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The Rabbi Who Makes Succah Calls

Menachem Lichtman

Compared to the extremely intricate halachos of the arba’ah minim, putting up a succah seems downright simple. Put up some walls made of any material, add some s’chach to top it off, and voila — the succah is ready. Or is it? Kolmus interviews Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff, a “rabbi who makes Succah calls,” and got some surprising answers to some seemingly simple questions.

Monday, September 20, 2010

When s’chach mats made of split bamboo shoots first came out, they were considered the greatest innovation since sliced whole-grain bread. No longer would we have to devote a full day to cutting and schlepping fresh greenery to top our succahs, or tie up bundle after bundle of loose bamboo shoots after Succos. In recent years, rumors have spread that s’chach mats can become infested with insects, and should therefore be fumigated before Succos.

To investigate this matter, I met with Rabbi Yirmiyahu Kaganoff of Neve Yaakov, one of the first rabbanim to give a hechsher to the s’chach mats. He greeted me with what I soon learned was his characteristic good cheer, and before I could get answers to my questions, he taught me some surprising lessons about succah building.

Rav Kaganoff, when I mentioned that I wanted to discuss the problem of bug infestation in s’chach, you expressed surprise that I wasn’t concerned with many other halachic issues that come up in regard to building a succah. What issues were you referring to?

I think that many people take it for granted that they know how to build a succah that is halachically valid, when in truth, my experience has been that many succahs are not valid. In fact, I have told rabbanim that if they have not taught their congregants how to build a succah properly, they can assume that at least several succahs in their communities will not be valid — either because it is not built in a valid location, or because the walls or s’chach are not kosher.

There are two ways a rav can teach his congregants. Some do so by teaching a few halachos of succah each day in the weeks leading up to Succos. I included another method. When we were growing up, doctors often made house calls. I would offer to come make a “succah call,” to determine whether each congregant’s succah was kosher, and if not, instruct him on how to fix it. With time, my shul members became very sensitized to the main issues.

What were the most common problems you found?

Let me first introduce the basics of succah construction. A succah consists of two basic components: its walls and its roof, which we call the s’chach. Each of the two has very specific halachic requirements. The s’chach must be of vegetative material that once grew from the earth, but is no longer connected to the earth; is not food; and is not mekabel tumah — that is, susceptible to being contaminated by ritual impurity, by a person or object that is tamei.

There is a further stipulation: although most materials that grow from the earth are not mekabel tumah, once they are fashioned into vessels or utensils (keilim), they can become tamei, and are therefore invalidated for use as s’chach.

The rules defining what is considered a utensil and what is not are fairly complicated. Much halachic literature has been devoted to determining whether items such as arrow shafts, wooden ladders, thread, and straw or reed mats may be used as s’chach. The poskim deliberate as to whether these items, which are made of rudimentary components that would be valid as s’chach, are nevertheless disqualified because they are processed enough to be considered “utensils.”

There are also discussions as to whether certain common household items can be used for s’chach. For example, in 1941 a rav asked Rav Moshe Feinstein whether one can use venetian blinds, which at that time were made of wood slats connected together by cloth, as s’chach. The person who posed the question wanted to permit their use, since both the slats and the cloth are made from materials that grow from the ground. Rav Moshe demonstrated from Talmudic sources that although the wood is basically unprocessed, once it has been attached to the cloth, it is halachically considered a utensil, and may not be used as s’chach.

There are also categories of items that the Torah permitted as kosher s’chach, but which were later prohibited by Chazal for various reasons. For example, wide wooden planks are not utensils, and meet all the other requirements for s’chach. But we cannot use them as s’chach because Chazal banned them, out of concern that someone might mistakenly assume that his regular wood roof could be used as a cover for his succah. Although today it is unusual to make a roof out of wood boards, in early generations these were standard roofing materials — and once they have been banned by Chazal, they remain invalid.

This halachah was the basis for a controversy that arose recently as to whether wooden slats or laths could be used for s’chach. I recall seeing wooden slats used as s’chach by respected Torah scholars, whereas other equally knowledgeable Torah scholars took strong exception to using them as s’chach, because slats are used in construction.

As you can see, the halachos can be very confusing, and while making my succah calls, it was quite common to find people using items that cannot be used as s’chach.


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