall dwell in booths.’” Commenting on that verse, the Gemara (Sukkah 27a) explains it to mean “to sit (in the sukkah) just as we dwell (in our house).”
Additionally, it is a choice mitzvah to hang up beautiful items to endear the mitzvah to oneself so that his [temporary] dwelling, the Sukkah, should be beautiful. These decorations are specifically not being hung for the purpose of schach. The difference is explained regarding a sheet that is spread (above or below the schach to protect those in the Sukkah from the sun’s heat or from falling twigs, where the sheet appears to be part of the schach and therefore it is not allowed. Decorations, however, which are used to beautify the dwelling and endear the mitzvah of Sukkah, do not create a chatzitza, a separation between the people and the schach, and they are allowed.
Rabbi Sternbuch points out an unusual innovative approach (chiddush) in the Rashba’s words: the decorations are only permitted because they directly serve the purpose of the essence of the mitzvah by enhancing the mitzvah for the individual. Decorations would not be considered a separation between the individual and the schach, a matter that would invalidate the Sukkah.
The Gemara considers a beautiful sukkah to be a requirement, but Rashba explains that decorations serve to beautify and endear the sukkah to the individual. His reasoning seems to indicate that other than for this purpose, no additional mitzvah of hiddur is fulfilled when decorating the sukkah. The rule of “Zeh keli ve’anvehu” applies only to the object used for a mitzvah, such as tefillin, shofar, tzitzit, or an etrog.
However, Sukkah decorations are not part of the object but are appendages. Therefore, we must say that if it does not seem beautiful to the individual (or if a sukkah with decorations does not appeal to him), it would not fulfill, for him, the requirement of “teshvu ke’ein taduru – sitting as one dwells,” and therefore it would serve as a separation between him and his schach and would not be allowed.
Rabbi Sternbuch concludes that the Gemara (loc. cit.) refers to the actual walls of the sukkah, which are to be whole and of the best material.
Rabbi Sternbuch then takes issue with the recent proliferation of paper and foil decorations that are hung under the schach, which he feels to be of gentile origin. He would rather that decorations be hung at the sides and on the walls.
In closing, I will mention a story told to me both by my uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l, and my father, Reb Anshel Klass z”l about my great-grandfather [and namesake], HaRav Yaakov Epstein, zt”l. When Rabbi Epstein sought housing for his large family, he was known to skip the tour of the apartments and go straight to the backyards. After he had looked at a specific spacious backyard, he smiled and said, “Mir vel es nemen — We’ll take it.” Rabbi Epstein was looking ahead for space to fit a Sukkah, which was more important to him than the apartment itself. He would always comment that the more beautiful one’s Sukkah is [to oneself], the more beautiful his actual home will be.
May the care we give our temporary dwellings, where we sit for a week at G-d’s command, bring us rewards in our present year-round homes as well as in our future homes, when Moshiach comes.