The Mitzvah of Building a Sukkah

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29 Jun 2006

In general, a mitzva consists of performing a certain action with a particular object. For example eating matza, donning tefillin, “taking” a lulav, and blowing a shofar are all considered mitzvot. The mitzva consists of a precise action performed with a specific item known as the “cheftza” of the mitzva. In general, the “manufacture” of the item is not part of the essential mitzva. Instead, this preparatory stage is known as “hekhsher mitzva” – preparations which are necessary for the fulfillment of the mitzva but which do not constitute its essence. One would assume the same principle regarding sukka. The mitzva consists primarily in using a particular item (a sukka) as a residence, with the construction of the sukka being purely within the realm of hekhsher mitzva. A statement found in the Yerushalmi, however, alters this impression. The exact nature of the activity of building a sukka will form the subject of this article.

The mishna (9a) cites a machloket between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel regarding an “old” sukka. Suppose, instead of building a sukka for the purposes of Chag Sukkot, a person employs an old hut, which just happens to be built according to the halakhic blueprint of a sukka. Beit Shammai invalidates this sukka, requiring a “sukka lishma” – one built specifically for yom tov. Beit Hillel (whose opinion is accepted as halakha) permits any hut as long as it was built according to the proper specifications. The Yerushalmi, however, adds one stipulation according to Beit Hillel. When using an “old” sukka a person must build one small part anew – “ve-tzarikh lechadesh bah davar.” Many commentators interpret the Yerushalmi as defining a new mitzva – “construction of the sukka.” Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai argue about the texture of the sukka and whether an old hut will suffice. They each agree, however, that a person himself has a mitzva to actually ERECT the sukka. Thus, even though Beit Hillel tolerates the use of an existing structure, they require a small act of NEW construction so that the person will fulfill his obligation to build a sukka. Indeed the Ran (1a in the pages of the Rif) refers to this obligation of the Yerushalmi as “mitzva min ha- muvchar” while the Me’iri in his comments (to 9a) applies the label “hiddur mitzva.” The impression given is that this mitzva of constructing a sukka is not absolutely obligatory (it isn’t me’akev be-dieved – if one doesn’t actually build he has still fulfilled the principal mitzva); however, it still is preferable and enhances the quality of the mitzva.


The comment of the Yerushalmi – that when using an old sukka a person must at least add some new element – presents the impression that unlike other mitzvot, the mitzva of sukka actually involves manufacturing the cheftza of the mitzva.

The question remains as to whether this concept has any grounding in the Bavli. The gemara in Makkot (8a) discusses the fate of one who is chopping wood and subsequently kills a person when his ax blade dislodges. The gemara rules that such an inadvertent killer goes to exile only if his chopping was for mundane reasons, as opposed to chopping performed in the context of a mitzva. The gemara rules, however, that one who chops wood for a sukka is not chopping for a mitzva – since he is not required to chop; had he found chopped wood he could have utilized that wood. Rashi elaborates: “The ACTUAL CHOPPING IS NOT PART OF THE MITZVA, RATHER THE CONSTRUCTION IS THE MITZVA.” Rashi declares construction of the sukka to be an integrated part of the actual mitzva of sukka. An additional gemara which might imply some sort of role for actual construction is the gemara in Sukka (46a) which examines a berakha recited on “sukka.” In order to fully appreciate this gemara, however, we must first glance at a parallel gemara in the Yerushalmi. In two locations (Sukka 1:2 and Berakhot 9:3) the Yerushalmi obligates one who builds a sukka to recite a specific birkat ha-mitzva – “la’asot sukka.” This reiterates the position of the Yerushalmi that the actual construction of a sukkah is a separate mitzva and therefore deserves its own berakha. There is of course no identical gemara in the Bavli requiring a berakha on building a sukka. However, the aforementioned gemara in Sukkah discusses a berakha – “shehechiyanu.” The gemara initially rules that the she-hechiyanu is recited when building the sukka. In fact the gemara asserts that if one uses a ready- made sukka, one should at least build some part anew to allow the berakha of she-hechiyanu to be recited. Does this not indicate that some sort of mitzva DOES apply when actually building the sukka? In truth, to determine whether this gemara indeed implies a mitzva we must first examine the exact nature of this berakha of shehechiyanu recited during construction of the sukka. One might claim (as earlier stated) that the she- hechiyanu is being recited on the mitzva of building the sukka. Alternatively, one might assert that this she- hechiyanu is being recited for the yom tov of Sukkot. Instead of waiting until kiddush, the she-hechiyanu for yom tov is recited during the first interface with the yom tov – during construction of the sukka, which heralds the arrival of yom tov. Ultimately, the gemara accepts the position of Rav Kahana who schedules this berakha of she-hechiyanu during kiddush. According to Rav Kahana, the she-hechiyanu on the yom tov cannot be recited prior to its actual arrival. But what underlies the first position of the gemara which mandates a she-hechiyanu during construction of the sukka? It becomes necessary to determine the identity of this she-hechiyanu: Does it address the mitzva of building a sukka (if indeed it is a mitzva) or does it mark instead the actual yom tov of Sukkot?

Tosafot in Sukka (46a – s.v. Ha-oseh) question why we recite a she-hechiyanu on sukka and not on other mitzvot such as tefillin and tzitzit. Tosafot answer that the mitzva of sukka is a mitzva which relates to simcha (the special happiness of the festivals which involve a journey to Jerusalem, facilitated by the mitzvot of yom tov) and hence warrants a she-hechiyanu. Tosafot definitely view the she- hechiyanu as relating to the actual sukka and hence formulated their question: Why is this MITZVA different from others? Had the she-hechiyanu addressed the yom tov of Sukkot the question would be meaningless. A second question which might help us determine the nature of this she-hechiyanu is addressed by the Ritva. After reciting a she-hechiyanu during construction of the sukka, must we recite a second one during kiddush? The Ritva rules that we must. Does this not indicate that the original she- hechiyanu related to the mitzva of construction and not the actual yom tov; hence when the day arrives we must recite a second berakha on the yom tov? Of course we must refine our interpretation of the Bavli. If, according to the Bavli as well, building a sukka is a mitzva, why does it only receive a she-hechiyanu and not a standard berakha like those recited on every mitzva [such as “la’asot sukka”] as mandated by the Yerushalmi? To answer this question we must consider the gemara in Menachot (42b) which rules that a “birkat ha-mitzva” is only recited when the mitzva is completed. Performing mila completes that mitzva and hence deserves a distinct berakha [“al ha-mila”] while manufacturing tefillin is merely a prelude to donning them and hence does not warrant a berakha. Since building the sukka ultimately leads to the actual residence in it during Sukkot, according to the Bavli its berakha might be deferred. However, the construction is part of the mitzva and deserves a berakha – she-hechiyanu. Possibly, theinitial position cited in the gemara requiring a she-hechiyanu during construction of the sukka highlights an independent mitzva of building the sukka – even according to the Bavli. Ultimately, we reject this position and rule that a she-hechiyanu is only recited at the onset of yom tov during kiddush. According to this ruling, must our overall thesis (that construction is part of the mitzva) be likewise rejected? By reciting the she-hechiyanu during kiddush was Rav Kahana rejecting any mitzva of building a sukka? Or is it possible that Rav Kahana was merely combining two separate she-hechiyanus into one berakha – preferring that the she-hechiyanu upon the sukka and the she-hechiyanu upon Sukkot be collapsed into a berakha recited at the onset of yom tov when one first enters the sukka and recites kiddush? If we adopt the latter alternative, the concept of a separate mitzva to build a sukka might remain even according to Rav Kahana’s final position. The only point he questions is the necessity of an INDEPENDENT she-hechiyanu to mark this mitzva.


Two statements in the Yerushalmi confirm the status of manufacturing a sukka as a mitzva. Moreover, the Bavli in Sukka which proposes a shehechiyanu at the time of construction might further reflect this position. Even according to the final halakha, that shehechiyanu is said only in kiddush, this concept – of construction as a mitzva – might remain.


1. Oftentimes, a Bavli and a Yerushalmi will dispute a particular halakha. The machloket itself is useful for crystallizing two distinct views of this halakha. 2. Sometimes the CONCEPT, most apparent in the Yerushalmi will hold water in the Bavli as well. The actual halakha of the Yerushalmi (which best reflects the PRINCIPLE or the CONCEPT) might be rejected by the Bavli for peripheral concerns. The Bavli might concede a mitzva in building the sukka but reject a distinct berakha because it isn’t the completion of the mitzva. According to the Bavli a berakha is only recited at the consummation of a mitzva.

AFTERWORD: 1. See the Netziv (commentary to the She’iltot 179) who addresses this question amidst a more general backdrop. He discusses additional instances in which acts of preparation (such as baking matza) constitute part of the actual mitzva. 2. The Bavli in Sukka which mandates a shehechiyanu when building the sukkah also requires one when binding the four minim. What does this demonstrate about the binding process? 3. Tosafot (s.v. Ha-oseh – the first one) claims that according to the initial position a shehechiyanu is recited only when building a sukkah for oneself – not when building for others. How can this position be defended in light of the above?