Mishnah Sukkah: Design Challenge

By: Heather Kantrowitz
from Austin Jewish Academy

Interdisciplinary Integration

Subject(s) of entry:


Grade(s) to which this was taught:
7, Middle school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
5, Elementary school, Middle school

Heather Kantrowitz has developed a project based unit on Mishnah Sukkah that has become an integral part of Austin Jewish Academy’s seventh grade program. Students learn Mishnah Sukkah and then build model-size sukkot based on the descriptions in the Mishna, and it has evolved to include a design challenge and writing component.

Entry Narrative

Sukkot is a holiday which may seem obscure, but holds much relevance and significance for the Jewish people today and throughout history. While this holiday and its details are only for one week out of the year, an entire book of the Mishnah is dedicated to it. It includes the rules and regulations about the structures we create to help us be joyful and remember Yitziat Mitzraim, when the nascent Israelite nation had no permanent home and were relegated to wandering in the desert. Students also examine the functionality of living in a sukkah for a week, as harvesters found this practice to be the most efficient use of their time during this busy and critical week.

This project was born out of a desire for my students to see their classroom learning turn into something tangible, and as a way to represent real life skills they will need as an educated Jewish adult. When we learn Mishnah in the 21st century, it can be difficult to get students to connect to the ideas and concepts which are so ancient. With this unit, students had the opportunity to see how the logic and principles contained in Mishnah Sukkah can become a month-long unit in which they get to dream, design, build, and think deeply about the impact Mishnah Sukkah has on our lives today.

This project also connects their learning in Jewish studies class to other subjects, namely design and modeling, engineering and humanities. When students are able to apply the knowledge and skills from one class to another, they are better able to synthesize information and learn in a deep and meaningful way.

Project Outline:

1) Students learn that the origins of Sukkot are from the Torah, and that Sukkot are temporary structures built for the purpose of remembering the exodus from Egypt, as well as a way to maximize time during the harvest. To see this source sheet, please click HERE.

2) Students use our Torah-to-Mishnah questioning protocol to understand what rules the Torah doesn’t include. Students take turns asking questions based on the idea that the Torah doesn’t give us a complete picture, and they hope to “guess” what questions the Mishnah will answer for us. Please click HERE for our Sukkot Torah-to-Mishnah questioning protocol.

3) Students pair up to learn the Mishnah chevruta-style, after learning the first Mishnah together as a class. They preview the Hebrew words “kasher” and “pasul” and identify which sukkot in the Mishnah belong to each category and why. To see the source sheets students used, please click HERE.

4) Students view examples of non-traditional sukkot which have been built and practice identifying which are “kasher” or “pasul.” To see the examples they used, click HERE. Students rate the practicality and livability of these example structure as well as the feasibility of building them for a short time period.

5) Students choose an example of a non-traditional sukkah from the Mishnah and break into small groups. They use design and modeling techniques to draw isometric sketches, and they generate lists of materials – half of which need to be natural or recyclable.

6) Students begin to build their model sukkot in our school’s Science and Innovation Center; each step of the way they are asked to reflect on the question: “Is my model sukkah true to what is described in the Mishnah?” As students build, they use skills from engineering to revise their designs and innovate along the way.

7) Students write a one-page paper explaining their design process and the “kashrut” of their model sukkah. The paper they write is done in collaboration with their humanities class, where they are developing their informative writing skills as well as a strong thesis sentence and textual evidence for their claims.

Overarching Questions:

  1. What makes a sukkah a sukkah?
  2. How is a kosher sukkah different from a sukkah which is pasul?
  3. What impact does it have on others if my sukkah is pasul?
  4. How can students create new and helpful solutions to (ancient) problems?

Unit Objectives:

  1. Students will be able to identify which aspects of any given sukkah are kasher or pasul.
  2. Students will be able to demonstrate knowledge of sukkot in the time of the Torah, Mishnah and today.
  3. Students will be able to design and build a model sukkah based on specifications in the Mishnah.
  4. Develop engineering skills including creativity and innovation in the design and modeling process.
  5. Safely and effectively use tools in the Science and Innovation Center’s Maker Space to build a model sukkah.

Process Videos:

Sukkah on a boat: https://youtu.be/uytykcmwcX4

Sukkah in a tree: https://youtu.be/YnZT7e4fjVU

Double-decker Sukkah: https://youtu.be/19La-NUvqZY

Sukkah on a turtle: https://youtu.be/9Ac8fwbi0e4

Project photos:

Group photo: http://tinyimg.io/i/lwGXnAb.JPG

Group photo with teacher: http://tinyimg.io/i/OAzpUEO.JPG

Prior year flying sukkah: http://tinyimg.io/i/e2DJrWn.JPG

Prior year sky scraper sukkah: http://tinyimg.io/i/xflQBMt.JPG

Prior year treehouse sukkah: http://tinyimg.io/i/ZawC7GF.JPG


Entrant Bio(s)

Heather Kantrowitz was born and raised in Tallahassee, Florida. She attended Florida State University, where she studied Religion, Middle East Studies and Hebrew. She attended Brandeis University for her Masters in the Art of Teaching Tanakh, as well as the Pardes Educators Program in Jerusalem, Israel. She is currently in her fifth year of teaching Jewish studies at Austin Jewish Academy in Austin, TX. She teaches Jewish studies for third through eighth grades, which includes Tanakh, Mishnah, Chagim, Israel, Tefillah, and Jewish history. In her free time, Heather enjoys traveling the world and baking cookies.