A Sukkah is the temporary structure we live in for seven days each autumn. It can be made of virtually any material, needs two walls and a smidgen of a third, and must be covered in Schach (organic materials) to provide a roof. The Gemara in Sukkah (2a) cites a Mishnah that discusses the minimum and maximum sizes for a Sukkah. The Tana Kama (the anonymous author) tells us a Sukkah can be no more than twenty Amot (an Amah is the distance between the crook of the elbow and the tip of the middle finger) tall and no less than ten Tefachim (a Tefach is the distance across four fingers held loosely together) tall. But what do those measurements mean?
In an effort to better understand how I would fit into the minimum and maximum Sukkah sizes, I measured a virtual Sukkah based on my own Tefach and Amah, as these measurements are inherently subjective. I started with the minimum Sukkah, having dimensions of 7x7x10 Tefachim, as outlined in the first Perek of Gemara Sukkah. First, I measured a height of ten Tefachim which came out to one Tefach above my head, meaning I could sit up comfortably. But what of the footprint? As it turns out, seven Tefachim is surprisingly tight. I couldn’t even sit cross-legged in my little virtual Sukkah because it wasn’t wide enough. This conforms to the Gemara’s requirement that a Sukkah be large enough to encompass most of one’s body and table. With a board on my thighs I would fit this requirement just fine, but the Sukkah wouldn’t fit much else. One thing I noticed was the Schach was just low enough that no matter where I looked from my position of repose, it was in my field of vision.
As for the Sukkah’s maximum height, I didn’t really have twenty Amot of space to play with, so I started by measuring the average height of a room - five Amot. Four story buildings are approximately twenty Amot high, and are thankfully easy to locate. I found that Twenty Amot was actually a borderline for me; below four stories I could lift my head and see the Schach fairly well, but above four stories, I had to crane my neck back to see anything.
Children are classically taught that the Schach must not be solid so that those sitting inside the Sukkah can gaze up though it to Shamayim. In a way, the entire Sukkah can be seen as a symbol of a Jew’s relationship with Hashem. A small Sukkah is cozy and tight, almost squeezing out its occupant. On the other hand, a large Sukkah is so big the occupant is only aware of it on the very edge of his vision. These two extremes represent the boundaries of a healthy relationship with Hashem. Some Jews pile on laws and stringencies. They sit in a small, cozy Sukkah, so tight that they can only sit in certain postures. The Schach, representative of Hahsem, is always in their field of vision and thoughts, even while simply resting. Other Jews live broader lives, choosing a large Sukkah, where Torah tends to hover more on the edge of their vision, even temporarily out of sight and mind. Whichever Sukkah one chooses, one must know that those are the limits. A Sukkah any smaller than 7x7x10 doesn’t fit a person, just as laws and stringencies that are too constraining make it impossible to live. Likewise, in a Sukkah taller than twenty Amot, its Schach, the connection to Hashem, is out of sight and can only be seen with difficulty, if at all.