Years ago, the standard method for sukkah construction involved schlepping heavy boards and interlocking them to form walls. In the last several decades, lightweight and easy-to-use sukkah building kits have surged in popularity. With the newfangled method, one merely needs to build a simple frame to which sheets are affixed as “walls.” This type of sukkah is colloquially called a “canvas sukkah,” although the walls may actually be made of other fabric or plastic.
While Jewish consumers have hailed the convenience of canvas sukkot, many rabbis have questioned their halachic acceptability. The Talmud states that partitions must be able to “withstand a normal wind” in order to be valid as sukkah walls (or to enable one to carry within their confines on Shabbat) (Sukkah 24b). Does the fact that all canvas walls sway at least slightly mean they are “unable to withstand the wind” and thus unacceptable for a sukkah?
It seems that the Rishonim debate this very point. According to a few authorities, a partition is only considered “unable to withstand the wind” if the wind can undermine its reliability as a wall (see Meiri, Eiruvin 8a; Hagahot Asheri, Eiruvin 1:9; Kiryat Sefer, Hilchot Sukkah 4:5). These poskim would seemingly accept flappy walls so long as the wind cannot knock them down or move them out of place.
The Eimek Beracha (siman 19), however, argues that this halacha does not simply warn us against using a wall that is not structurally sound. Rather, any swaying in a normal wind renders a partition invalid (see Rashi and Rabbeinu Chananel, Sukkah 24b; Rambam, Peirush HaMishnah, Sukkah 2:4 [Kapach edition], Hilchot Sukkah 4:5). The Eimek Beracha explains that “withstanding the wind” is merely one of many halachic specifications (“shiurim”) for a wall. The shiur for sturdiness is not being able to sway in a normal wind (although it may sway in an unusually strong wind).
The Chazon Ish famously adopts the lenient approach, maintaining that a wall is kosher as long as a wind cannot disturb the partition to such an extent that a gap wider than three tefachim is created in it or between it and the ground (which could occur if a wall is made, for example, out of tree branches – see below) (Orach Chayim 77:6). Since halacha views any gap less than three tefachim as if it were filled in (lavud), all parts of the wall remain halachically connected if they move less than three tefachim apart. Thus, such a partition may still be described as “withstanding” the wind.
The Chazon Ish writes that his ruling is a bit novel, as earlier poskim did not specifically define the nature of “withstanding wind” as he did. Rav Ovadia Yosef strongly disagrees with the Chazon Ish, arguing convincingly that the poskim’s silence on the matter demonstrates that the stringent approach – i.e. that a partition may not sway in the wind at all – represents normative halacha (Responsa Yechaveh Da’at 3:46).
Does that mean that all canvas sukkot are pasul according to the majority halachic opinion?
Perhaps not. Indeed, it seems unlikely that even the stringent opinion requires that sukkah walls be completely motionless when a wind blows. The Talmud states that one may use tree branches as walls for a sukkah provided they are tied down and secured to ensure they don’t move in the wind (Sukkah 24b). It seems far-fetched to suggest that the Talmud means that the tree branches must be tied so tightly that they literally don’t sway an iota in the wind (since, under normal circumstances, tying the branches so tightly is practically impossible). It thus appears indisputable that a wall that moves slightly when blown, such as a taut canvas wall, is not considered “unable to withstand the wind” (cf. Aruch HaShulchan 363:8).
The position of Rabbeinu Peretz strongly supports this contention (Hagahot 93:19). Rabbeinu Peretz notes that the common custom in his time was to make all the walls of a sukkah out of sheets. He considers this custom improper because a sheet may get detached (at least partially) from the frame and become a “partition that cannot withstand a regular wind.” Therefore, he suggests that one weave solid rods at three-tefach intervals throughout the sheet; that way, a halachic wall will remain (since gaps less than three tefachim wide are lavud) even if the sheet becomes detached.
Note that Rabbeinu Peretz only requires the lavud rods as a backup. Even without the rods, the sukkah is absolutely kosher so long as the sheets remain securely tied. The Shulchan Aruch quotes Rabbeinu Peretz’s position approvingly (Orach Chayim 630:10), and no one explicitly disagrees with it.[i]
Two things are thus clear:
1) Jews have historically availed themselves of the option of making sukkah walls out of sheets, and there is no indication that any early halachic authority considered doing so fundamentally unacceptable.
2) All sheets that are affixed to a frame by their edges naturally sway a bit; it therefore appears irrefutable that slight swaying does not render a partition “unable to withstand the wind.”
Although it seems certain that the walls of a sukkah need not be totally immobile, it remains difficult to define precisely how much they may sway.[ii] Due to this uncertainty, many contemporary poskim advise avoiding canvas sukkot whenever possible and recommend making sukkah walls from completely solid material (I personally heard Rav Hershel Schachter recommend this).
If one does use a canvas sukkah, one should ideally take care to install a backup lavud wall.[iii] In addition to alleviating the concern of the sheets coming untied, a lavud wall also serves to allay any worries of the sheets being too flappy in the first place.[iv] Materials for the construction of such a wall are included in many of today’s canvas sukkah kits. (When using a kit, one must ensure that the measurements of the lavud wall actually meet halachic specifications as not all kits are prepared properly; see R. Hadar Margolin, Dofen Sukkah Ka’Halacha, printed in the back of his book Hiddurei HaMiddot).
When necessary (e.g., if one is a guest), one may rely on a taut canvas sukkah even without lavud walls since sheet walls that are as tight and secure as reasonably possible are almost certainly considered “able to withstand a regular wind.” If the walls are very flappy, however, the sukkah should not be relied upon except, at a rabbi’s discretion, in an extreme emergency.
In conclusion: In order to avoid all controversy, many people use only completely solid walls for their sukkah. This practice is commendable, but not always practical. According to basic halacha, one may make the walls of a sukkah out of fabric, provided that they are taut and tied tightly, even though they may move slightly in the wind (some are even more lenient, but their opinion is not normative). Furthermore, it is proper to install a “backup wall,” making use of the halachic principle of lavud, in any canvas sukkah.
Rabbi Yaakov Hoffman leads Washington Heights Congregation (“The Bridge Shul”). He has semicha Yoreh Yoreh and Yadin Yadin from RIETS and is a practicing Sofer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.[v]
- [i] Since the rods are clearly not essential for the kashrut of the sukkah, it is quite perplexing that Rav Ovadia Yosef writes that those who make the walls of the sukkah from sheets without weaving rods in them “are dwelling in an invalid sukkah, are not fulfilling the mitzvah of sukkah according to halacha, and are making blessings in vain” (op. cit.). Rav Ovadia Yosef seems to assume that, in contrast to today’s canvas sukkot, the sheet walls mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch did not move perceptibly at all. This assumption seems very difficult to understand.
- [ii] Some explain that any swaying in the middle of the sheet wall is irrelevant as long as the edges are immobile (Moadim UZmanim 1:84; Mishmeret Moed, Sukkah 24b). This is a reasonable inference; however, early halachic sources do not state so explicitly. Echoing the Chazon Ish, R. Moshe Feinstein permits a wall to move within a three-tefach radius (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 5:40). The Chazon Ish himself, however, only mentions the issue of the wall developing three-tefach gaps; he is perhaps even more lenient regarding walls flapping as long as the material remains contiguous and situated correctly under the schach.
- [iii] The backup lavud wall that people generally use today is somewhat different from the one Rabbeinu Peretz describes. Instead of weaving rods into the fabric, people more commonly run straps or bars around the frame of the sukkah independently of the canvas. It’s true that some authorities don’t allow the walls of a sukkah to rely completely on the principle of lavud (see the lengthy analysis in Hilchot Chag BeChag, Sukkah 5:8), but in this case one is using the lavud walls, not independently, but as an extra precaution.
- [iv] Some authorities maintain that the first concern is not relevant in relation to today’s well-constructed canvas sukkot (see Moadim UZmanim op. cit. and the questioner in Igrot Moshe op. cit.), but most authorities disagree.
- [v] The author would like to thank Rabbi Ike Sultan for his helpful comments on this article (which is not to imply that Rabbi Sultan agrees with its conclusions).