The Kehilla Residential Programme in Toronto – one, if I understand, is similar in mission to our own Tikva Housing Society– hosted a contest this year in Toronto. It was a sukkah design competition, in which artists created interpretive sukkot — using the kosher parameters for building a sukkah, but looking nothing quite like the images most of us conjure up when we think of a sukkah. The entries are really quite remarkable and if you go to sukkahville.com you can see pictures of the five finalists.
The intention of the competition, though, was more than a contest for the sake of art. It was to raise money and awareness for affordable housing, linking the contemporary issue with the themes of the holiday of sukkot — about the importance of shelter and the human yearning for a safe, secure dwelling place.
While Jewish law does not specifically offer a definition of adequate housing, we can infer much about a Jewish definition of a house from the laws regarding the sukkah, this temporary structure constructed for the weeklong holiday of Sukkot. In establishing laws governing the construction of a sukkah, the rabbis of the Talmud go to great lengths to define the conditions under which a house might be considered temporary.
It is reasonable, then, to assume that the characteristics that would make a house too permanent to qualify as a sukkah tell us something about the rabbinic definition of permanent housing.
The sukkah, the rabbis tell us, must be stable enough to be lived in for a week, but sufficiently unstable that it can not be mistaken for a permanent house. Opinions differ about what would make a structure too permanent to qualify as a sukkah–some consider the deciding factor to be height, while others focus on the types of building materials used. While precise definitions vary, all sources consider a structure to be too permanent for a sukkah if it would appear to a passerby as sufficiently stable to house a person for the entire year, and not only for a single week.
While temporary, the sukkah must be stable enough to serve as housing for the week. During the holiday of Sukkot, a person is supposed to “eat, drink and sleep in the sukkah… and bring one’s nice dishes into the sukkah” (Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 28b). Permanence, according to this text, is conveyed by the ability to live a full and dignified life within the sukkah for the duration of the holiday.
From this discussion of the sukkah, we can infer, all the more so, that permanent housing should allow a person to live a full and dignified life year-round, and not only for a week. Furthermore, permanent housing, unlike a sukkah, should look permanent. That is, it should be stable enough that anyone would recognize it as a place in which a person might live indefinitely.
Our tradition offers a number of criteria for evaluating the condition of housing and a number of suggestions about the responsibility to ensure that the poor have adequate housing. Central to all of these laws is a concern that housing be safe, secure, and permanent, and that every home allow its inhabitants to live a full and dignified life.
The Tikva Housing Society does important work in ensuring that we as a community are committed to working to bring adequate, affordable housing to those in our community who so desperately need it.
As we all pack up our sukkot in the next few days and return into the security of our safe and secure dwellings, let us allow the feelings of our impermanence we experienced in the sukkah lead us to consider others whose dwellings are not secure at any time of year.By Rabbi Carey Brown Temple Sholom Vancouver BC