Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Sukkos 5774 (2013) was intensely celebrated in the Northeast, where, most fortunately, no appreciable rain fell to disturb the use of our sukkahs. However, those unlucky enough to have been in plush-hotel or luxurious-condominium galus (exile) in Florida had to endure a few days of heavy downpours. The interesting contrast gives us an opportunity to reflect on sukkahs and rainfall.
During the concluding yom tov of Shemini Atzeres, many eat in their sukkah, feeling that the chutz la’aretz (outside-Israel) exact day confusion mandates that we eat in the sukkah on the day that is still possibly Sukkos. Some make Kiddush outside the sukkah or with the sukkah covered, but eat their meals inside the open sukkah. No one makes the berachah on eating in the sukkah. However, on Shemini Atzeres, everyone joins the Tefillas Geshem, the prayer for rain, even those who intend to eat in the sukkah. Are they possibly hoping to be freed from eating in the sukkah because of rain, for which they are praying?
Everyone agrees that the requirement of eating meals in a sukkah is absolute during the first seven days of Sukkos, which includes two days of yom tov, the first four days of chol ha’moed, and Hoshana Rabbah. However, when it rains, the obligation of eating in a sukkah is suspended. The volume of rain that cancels the obligation of eating in a sukkah is when the amount of rain entering the sukkah spoils the food. Tzaddikim of old would eat their food from a plate set on the table in front of them while simultaneously holding another plate directly above their food to block the rain. Thus, while they themselves were getting thoroughly soaked, their food was not in the least spoiled by the rain.
According to halacha, rain must generally be able to enter the sukkah through the s’chach. If rain cannot enter the sukkah, then the sukkah is disqualified. Those who eat in a sukkah in spite of rain pouring in are to be admired; however, they may not utter the blessing of eating in a sukkah. This brings us to the topic of waterproof sukkahs. Plainly, while a sukkah is covered by a canopy, awning, or sliding or hinged roof, also known in Yiddish as a shlock, cannot serve as a kosher sukkah. The shlock must be open while one is eating or sleeping. An interesting chumrah (stringency) that never caught on was the proposed requirement that the shlock must be open as yom tov begins, in order for the sukkah to be kosher (Mateh Ephraim 625:29 and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 134:8. The Mateh Ephraim was authored by Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margolios, zt’l (1762–1828), and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch was authored by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, zt’l (1804–1886)). For practical reasons, such as rain or the homeowner being away on erev yom tov, this chumrah is generally ignored.
One of the criteria of s’chach is that it not be too thick. If the s’chach is so thick that it prevents rain from falling into the sukkah, the s’chach is invalid. Ideally, the s’chach should allow someone inside the sukkah to see stars from within. If stars cannot be seen, the sukkah has not been invalidated. However, if rain is unable to enter the sukkah, it is invalidated.
In 1987, Yaakov Hoch of Antwerp, Belgium, patented water-resistant s’chach under the name of S’chach Hapelah, the Wonder S’chach. The s’chach consists of two levels of individual pieces of wood. The upper level consists of convex slats, slightly larger than one inch high and two-and-a-half inches wide, placed flush next to each other. The lower lever consists of concave slats slightly smaller also placed flush next to each other, offset from the above row of slats. The lengths of both the upper and lower slats would be slightly larger than the sukkah.
The upper level is positioned one inch or so higher than the lower level, both set at a downward angle. Rain falling on the upper level will flow down into the grooves of the lower level, and then flow down the length of the slats out above the sukkah; thus the rain does not fall into the sukkah. The open space between the two levels would allow one inside to see heavenly stars at an angle, and in instances of strong downpours of rain, or rain falling at an angle, some rain would actually fall into the sukkah.
As with all halachic innovations, leading rabbis across the spectrum of religious practice analyzed elements of the proposal and expressed their conclusions. The introduction of S’chach Hapelah being in Antwerp, Rabbi Chaim Kreiswirth, zt’l (1918–2001), Chief Rabbi of Antwerp, together with members of the beis din there, issued a ruling finding S’chach Hapelah categorically kosher. Nevertheless, leading poskim throughout the world contemplated many facets of interpretation, reviewed, deliberated, and expressed varied opinions. Some agreed and others sharply disagreed.
Discussions focused on the kosher status of s’chach that was so thick that rain was unable to penetrate. The Tur 631 and 635 cites Rabeinu Tam, who states that even though the Mishnah accepts de facto s’chach that does not allow stars to be seen through it, s’chach that is so thick that rain cannot come in is not kosher. The Shulchan Aruch 629 disallows boards that are four tefachim wide (each tefach is 3.54 inches or 9 centimeters) to be used as s’chach. If the boards are three tefachim wide, they are permissible. However, the Shulchan Aruch notes that we are accustomed to not using them. The Smak explains that use of such boards would prevent rain from entering. The Bach advises against narrower boards or slats, since using layers of such slats would prevent rain from entering through.
These views are discussed through the prism of Rabeinu Tam’s opinion, who may have felt that the use of boards or slats resembles a regular home and would not constitute a “temporary home.” If so, then S’chach Hapelah cannot be used. However, the inability of rain to penetrate s’chach when a permanent home is not simulated may possibly not be prohibited by Rabeinu Tam, thus permitting S’chach Hepelah.
Rabbi Meir Brandsdorfer, zt’l (1934–2009), author of Knei Bosem, understands Rabeinu Tam seeing rainproof s’chach as resembling a permanent home and proclaims S’chach Hapelah as not kosher. He further states that S’chach Hapelah actually negates the mitzvah of sukkah.
Rabeinu Tam’s opinion is not accepted by many poskim. Rabbi Shmuel Levy in his Shevet Levi and Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch in his Teshuvos Vehanhogos note that the Tur only mentions Rabeinu Tam but does not find his opinion binding. The Shulchan Aruch and the Rema do not even mention Rabeinu Tam’s opinion.
The discussion of watertight s’chach does not take into account the possibility, such as the S’chach Hapelah, that has two openings or spaces at two ends of the sukkah, through which rain can enter the sukkah and the stars can be seen. S’chach Hapelah can only handle regular rain. If, however, the downpour of rain is heavy, then rain would enter the sukkah. Also, if rain falls at an angle, water would enter the sukkah. These factors would negate Rabeinu Tam’s reasoning of prohibition. Rabbi Brandsdorfer discounts heavy rainfalls.
Rabbi Nosson Gestetner, zt’l (1932–2010), in his Lehoros Nosson, feels that boards and slats are prohibited because of its permanent appearance, the S’chach Hapelah, too, if used in three or more layers, would also appear as permanent. Rabbi Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss, zt’l (1901–1989), in his Minchas Yitzchok, warns against tampering with a Biblical commandment. Rabbi Shternbuch discusses the tendency of gedolim, past and present, to cover their sukkahs with thick s’chach, through which regular rain would not ordinarily come in. The ability of heavy downpours to penetrate is sufficient to keep the sukkah kosher.
In Antwerp, the use of narrow slats for s’chach is accepted. Rabbi Shraga Feivish Shneibalg, zt’l author of Shraga Hameir, argues that in rainy areas, such s’chach would be de facto acceptable. Rabbi Hanoch Dov Padwa, zt’l (1908–2000), in his Cheshev Ha’eiphod, determines that S’chach Hapelah is kosher.
Some have suggested that S’chach Hapelah should be used for only part of a sukkah. Ordinarily, one would eat under regular s’chach. During rainfall, one would eat under S’chach Hapelah. If it is not kosher, then eating under it would be equivalent to eating under a shlock. If it is kosher, then the mitzvah of eating in a sukkah would be achieved.
Though mentioned in the Mishnah (1:11), matchtzeles (s’chach mats) were not recommended and generally not used (Shulchan Aruch 629:61, Shulchan Aruch Harav 629:67, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 134:3, Levush, Elyahu Rabba 629:108, Yeshuos Yaakov 629:103). Nevertheless, in the last decade, we have seen almost universal acceptance and use of s’chach mats, all with superlative hechsherim. Canvas sukkahs, when first introduced, were not endorsed by many gedolim. Nevertheless, canvas sukkahs, with whatever minor improvements, have gained universal acceptance and are probably today’s most widely used type of sukkahs. Similarly, the concept behind S’chach Hapelah will be further developed and, sooner rather than later, be hailed as the newest development in sukkah enhancements. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the Rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.