by Rabbi Akiva Males
On October 3, 2004, the New York Times ran a human interest story about Sukkos entitled, “Holiday Fixtures, From Coke Crates to Sukkah Depot”. The article opens with the following account:
Rabbi Berl Haskelevich, 58, is no environmentalist. A cabala scholar, he can barely keep his recyclables straight. But this time of the year, he reuses several hundred plastic Coca-Cola crates to make a sleek red hut on the front porch of his brick house in Brooklyn.
Fitting the cases neatly together like Lego pieces to form solid plastic walls, he builds his sukkah, the makeshift structure that many Jews use to celebrate Sukkot, the weeklong holiday of the harvest that started at sundown on Wednesday.
“What can I say? I drink a lot of Coke,” said Rabbi Haskelevich, standing on the front porch of his house on Montgomery Street in Crown Heights, where many of the stately brick homes have sukkot (the plural of sukkah) on front porches and balconies. The rabbi had accumulated many Coke cases, and the youngest of his nine children first suggested using them as sukkah building blocks.
“It’s my third year using them,” he explained. “They don’t get rotten like wood. It’s sturdy, and it looks beautiful. I get a lot of compliments.”
If Coke ever wants the cases back, he added, “then we have a problem.” . . .
At first glance, it would seem that the Haskelevich family’s Sukkah is problematic – even if no Coca-Cola representative ever showed up asking for the company’s red crates back. After all, Halacha invalidates a Sukkah Gezulah – a stolen Sukkah (see Sukkah 9a). Since the soda cases are the property of the Coca-Cola Company (as printed on the cases), and they are not meant for personal use, it would be against the company’s wishes to build a Sukkah with them. As clever as such a red structure might be, it would seem that one would not fulfill the Mitzvah of Sukkah with a Sukkah made of Cocoa-Cola crates.
A few years ago, I was thrilled to see that this very topic is discussed by HaRav Shmuel Kamenetsky in Sefer Koveitz Halachos on Sukkos (11:3 and footnote 3). Rav Kamenetsky states that such a Sukkah is not considered a Sukkah Gezulah. Furthermore, one wishing to build such a Sukkah would not need to contact the Coca-Cola Company and ask permission to use their crates for this purpose.
In footnote 3, Rabbi Doniel Asher Kleinman (the Sefer’s author) explains that he was able to clarify that the Coca-Cola Company only states that the crates are its property as a legal disclaimer. It’s not that they want their red crates back – rather, they just don’t want to be sued if someone tries building with them and gets hurt. By stating that they retain ownership of those crates, Coke can always claim that any personal use of those crates was unauthorized. As such, they are just protecting themselves from any potential lawsuits. It was based on Rabbi Kleinman’s research that Rav Kamenetsky ruled there’s no issue of a Sukkah Gezulah in using Coca-Cola crates for one’s Sukkah.
Rabbi Kleinman’s findings seem to be in sync with another family’s experiences. On October 19, 2016, the NY Jewish Week published an article entitled, “A Thirst For Sukkah Building”, by Shmuel Wieder. In that piece, the author described how he had collected over 1,200 Coca-Cola cases to build his family’s Sukkah – and he’s not even a soda drinker!
Mr. Wieder wrote: “Was it legal for me to own Coke crates? I called Coke headquarters. Officials there were not interested in having them back.”
(The author also humorously described another surprising Halachic detail about his red Coca-Cola crate Sukkah: “I spoke to my rabbi before I put up my sukkah. It is fully kosher, even conforming to the stringent “Chazon Ish” requirements — absolutely no nails.”)
To conclude, the validity of a Sukkah made from Coca-Cola crates is based on the reason why the company claims to maintain ownership of their soda crates. This also connects to something we’ll soon read on Sukkos. In Megilas Koheles (10:19) Shlomo HaMelech wrote: “וְהַכֶּ֖סֶף יַֽעֲנֶ֥ה אֶת־הַכֹּֽל – and money answers everything”. Yes, quite often, financial concerns are indeed the answer to many of life’s perplexing questions.
Wishing you a Chag Same’ach!