When a Wall is not a Wall

One of the blessings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has forced us to question assumptions, practices and old ways of thinking. Most of life is lived through inertia: we do things a certain way because that’s always the way we have done them. But now that the coronavirus has upended our set patterns, we are forced to challenge expectations.

I have been building sukkot ever since I moved out of New York City and had the land and storage space to do so. Usually I never think about the walls of the structure. After all, the essence of a sukkah is the roof, called in Hebrew schach. It must be made of something that grows from the ground, is cut, and cannot become ritually impure.

This year, however, the walls of a sukkah are the main focus. In order to avoid infection, we need to maximize airflow and it turns out the laws of sukkot make this relatively easy. A sukkah need only have two full walls and part of a third. Depending on the situation, one can easily create a cross breeze in the structure.

In addition, the walls of the sukkah can be made of anything. The rabbis of the Talmud even discuss the possibility of using an elephant (their ruling: it depends on whether you tie the animal down, because the beast might move, rendering the sukkah unkosher). Lattice, which we used for the Adath sukkah, is ideal as it lets air in easily. In my house we are using an old trampoline net.

Rabbi Joshua Heller, in a post with COVID-related sukkah instructions, also proposes the ultimate “unwall”: a series of strings around the hut at 9 inch intervals. In addition, he reminds us that the walls of the sukkah only need to reach within 9 inches of the ground and extend for 40 inches, and they need not even extend all the way to the roof.

Clearly there are ways to make COVID-friendly sukkot, but we do need to be careful about inviting guests. With the proper airflow a sukkah can be constructed so that sitting in it is essentially like sitting outside. Many people have hosted dinners and other gathering on their patios with proper social distancing. The same guidelines would apply to Sukkot. If you have enough room to stay 6 feet apart from your guests, it should be OK to have them over.

Sadly, I have heard from a number of people that they are not building their sukkot this year because of the pandemic: if they can’t have anyone over, why bother. While I understand the sentiment, and not everyone has the ability or size to modify their sukkah, I hope people will find a way to celebrate the holiday.

At Adath we have opened the synagogue sukkah for people to sign up and use on their own since we won’t have communal gatherings there. Our expectations may have changed during the pandemic, but there is no reason to ignore Sukkot, whose message about the fragility of life is needed now as ever. On this holiday we celebrate the need for protection and safety in a troubled world. May we all find a bit of that reassurance this coming year.

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