The Torah (Leviticus 23:40) commands the Israelites to take four species on Sukkoth and rejoice before Hashem for seven days. This article will focus on the mechanics of this mitzvah (e.g. bundling the 4 species, proper way of holding these species, the blessings, and waving them). A companion article examined this commandment using the pardes method of exposition (i.e. literal meaning, exegesis, allusions, and secrets of the Torah).
Details of the Mitzvah
Bundling the 4 Species
The Torah (ibid.) commands taking of the 4 species but does not specify the method of taking. The Talmud (Sukkoth 33b) derives from the above verse that bundling is not essential for this mitzvah because the Torah only commands taking (ולקחתם). By contrast the Torah specifies (Exodus 12:22) a bundle of hyssop when the Israelites applied blood to the door posts before leaving Egypt. In fact, one could take each of the 4 species individually provided that all 4 of them are present at the same time (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 651:12). However the Talmud (ibid.) recommends bundling of the species to beautify the mitzvah.
The Torah does not require bundling and does not directly suggest a method of bundling. However the Talmud (Sukkoth 34b) finds a hint in the verse (Leviticus 23:40) which suggests keeping the citron separate and bundling the other two species with the palm frond. This verse states, ““You shall take for yourselves on the first day (of Sukkoth) the fruit of a beautiful tree, branches of date palms, and twigs of a plaited tree, and brook willows.” The double use of the word “and” implies that the myrtle and willow are tied to the branch of the date palm. By contrast the citron is not tied to the palm branch because the word “and” is not used for the palm branch, indicating separation.
Neither the Talmud nor the Shulchan Aruch specifies the means of attaching the myrtle and willow to the palm branch. These are the following customs:
- The 3 branches of myrtle are placed on the right side of the palm branch and the 2 branches of willow are placed on the left side (Mishna Berurah 651:12).
- One branch each of the myrtle and willow are placed on the right side of the palm branch. One branch each of the myrtle and willow are placed on the left side. The third branch of the myrtle is placed on the spine of the palm branch which faces the person holding the bundle (Magen Avraham 651:12 based upon Rabbi Yitzchak Luria).
For both customs, the spine of palm branch (i.e. smooth side) should face the holder of the bundle.
According to method 1, the myrtle is placed on the right which is the more important side compared to the left for the following reasons:
- The myrtle is mentioned before the willow in Leviticus 23:40. The verse lists the 4 species in their order of importance with regard to taste and fragrance (Leviticus Rabbah 30:12).The myrtle has a pleasant fragrance but no taste. By contrast the willow has neither fragrance nor taste, hence placed last in the verse and left on the bundle.
- The leaves of the myrtle represent the eyes and the leaves of the willow represent the mouth (ibid. 30:14). Since the eyes are higher than the mouth the myrtle is placed in a higher position (i.e. the right side).
According to method 2, the myrtle and willow are placed on both sides with the additional myrtle in the middle. The reason for this balance is based upon the Kabbalah which represents the 10 sefirot (divine emanations) in an interlinked diagram, with 3 sefirot on the right, 3 on the left, and 4 in the middle. The Kabbalah aims for a balance of these sefirot to maintain a functioning world. For example the sefira of kindness is placed on the right and the corresponding sefira of restraint on the left to explain how Hashem interacts with the world. If Hashem would run the world only with kindness conferring unlimited blessings to all, whether wicked or righteous, the wicked would prevail resulting in moral chaos. On the other hand, if Hashem would run the world with restraint conferring blessings on the most worthy, who would survive? Therefore Hashem blends these approaches with the sefira of glory which is in the middle of the chart. Since the 4 species are brought in connection with the upcoming rainy season the balanced disposition of the myrtle and willow is a reflection of Hashem’s balanced approach to the world.
Holding the 4 Species
Although the Torah does not specify the method of holding the 4 species, the Talmud (Sukkah 37b) mentions that the palm branch with the myrtle and willow should be taken in the right hand (i.e. 3 species) and the citron in the left (i.e. only one of the species) The Shulchan Aruch ibid. 651:2 follows this citation of the Talmud. However the Talmudic commentators debate whether this is a preferred method or is in fact mandatory. They also debate the preferred method for a left-handed person. Should he place the palm branch is his left hand (which is stronger) or follow the general population and hold this bundle in his right hand. The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 651:3) rules that a left-handed person should follow the latter position. By contrast the Rema (Shulchan Aruch ibid. 651:3) rules that a left-handed person should adopt the former position. Nevertheless he rules (ibid.) that mitzvah is fulfilled either way for both left and right-handed individuals. The Mishna Berurah (651:19) mentions, according to some, that the holding of the bundle in the primary hand is mandatory.
Proper Time for Blessing
The Talmud (Pesachim 7b) specifies that a blessing on a mitzvah should immediately precede the mitzvah. The question arises, “When should one say the blessing on the 4 species?” taking into account the following considerations:
- Minimize the delay between the blessing and the holding of the 4 species.
- Make the blessing before performing the mitzvah.
As a result of these considerations the Shulchan Aruch (651:5) offers the following two suggestions and the Mishna Berurah (ibid. 651:25 based on Tosafot 39a) the third:
- Take the palm bundle, make the blessing, and then take the citron. In this manner one makes the blessing before the mitzvah is completed because one must hold all 4 species. However the delay between the blessing and performance of the mitzvah is not minimized, hence the next suggestion. In addition the mitzvah has started by holding 3 of the 4 species.
- Take the palm bundle, take the citron upside down, make the blessing, and then turn the citron in its upright position. In this manner one makes the blessing before the mitzvah is completed because the 4 species must be held in the manner that they grow. (The citron is topped with a wood like protuberance called a pitam. The point where the citron attaches to its tree is called the ukatz or stem. Initially the citron grows from its stem with the pitam upward. Afterwards due to the weight of the citron, the citron reverses its position with the stem upward and the pitam down. Nevertheless the correct position for the mitzvah is pitam up and stem down.) This method overcomes the delay in the first suggestion but some object to this method because holding the citron in a reverse position during the blessing is not considered respectful, hence the next suggestion. In addition the mitzvah has started by holding 3 of the 4 species.
- Take the palm bundle, take the citron in its correct position, and then make the blessing without the intention to fulfill the mitzvah. After the blessing have the intention to fulfill the mitzvah. This method minimizes the delay between the blessing and the mitzvah since only a change of intention is required. However this negative intent may easily be forgotten which means that the mitzvah is fulfilled before the blessing. In addition this method is confusing to most people (i.e. switching intention from not fulfilling the mitzvah to fulfilling it).
It is interesting to note that Maimonides (Laws of Lulav 7:6) rules that one may make the blessing before taking any of the species, rather than the above suggestions. Presumably, Maimonides feels that his approach is the simplest. The Mishna Berurah (ibid. 652:26) rules that even if one forgot to make the blessing after picking up the bundle he may make the blessing afterwards because the mitzvah is not completed until the waving of the 4 species during Hallel which occurs later. In addition the Talmud Peaschim 7b also allows one to make the blessing after taking the 4 species.
Text of Blessing
The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 651:5) rules that text of the blessing is “has commanded us concerning (על) the taking (lifting or elevating) (נטילת) of a palm branch (לולב)”. The Talmud and subsequent codifiers of Halacha raise the following questions on the text of this blessing:
- Why the indirect expression “as concerning” (על) vs. a more direct expression “to take”?
- Why the special term taking – lifting or elevating (i.e. נטילת) vs. the biblical term taking (i.e. לקיחת)?
- Why is only the palm branch (לולב) mentioned in the blessing and not the other species?
Answer 1 – As concerning
The Talmud Pesachim 7b addresses the first question and notes that if one holds the 4 species before reciting the blessing he has already fulfilled the mitzvah. (It seems that this practice was common in the time of the Talmud and people did not resort to the three strategies outlined above.) Hence the blessing uses the expression “as concerning” because the action of the mitzvah was typically performed before the blessing. In fact Maimonides makes this distinction between two forms of the blessing as follows (Laws of Blessings 11:15), “When one takes the 4 species before saying the blessing, one should recite the blessing … as concerning the taking of the lulav.” This form is used because a person fulfills his obligation when he picks the 4 species up. “However if one recites the blessing before taking the 4 species, one should recite the blessing … to take the lulav.” The prevalent practice is to recite the blessing “as concerning” to allow for saying the blessing before or after taking the 4 species.
Answer 2 – Lifting or elevating
The codifiers of Halacha provide the following answers for the use of the word lifting or elevating (i.e. נטילת) vs. the biblical term taking (i.e. לקיחת):
- Avoid a difficult enunciation of the blessing based upon Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 6:1. Since the previous word of the blessing על (concerning) ends with the letter lamed (ל) the sages preferred to avoid using a next word in the blessing which begins with the letter lamed (ל) (e.g. לקיחת) which may lead to slurring both words together. Therefore they choose a different word נטילת which begins with the letter nun (נ).
- Waving the 4 species – the word lifting (i.e. נטילת) implies that the 4 species must be lifted (Levush) and are in fact waved as explained later in this article (Rabbi David Abudraham).
- Focus on spiritual elevation. The sages chose a word that indicates spiritual elevation, highlighting the connecting to Hashem through this mitzvah especially after the judgment of Rosh Hashanah. This word form appears in Isaiah 63:9, “In all their trouble … with His (Hashem) love and compassion He redeemed them, elevated them (וינטלם), and carried them all the days of the world.” By contrast the word taking does not have this connotation.
Answer 3 – Blessing on palm branch
The Talmud Succah 37b asks, “Why do we recite the blessing only concerning the lulav (palm branch) not on all 4 species?” The Talmud answers that the lulav is the tallest of the species and therefore is the most prominent in a visual sense. The Talmudic commentators elaborate on this answer as follows:
- The palm branch when held should be higher than the other 3 species. In addition the palm tree grows taller than the trees of the other species. (Meiri).
- The palm tree represents righteousness as explained in Leviticus Rabbah 30:9 and serves as a foundation for the bundle according to the verse in Proverbs 10:25, “The righteous man is the foundation of the world” (Ritva).
- The 4 species represent different types of Israelites as explained in Leviticus Rabbah 30:12 and elaborated in the companion article on this web site “Sukkoth – Four Species. The palm represents the Torah scholar with limited influence on others. By contrast the citron refers to the Torah scholar with considerable influence on others. However this type of scholar is very rare. Therefore the bundling of the other 2 species around the palm branch teaches us to be practical and follow the teachings of the Torah scholars in one’s community even though he may not be as great as the citron type of scholar (Meiri).
Blessing of Joy
In addition to the blessing on the lulav (which includes the other 3 species), the sages instituted a blessing of joy on a mitzvah which occurs once a year or less frequently (Maimonides Laws of Blessings 11:9). The text of the blessing reads, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who (divine) has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.” One recites this blessing the first time each year the mitzvah is performed. For example if the first day of Sukkoth occurs on Shabbat when the 4 species are not taken, then one recites the blessing on the second day of Sukkoth (Shulchan Aruch ibid. 662:2). In fact if one was unable to fulfill the mitzvah taking the 4 species until the last day of Sukkoth, he recites the blessing at that time (Mishna Berurah 662:3).
The Israelites who live in the Diaspora observe the first two days of Sukkoth as a full holiday meaning a day of rest, festive meals, and extended prayers. The Talmud Beitzah 4b explains that this second day was instituted because of a doubt on which day the Sanhedrin declared the beginning of the month. To account for this doubt an extra day was observed, with each day accorded the sanctity of the holiday. Since each of these 2 days is considered as the first day of the holiday the blessing of joy is recited on both days of the holiday during the Kiddush at night. The commentators on the Talmud debate the propriety of reciting this blessing of joy when taking the 4 species on the second day of Sukkoth when the first day occurs during the week.
The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 662:2) rules that this blessing is not recited on this second day because the Talmud Sukkah 46a states that the blessing of joy on the 4 species may be recited before the holiday when assembling the 4 species or on the holiday itself when taking the 4 species. Hence even if the first day was actually a weekday, but unbeknown to the Israelites in the Diaspora, the blessing of joy could be recited on the species because the taking of the 4 species as a mitzvah is equivalent to bundling. The contrary opinion holds that this blessing of joy may only be recited upon the actual assembling of the species or on the holiday when taking the 4 species. This opinion does not equate taking of the 4 species before the holiday as equivalent to assembling the 4 species and therefore the blessing of joy should be recited on both days. However the accepted practice is according to the Shulchan Aruch. By contrast, the Israelites who live in Israel observe only the first day as a full holiday and therefore do not recite the blessing of joy when taking the 4 species on the second day unless the first day of Sukkoth occurred on Shabbat.
Waving of the 4 Species
The Talmud (Succah 37b) based upon the Mishna (ibid.) mentions the requirement to waive the 4 species during the prayers. The Talmud (ibid.) also states that this waving includes 4 cardinal directions as well as raising and lowering for a total of 6 different movements. The Talmud (ibid.) provides the reason for this procedure:
- Acknowledgement of Hashem – Hashem rules over the 4 directions of the world as well as the heavens above and the earth below. This acknowledgement is particularly appropriate after the High Holidays when Hashem has judged the world for the coming year. Leviticus Rabbah 30:2 identifies the palm branch as a symbol of a favourable judgment.
- Protection from harmful winds and dew – A harmful wind may come from any of the 4 directions. In turn harmful dew comes from the air above and lands on the earth below. This protection is also appropriate at this time because the planting season in Israel begins a few weeks after Sukkoth.
Since the Talmud (ibid.) did not specify the order of the waving several customs have arisen. The following table shows the source of the custom and the order of the waving in the six directions.
(Note: The abbreviations refer to Mishna Berurah, Magen Avraham, and Kaf Hachaim respectively.)
Reason for sequences
Each custom has a different reason for its sequence based upon the Talmud or Kabbalah. The Rema in Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 651:11) points out that if a person did not follow any of these 3 sequences the mitzvah of waving has been performed, albeit in a non-optimal manner, because the Talmud did not specify the sequence of directions.
Sequence 1 – Mishna Berurah
The first sequence assumes the person is facing east (towards Jerusalem) and then proceeds in a clockwise manner always turning to his right based upon Zevachim 62b, “That all the turns should be to the right.” After completing the 4 cardinal directions the individual lifts the bundle upwards (in a heavenly direction) and then downwards (in an earthly direction).
Sequence 2 – Magen Avraham
The second sequence similarly assumes the person is facing east and then turns right to the south. Rather than turning immediately right to the west and stopping, this person turns past the west to reach the north direction. This sequence ends with the west where the Shechinah resides since the Holy of Holies was located in the most western part of the temple complex (Mishna Midot 4:7). After completing 3 of the 4 cardinal directions the individual lifts the bundle upwards and then downwards as in the first sequence and ends the sequence in the west.
Sequence 3 – Kaf Hachaim
The third sequence is similar to the previous sequence in that it assumes the person is facing east and ends the waving in the west. In this sequence the person first turns right to the south, presumably to emphasize that one should turn right. Rather than turning immediately right to the west and stopping, the individual turns past the west to reach the north. Then the person turns right to the east. The last three steps are identical to the second sequence.
Direction of bundle
The codifiers of Halacha debate whether a person should remain facing east and turn the bundle in the direction of the waving or actually face the direction of waving. The Mishna Berurah (651:47) favours the former approach. The Kaf Hachaim (651:96), in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, suggests facing the direction of waving. These codifiers also debate the proper position of the bundle when waving downwards. Should the person just lower his hands and leave the bundle right side up or should he turn the bundle upside down? Again the Mishna Berurah (ibid.) favours the former approach. The Rema (ibid. 651:9) favours the latter approach but also mentions that the first approach is valid because the 4 species must be held in the direction that they grow. The latter approach assumes that this requirement does not apply during waving.
Although the Babylonian Talmud did not specify the exact method of waving the bundle, the Jerusalem Talmud (Succah 3:9) debates the procedure and in the name of Rabbi Zeira mentions a requirement of waving 3 times in each direction. However since the citation in the Jerusalem Talmud is somewhat vague the Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 651:9) and its commentators suggest the following procedures:
- The person moves the bundle forward and then back to his chest (i.e. 2 movements) for each of the 6 directions for a total of 12 movements (i.e. 6 *2). In each movement the person waves the bundle 3 times for a total of 36 waving actions (Rabbi Yosef Karo ibid.). According to this method it is not necessary to rustle the leaves of the palm branch.
- The person moves the bundle forward and then back to his chest (i.e. 2 movements), 3 times for each of the 6 directions for a total of 36 movements (i.e. 2*3*6). During each movement the person waves the bundle and rustles the leaves for a total of 36 waving actions (Rema on ibid.), namely one waving action per movement.
- Similar to the second method, the person moves the bundle forward and then back to his chest (i.e. 2 movements), 3 times for each of the 6 directions for a total of 36 movements (i.e. 2*3*6). However only on the first set of movements does the person wave the bundle, meaning 3 times at the end of the first forward movement and 3 times at the end of first return movement. The person does not wave the bundle during the second and third set of movements. In this manner the person waves the bundle 36 times, namely 2 movements on the first set, 3 waving actions for these 2 movements, and 6 directions (i.e. 2*3*6) (Beir Hateiv 651:9).
These procedures are the same whether a person is left or right handed (Mishna Berurah 651:47). In addition if a person did not follow any of these procedures, he has fulfilled the mitzvah of the 4 species, albeit in a non-optimal manner (Rema on 651:11).
Waving in Prayer
The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 651:8) rules that one should wave the 4 species after saying the blessing and then again when reciting certain verses in the Hallel (Psalms 113-118). Rav Yosef Caro and the Rema codify the different practices of the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities, respectively. The former community waves when reciting verses Psalms 118:1, 118:25, and 118:29. The last two verses are recited twice resulting in 5 full waving sequences both for the cantor and the congregants. By contrast the Rema rules that in addition to the above 5 sequences the cantor waves when reciting 118:2 for a total of 6 sequences. The congregants wave an additional 3 sequences for a total of 8 when they respond to the cantor’s recitation of each of Psalms 118:2-4 with verse 118:1. The following table summarizes these different practices.
|1, 25, and 29
|25 and 29
|1, 2, 25, and 29
|25 and 29
|1, 25, and 29
|1, 25, and 29 (Note1)
(Note 1: As mentioned above, the congregants recite verse 1 four times.)
The reader may ask, “Why did the sages choose these verses for the waving ceremony?” Although the Talmud Sukkoth does not provide an answer, Midrash Tanchuma Emor 18 explains that the palm branch of the 4 species indicates a successful divine judgment for the coming year. It was the practice of people when leaving a court room after a winning verdict to parade with a palm branch as a symbol of victory. This Midrash quotes Psalms 96:12-13 to support this idea, “Then all the trees of the forest will sing with joy before Hashem (alluding to the 4 species which grow in a forest) … for He (Hashem) will judge the world with righteousness (alluding to the judgment on the High Holidays). Although this Midrash does not provide the link to the Hallel, Tosafot (Succah 37b) explains that similar verses appear in 1 Chronicles 16:33-35 which link to the Hallel as follows:
Verse 33 – “Then all the forest trees will sing praises, before Hashem, for He (Hashem) has come to judge the earth”, alluding to the 4 species and judgment as explained above.
Verse 34 – “Give thanks to Hashem for He is good, for His loving-kindness exists forever.” This verse is identical to Psalms 118:1 and 29.
Verse 35 – “And say, “Save us, O Hashem of our salvation” corresponds to Psalms 118:25, “Please Hashem, save now!” One does not wave during the remainder of verse 25, “Please Hashem, bring success now!” because verse 35 in 1 Chronicles did not mention success.
The reader may ask, “Why are verses 118:25 and 29 repeated?” The Talmud Succah 38a answers that this repetition is a custom followed by some communities to maintain the style of Psalm 118. Verses 1 to 20 of this chapter follow a repetitive pattern while verses 21-29 do not. For example verse 1 is repeated its entirety in verse 29. Verses 2, 3, and 4 all begin with the expression,” Let him say (or) let them say.” The current custom is to repeat verses 21-29.
The waving sequence of 6 directions is distributed among the words in Psalms 118:1, 25, and 29 except when saying the name of Hashem. Since verses 1 and 29 contains 6 words, excluding the name of Hashem; therefore one waves the bundle in one direction per word. Similarly the first half of verse 25 contains 3 words excluding the name of Hashem; therefore one waves the bundle in 2 directions for each word.
This article examined in detail the many aspects of the mitzvah of taking the 4 species and describing the different customs that developed to enhance this mitzvah. The author aims to inform the reader of the method of fulfilling this commandment and its rationale. These enhancements demonstrate a love for Hashem and joy in performing his commandments as the verse (Leviticus 23:40) states, “You shall take (the four species) … and rejoice before Hashem.”