During the Jewish holiday of Sukkot Jews are commanded to build and dwell in temporary structures called sukkot. "Sukkot" is Hebrew for more than one "sukkah," which is the name for one of these temporary dwellings. In ancient times Jews built these shelters alongside the fields they worked during the harvest season. You can learn more about Sukkot in "What Is Sukkot?" and more about the sukkah by reading this definition of a sukkah.
In modern times many Jews will build sukkot in their backyards. However, the dwelling must meet certain requirements in order to be considered a true sukkah according to Jewish law. Below is a brief overview of these requirements. Check with your rabbi for more information about the particulars of building a sukkah.
Walls of the Sukkah
A sukkah must have four walls. If you don't have enough material to build four full walls, you can use the wall of an already existing structure such as a house to complete one side of the sukkah. Any material can be used to make the walls. The only requirement with regards to material is that it is strong enough to withstand a normal gust of wind and prevent a candle from being blown out. If cloth is used for the walls it must be tied down so that it doesn't flap in the wind.
Size of the Sukkah
Traditionally each wall of your sukkah should be at least three feet tall. As a whole the sukkah should be at least twenty-six inches long and twenty-six inches wide, with room enough to accommodate a table where people can comfortably eat a meal. The walls of a sukkah cannot be more than thirty feet tall. This is because the ancient rabbis felt that if a sukkah became too big people might forget the purpose of the structure and view it as a regular building instead.
Roof of the Sukkah
The roof of your sukkah should be made of natural materials that grow in the ground and have been detached from it. Examples include straw, cornstalks, tree branches and bamboo reeds. Narrow beams of wood are also permissible as long as they are no wider than 16 inches. Whatever materials you choose, they should not have been treated in any way (e.g. You can’t paint them with a waterproofing solution). They also can't be attached to your sukkah with metal or leather.
When building the covering for your sukkah, be sure to space your materials evenly and check that there are no gaps wider than eleven and a half inches between each piece. The finished roof should provide shade from the sun but allow you to see the stars at night. Rain should be able to come through the covering as well.
Decorating Your Sukkah
Decorating a sukkah is one of the most anticipated Sukkot activities. Children especially like to help and at synagogues, where communal sukkot are usually built, children from the religious school will often make decorations for the sukkah. Examples of sukkah decorations include drawings, colorful paper chains, wind chimes and streamers. Many people also like to use plastic fruit or colorful plastic leaves to decorate their sukkot. When possible decorations are saved and used again every year.
According to author Lesli Koppelman Ross, Jews in Europe and Russia used to sprinkle sand on the ground of their sukkot in remembrance of the Israelites journey through the desert. They also made strings of cranberries or plums to resemble the grapes brought back by the Israelite men sent to spy on the Land of Canaan in Numbers 13:23. (Ross, 236).
The sukkah is a ritual object that plays a sacred role in the celebration of Sukkot so anything that is used to decorate it must be viewed in a similar light. Additionally, once a decoration is put on the sukkah it cannot be removed or replaced. For instance, you can’t change where a drawing is affixed or put it back on the sukkah if it falls down.
Sources: "Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holidays Handbook" by Lesli Koppelman Ross.