October 10, 2016
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1041, Parsha Thought, Sukkos



The Festival of Sukkos is so called because of its central Mitzvah: to dwell in a Sukka for seven days.

The proper construction of a Sukka requires that it be covered with branches and have, by Biblical standards, minimally two complete walls and a third partial wall (even one only a handbreadth wide will do). Rabbinical law, however, required three complete walls, and recent Jewish custom has many adding on a totally optional fourth wall.

Moreover, one of the hymns that some congregations recite on the Holiday of Sukkos mentions a four walled Sukka. 

The question has been asked, if Biblical and rabbinic law require only three walls, why has the custom changed to seek the addition of a fourth wall, and why does the hymn talk about the fourth optional wall as if it were common practice?


A related question concerning the walls of the Sukka involves a puzzling Midrash taken from the genre of Midrashic literature known as Midrash Peliah, material that was deliberately written in the most cryptic style. Presumably it was written this way to stimulate the minds of students to search for hidden messages.

“When Job was afflicted with suffering and he said, ‘Oh that I knew where I might find Him, that I might come even to His seat! I would order my cause before Him.’

Said G-d to him, ‘Why did you sit in a Sukka of three walls?’”

How was the fact of Job building a Sukka with three walls an explanation for his suffering?


The following explanation of this anomaly is based partly on the Talmudic commentary Ein Eliyahu, which refers us to a passage in the Talmud (Bava Basra) and related Midrash that describes the world, allegorically, as consisting of four sides with walls erected on only three sides. The north side was left open so that G-d could challenge us to block it off as well.

We are taught that the fourth wall was left open to the negative forces in our world. This is consistent with the Biblical prophecy that “evil will come forth from the north.” One of the names for a serpent, the symbol of evil, is tzifoni-the north one. The North is dark, frigid and foreboding.  It symbolizes the icy indifference some may have towards anything G-dly and holy.

The word tzafon can also be translated as “concealed.” It refers to the insidious and deceptive forms that evil may take to seduce its unsuspecting victims.

It is through the unprotected north side that evil has entered into the world and spread its undesirable influence to all four corners of the earth.

So, why did G-d leave this direction unprotected?

The answer is that this was to give us a challenge; we should be the ones to close off the north side, to shut out evil, revealed or hidden. This would make the world a “four-walled” existence; the elusive utopia that we have been praying for from the beginning of time.


This idea is also seen in the Midrash as the reason the Torah begins with the letter beis. The Midrash asks: shouldn’t the Torah have begun with the letter, alef, the first letter of the alphabet?

The Midrash answers that the shape of the letter beis conveys the message that the creation of the world is similar to the beis: it is contained on three sides, leaving the fourth side open.

Knowing from the very outset that the world is incomplete because of the open side helps us understand the existence of evil. G-d allowed it to exist to challenge us, as G-d’s partners in creation, to complete the fourth wall and eliminate evil.

This fourth wall is being constructed by all those who struggle with evil and overcome it. Every Mitzvah we do adds another brick to this wall and whenever we avoid transgression it fortifies the wall, bringing us one step closer to the ultimate Redemption; to the four-walled world. 


This then is the rationale for the four walls of the Sukka.

The Sukka is a model for the entire world.

Like the world we inhabit, the Sukka is G-d’s model for the world; a world surrounded by walls that protect it and provide it with a spiritual cover.

At Sinai, when G-d gave us the Torah and commanded us to dwell in the Sukka, the Divine influence had just begun to envelop the world.

It could be said that at that time the world was shaped like the letter hei, which is open on two sides. It is open on the bottom, which the Talmud states is indicative of the pitfalls one can sink into because of the existence of so many negative influences in the world. In addition, another one of its walls was incomplete. G-d was waiting for our input to complete the construction of that wall.

With the passage of time and generations of holiness which grows by every Mitzvah performed, the third wall was also made whole. The rabbis, who were attuned to the changed spiritual atmosphere, reflected that sensitivity by requiring us to construct our Sukkos with three walls to reflect the new spiritual reality.

The fourth wall has been the most difficult one to build. We have had to go through a 2,000-year odyssey of exile and suffering to accumulate the Mitzvos-bricks necessary to produce a formidable stockpile of construction material. Adding to the sheer quantity of Mitzvos that we’ve collected is the pain and suffering we have endured and the Mesiras Nefesh, the unparalleled and unprecedented self-sacrifice, we exhibited. All this had the effect of making the fourth wall longer, stronger and higher.


Upon reflection, these three models of the Sukka and the three stages of history they represent are summed up by three letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

First is the letter hei, which our Sages tell us G-d used to create this physical world. As explained, this reflects the world’s genesis when humans had yet to contribute to a third wall.

With the introduction of the Torah, the potential for the third complete wall emerged.  The Torah’s description of creation begins with the letter beis, which, as we have noted above, is closed on three sides. 

The Talmud, which is the embodiment of the Oral Torah, concludes with the word Shalom, the last letter of which is a final mem, closed on all four sides and the ultimate expression of the future four-walled world.


With the association between a four-walled Sukka and a four-walled world we can now understand why G-d, as recorded in Midrash, responded to Job’s suffering by saying, “Why did you build a Sukka of three walls?”

G-d was saying, don’t you realize that this world is not a finished piece of work?  I have deliberately left one direction open to allow evil to enter and cause pain and suffering. In Job’s case it was the Satan, G-d’s angel, who turned G-d against Job. The Satan is just one name for the forces of evil that are both internal and external to us. G-d allowed this angel to enter through the “north side,” which He deliberately left open.


However, in the Messianic Age, that will change. The fourth wall, which we have been building for the last 2,000 years, will finally be complete and as the prophet predicts, “the spirit of impurity I will remove from the earth.”

This explains why the recent custom has been to construct four-walled Sukkos. Since we are so close to the Messianic Age we build the Sukka the way it will be in the near future.

Moreover, as the Rebbe told us repeatedly, the Redemption is actually right in front of us and is ours for the taking; we can now begin to enjoy a taste and sample of, and, indeed, the beginning of that glorious four-walled Sukka experience of the future.


By Divine providence, during this Festival of Sukkos, Jews the world over will be completing another annual study cycle of Maimonides’ magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah.  It is no coincidence that the very last letter of this work is also the Mem. Maimonides ends the Mishneh Torah with his description of the Messianic age as the time when we will be deluged in the sea of G-d’s knowledge. It is therefore so appropriate that the last letter, which sums up all that was said earlier, is the final letter mem symbolizing a perfect world, surrounded by four walls.

It is also interesting that the Kabbalists teach us that the shape of a Mikveh, the pool of water used for spiritual purification, should be rectangular like the final letter mem. The Mikveh, like the four walled Sukka, is suggestive of the future world of purity and holiness, when, as the prophet Isaiah states (quoted by Maimonides in his concluding words): “The entire world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the water covers the seabed.” 

Nothing happens by coincidence, certainly not when it involves Torah knowledge. The Hebrew words for conclusion-siyum, and seal-chosem both end with a final mem.  This indicates that the four-walled state will be the end and the seal of the world. The four-walled state will make the world permanently the way G-d envisioned it at the outset and it will exhibit G-d’s seal-imprimatur for all to see.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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