|Halakhic texts relating to this article|
|Babylonian Talmud:||Sukkah Chapter 3|
|Mishneh Torah:||Laws of Shofar, Sukkah, and Lulav 7:1-8:11|
|Shulchan Aruch:||Orach Chaim 645-658|
The four species (Hebrew: ארבעת המינים arba'at ha-minim, also called arba'a minim) are four plants mentioned in the Torah (Leviticus 23:40) as being relevant to Sukkot. Karaite Jews build their Sukkot out of branches from the four specified plants (see Qaraite interpretation), while Rabbinic Jews take three types of branches and one type of fruit which are held together and waved in a special ceremony during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The waving of the four plants is a mitzvah prescribed by the Torah, and contains symbolic allusions to a Jew's service of God.
List of the four plants
Leviticus 23:40 And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. English Standard Version
In Leviticus 23:40 the Hebrew terms for the four plants are:
- ‘êṣ hāḏār (עֵץ הָדָר), magnificent/beautiful trees
- təmārîm (תְּמָרִים), palm trees
- ‘êṣ ‘āḇōṯ (עֵץ־עָבֹת), thick/leafy trees
- ‘arḇê-nāḥal (עַרְבֵי נַחַל), willows of the brook/valley
In Talmudic tradition, the four plants are identified as:
- etrog (אתרוג) – the fruit of a citron tree
- lulav (לולב) – a ripe, green, closed frond from a date palm tree
- hadass (הדס) – boughs with leaves from the myrtle tree
- aravah (ערבה) – branches with leaves from the willow tree
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During the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, the waving ceremony (called na'anu'im – נענועים) was performed in the Holy Temple on all seven days of Sukkot, and elsewhere only on the first day. Following the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai ordered that the four species be waved everywhere on every day of Sukkot (except on Shabbat), as a memorial to the Temple.
To prepare the species for the mitzvah, the lulav is first bound together with the hadass and aravah (this bundle is also referred to as "the lulav") in the following manner: One lulav is placed in the center, two aravah branches are placed to the left, and three hadass boughs are placed to the right. (This order is the same for both right-handed and left-handed people.) The bundle may be bound with strips from another palm frond, or be placed in a special holder which is also woven from palm fronds.
Sephardic Jews place one aravah to the right of the lulav and the second aravah to its left, and cover them with the three hadass boughs—one on the right, the second on the left, and the third atop the lulav's spine, leaning slightly to the right. The bundle is held together with rings made from strips of palm fronds. Many Hasidic Ashkenazi Jews follow this practice as well.
In all cases, all of the species must be placed in the direction in which they grew. (For the etrog, this means that the stem end should be on the bottom and the blossom end on top; this is the direction in which the etrog begins to grow, though as it matures on the tree it usually hangs in the opposite direction.)
In old Jewish Eastern European communities, the Jews lived in cities far from fields, which then required substantial travel in order to purchase the four species. Often whole towns would have had to share them. The etrog especially was rare and thus very expensive. In Northern African communities, in Morocco, Tunis and Tangier, the communities were located closer to fields, but the etrog was still fairly expensive. There, instead of one per city, there was one per family. But in both areas, the community would share their etrogs to some extent.
Reciting the blessing
To recite the blessing over the lulav and etrog, the lulav is held in one hand and the etrog in the other. Right-handed users hold the lulav in the right hand and the etrog in the left. The customs for those who are left-handed differ for Ashkenazim and Sephardim. According to the Ashkenazi custom, the lulav is held in the left hand, and according to the Sephardi custom, in the right hand.
According to Sephardi custom, the blessing is said while holding only the lulav and the etrog is picked up once the blessing is completed. According to Ashkenazi custom, before the blessing is said, the etrog is turned upside-down, opposite the direction in which it grows. The reason for these two customs is that the blessing must precede the performance of the mitzvah. Should all the species be held in the direction in which they grew, the mitzvah would be fulfilled before the blessing is recited.
After reciting the blessing, "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to take the lulav" (the "Shehecheyanu" blessing is also recited the first time each year that one waves the lulav and etrog), the etrog is turned right side up (or picked up), and the user brings his or her two hands together so that the etrog touches the lulav bundle. The four species are then pointed and gently shaken three times toward each of the four directions, plus up and down, to attest to God's mastery over all of creation.
The waving ceremony can be performed in the synagogue, or in the privacy of one's home or sukkah, as long as it is daytime. Women and girls may also choose to perform the mitzvah of waving the lulav and etrog, although they are not required by Halakha to do so. Because women are not required to perform this mitzva, some are of the opinion that Sephardi women do not need to recite the blessing.
Additionally, in the synagogue, Hallel is followed by a further ceremony, in which the worshippers join in a processional around the sanctuary with their four species, while reciting special supplications (called hoshaanot, from the refrain hosha na, "save us"). From the first through the sixth day of Sukkot, one complete circuit is made; on Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh and last day of Sukkot, seven complete circuits are made. As the four species are not used on Shabbat, there are variant customs as to whether hoshaanot are said and a circuit made on that day.
Selecting the four species
While all mitzvot should be performed in the best manner possible, hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the mitzvah) especially applies to the four species. The halacha is explicit on what constitutes the "best" in each species. To that end, people will spend large amounts of money to acquire the most perfect etrog, the straightest lulav, and the freshest hadass and aravah. Usually a father will buy several sets of the four species to outfit his sons, as well.
Another custom for hiddur mitzvah, depending on your custom of wrapping lulav and etrog, is to have more than two aravos and three haddasim. Some people have the custom to have as many as 40 extra haddassim and aravos.
Hiddur mitzvah applies to all mitzvot, but its absence does not impede the mitzvah from being performed. For the four species specifically, there is a further "technical" requirement of hadar (beauty), which does impede the mitzvah of the four species from being performed. Despite their similar names and details, these two requirements are distinct from one another.
Several explanations are offered as to why these particular species were chosen for the mitzvah. The Midrash notes that the binding of the four species symbolizes our desire to unite the four "types" of Jews in service of God. An allusion is made to whether or not the species (or their fruits) have taste and/or smell, which correspond to Torah and good deeds. The symbolism is as follows:
- The lulav has taste but no smell, symbolizing those who study Torah but do not possess good deeds.
- The hadass has a good smell but no taste, symbolizing those who possess good deeds but do not study Torah.
- The aravah has neither taste nor smell, symbolizing those who lack both Torah and good deeds.
- The etrog has both a good taste and a good smell, symbolizing those who have both Torah and good deeds.
- Lulav – the spine
- Hadass – the eye
- Aravah – the mouth
- Etrog – the heart
By binding them together for a mitzvah, the Jew shows their desire to consecrate their entire being to the service of God.
An additional reason for waving the four species in all directions alludes to the fact that all these species require much water to grow. The lulav (date palm) grows in watered valleys, hadass and aravah grow near water sources, and the etrog requires more water than other fruit trees. By taking these particular species and waving them in all directions, the Jew symbolically voices a prayer for abundant rainfall for all the vegetation of the earth in the coming year.
The purpose of the command to collect the four species in Lev. 23:40 is ambiguous, as the text does not explicitly state what to do with them. Karaite Jews believe the intent is not to wave the four species but rather to use them to build the "sukkah" which is described in neighboring verses (v. 42-43). This interpretation is based in part on a passage about Sukkot from Neh. 8:14-18:
14 And they found written in the Law, how that the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month; 15 and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: 'Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.' 16 So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim. 17 And all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.
The passage states that it is "written in the Law" for people to go to the mountains to get palm branches, olive leaves, pine needles, myrtle leaves, and other forms of vegetation with which to build the sukkot. The only verse in the Torah that mentions some of these species is Lev. 23:40, which, according to some Jews such as Karaites, indicates that Ezra's scribes interpreted that verse as referring to building materials for the sukkah, not waving the four species. Yeshiva University Jewish Studies Professor and Hebrew Bible authority Lawrence Schiffman interprets the passage the same way. He writes,
One of the earliest examples of midrashic exegesis was the manner in which Lev. 23:40-42 was interpreted by the book of Ezra. The interpretation proposed here was rejected by Jewish tradition, which saw Lev. 23:40 as referring to the taking of the lulav and etrog, not to the building of the sukkah.
Schiffman believes the passage in Nehemiah is a midrashic interpretation of Lev. 23:40, as do the Karaites. However, his view is that this interpretation was eventually rejected by "Jewish tradition," i.e., majority practice, in favor of the Talmudic interpretation of Lev. 23:40 as referring to waving the four species. In contrast to Schiffman, some commentators argue that the verse in Nehemiah cannot be referring to Lev. 23:40, since the language in Nehemiah has some differences from that verse. The pri eitz hadar (fruit of a beautiful tree) and the willow branches are omitted and two species of olive branches are added. It remains unclear according to this interpretation where exactly the scribes in Nehemiah's day "found written in the law" that the Sukkah should be taken from the described species, as no such commandment appears in the books of Moses or anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. Alternatively, the blogger Beno Freedman has suggested that the expression "pri etz hadar" in Leviticus is actually a typo for "pri etz hahar" - fruit of the mountain tree, and is a general descriptor for the olive and willow branches specified immediately afterwards. This would explain why the "hadar" fruit is not mentioned in Nehemiah, and why the verse in Nehemiah mentions a specific instruction to "go out to the mountain" to fetch the materials for the Sukkah.
The fact that the passage in Nehemiah states that the scribes "found" this commandment written in the Law of Moses suggests that it was previously unknown. Furthermore, v. 17 states that the public had not built Sukkot en masse since the days of Joshua (~700 years earlier). Based on this, the blogger "Samurai Scientist" suggests that the tradition of what Lev. 23:40 referred to had been lost, resulting in alternative interpretations referring to construction materials for the sukkot or waving the four species. However, other commentators have suggested that the meaning of these passages is that the festivals had not been celebrated with such enthusiasm since those earlier days .
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