Sukkoth – Four Species Overview
The Torah (Leviticus 23:40) commands the Israelites to take four species on Sukkoth and rejoice before Hashem for seven days. This article will examine this commandment using the pardes method of exposition (i.e. literal meaning, exegesis, allusions, and secrets of the Torah), drawn from the Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar with associated commentaries. A companion article will focus on the mechanics of this mitzvah (e.g. bundling the 4 species, blessings, proper way of holding these species, and waving them).
Literal Meaning – פשט
The Torah states (ibid.), albeit in a somewhat vague manner, “You shall take for yourselves on the first day (of Sukkoth) the fruit of a beautiful tree, branches of date palms, twigs of a plaited tree, and brook willows. (With these species) you shall rejoice before Hashem for seven days.” A number of questions arise from this verse as follows:
- What are the identities of first and third of the four species?
- How many of each of the species should be taken?
- What is the reason for this commandment?
The Talmud in tractate Sukkoth answers each of these questions in considerable detail as explained in the next section of exegesis.
Exegesis – דרש
Identity of Species
Leviticus Rabbah 30:15 notes that the identity of these species is somewhat vague, especially the first and third, and that without the oral law we would be in doubt how to fulfill this commandment. However the Talmud Sukkah clearly defines the parameters of each of these species in detail.
The following table summarizes the definition of these species, the number of each species, and the references to the folio pages of the Talmud and chapter in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim).
|פרי עץ הדר
|29b, 31b-32b, 34b
|ענף עץ עבת
The following discussion will detail the derivation of the identity of these species from the verse and the parameters of each of the species in Halacha. The following photograph shows the 4 species, with the citron by itself and the other 3 species bundled together.
The Torah calls the first of the 4 species “the fruit of a beautiful tree” fruit. This Midrash asks, “How do we know that the Torah refers specifically to the etrog? After all, many trees produce fruit that are splendid.” This Midrash answers that we know the identity of this fruit from tradition dating back from Moses.
The Talmud (Sukkah 35a) finds hints to the identity of this fruit as the etrog by analyzing the exact wording of the Torah. The Torah calls this fruit הדר עץ פרי, literally the fruit of a beautiful tree and the Talmud then analyzes this phrase through the following derivations:
- The Talmud understands this phrase to mean that the bark of the tree tastes the same as its fruit. The Talmud then asks, “What about pepper trees whose bark and fruit taste the same?” The Talmud answers that peppers are too small to fulfill this mitzvah. The Talmud then asks, “Why not take a handful of peppers?” The Talmud then answers that the word fruit (פרי) is singular which means only one specimen can be taken, meaning that this fruit is the etrog.
- The Talmud then expounds upon the word beautiful (הדר) and finds another meaning to this word by breaking this word into two. The letter ה meaning “that which” and the other two letters דר meaning lives. By combining these two words the Talmud deduces that this fruit is the etrog which can live on the tree from year to year before harvesting.
- In a similar perspective, the Talmud interprets the word (הדר) as a corral, with the letter ה meaning “that which” and the other two letters דר meaning corral (דיר) with an extra yud (י). (When expounding word of the Torah, the Talmud will occasionally add or delete a letter.) By combining these two words, the Talmud deduces that this fruit is the etrog which can live on the tree with old and new fruit like a corral which has young and old animals.
- As a hint, the Talmud notes the similar pronunciation of the word beautiful in Hebrew (הדר) to the word water (idur or hydro) in ancient Greek, meaning that the etrog tree requires both natural rain water and irrigation to grow properly.
Comparison to a Lemon
The reader may ask, “Since the etrog is a member of the citron family, what is the difference between an etrog and a lemon? The codifiers of Halacha (Mishna Berurah 648:65) have determined the following distinctions between these fruit as follows:
Hence a fruit that does not match the features of an etrog is not valid for this mitzvah. The etrog grows in a number of countries including Morocco, Yemen, and Italy. At present Israel is the major supplier of this fruit and is especially endorsed by the Aruch Hashulchan (648:29).
Number of fruit
The Torah calls this fruit (פרי) in singular which means only one specimen can be taken (Sukkah 34b).
The Shulchan Aruch (ibid.) lists many factors that may disqualify an etrog and its commentators discuss and debate in detail the parameters of each disqualification. The following is a list of some of these factors: dry, punctured, cracked, peeled, damaged pitam (wood like protuberance), damaged stem, discolouration, and round shape. Although the etrog should be yellow (ibid. 21), a green etrog is valid if over time it will ripen and become yellow. The etrog should be at least the size of a chicken egg but there is no upper limit (ibid. 22). In fact some grow as large as a watermelon! (https://www.israelhayom.com/2019/10/15/giant-mutant-etrog-causes-wonder-at-western-wall/)
Palm Branch (Lulav)
The Torah calls the second of the 4 species “branches of date palms” (תמרים כפת). This Midrash asks the following questions. How do we know that we take:
- A branch with tightly packed leaves and not a palm fan?
- A branch without dates?
- Only one branch?
The word “כפת” which means bound or tied also signifies that that the palm leaves must be tightly bound and not spread out (ibid. 32a) which occurs on a young palm branch. In addition each leaf of the lulav is paired with a midrib joining the two sides of each leaf indicating a tight leaf formation. The Talmud further explains that a branch with dates is called כף and not כפת.
Number of branches
The Torah calls the branch “תמרים כפת” which literally means braches of a date palm (i.e. two or more). Rashi on Sukkah 34b explains that the word “כפת” is spelled without the letter vav (ו) indicating a singular form which means only one branch. The plural form “כפת” indicates that this branch should contain many leaves and but without clusters of dates.
The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 645) specifies many factors that may disqualify a lulav and its commentators discuss and debate in detail the parameters of each disqualification. The following is a list of some of these factors: leaves are fanning out, split leaves, dry leaves, cut top, cracked, and bent.
The Torah calls the third of the 4 species “twigs of a plaited tree”. This Midrash asks the first question and the Talmud (ibid. 32b and 34b, respectively) asks both of the following questions. How do we know that:
- This plaited tree is the myrtle?
- We take 3 branches and not less?
This Midrash questions the identity of this tree as the myrtle, based upon a verse from Nehemiah 8:15, “Go out to the mountain and bring olive leaves and leaves of oil trees, myrtle leaves, date palm leaves, and leaves of plaited trees, to make booths (i.e. Sukkoth), as it is written (in the Torah).” Since this verse mentions both the myrtle and leaves of plaited trees it implies that these two trees are different. The Talmud answers (Sukkah 12a) that the myrtle of this verse is invalid for the 4 species and is called a wild or irregular myrtle and is therefore valid for the covering of a succah. The plaited tree of this verse refers to a type of myrtle which is valid for the 4 species.
The reader may ask, “How do we distinguish between these two types of myrtle?” The Talmud (ibid. 32b) answers that the valid myrtle has the property of three fold leaves, meaning that three or more petioles align on the same circumference. (Note: The petiole is a stalk that attaches a leaf to the plant stem.) Therefore if two petioles lie on the same circumference and the other is above or below this circumference the myrtle is not valid for the 4 species. Since this stalk is very short on valid myrtle branches, the twigs appear to be braided. In addition the sets of leaves must be closely spaced one upon the other so that the leaves cover the entire twig. With these two requirements (viz. three fold leaves and leaves that cover its branch) the Talmud (ibid.) disqualifies the olive and chestnut tree.
Number of branches
Although the Torah does not specify the number of myrtle branches, the Talmud (ibid. 34b) derives the number of branches by counting the number of words that the Torah uses to describe the myrtle (i.e. עבת עץ ענף) which is 3. The codifiers of Halacha debate whether one is allowed to add more than 3 myrtle branches to the lulav bundle. On one hand, the Talmud mentions only 3 branches, based upon the wording or the Torah. On the other hand one could potentially beautify the mitzvah by adding more. The Shulchan Aruch (651:15) mentions both views and favours using only 3 branches. However several communities allow adding more branches.
The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 646) specifies several factors that may disqualify a myrtle branch and its commentators discuss and debate in detail the parameters of each disqualification. The following is a list of some of these factors: cut top, more berries than leaves, less than 3 leaves in a ring, and dry leaves.
The Torah calls the last of the 4 species “brook willows”. This Midrash asks the first question and the Talmud (ibid. 33b and 34b, respectively) asks the all of these questions:
- Does the willow have to grow by a brook?
- How do we identify this type of willow?
- Why do we take 2 branches and not less?
The Talmud (Sukkah 33b) identifies the willow brook as a species of willow that typically grows by a source of water. However this willow is valid even if does not grow near a source of water. The plural form “ערבי” literally “willows of” is a hint to the different locales of this tree (i.e. whether or not near a water source).
Since there are many types of willow the Talmud (ibid. 34a) identifies the valid willow thought its stems and leaves as follows:
- Stems shall be red. (Green stems are also valid and will become red as the stem matures).
- Leaves shall be elongated and not round. (The Torah hints at this shape by calling the tree a willow brook, implying that the leaves resemble a brook which is long and narrow.)
- Leaves shall be smooth and not serrated. However a willow whose leaves have minor serrations is valid (Shulchan Aruch 647:1).
Number of branches
Although the Torah does not explicitly specify the number of willow branches, the Talmud (ibid. 34b) infers the number of braches at 2 since the Torah the plural form (ערבי) when describing the willow (נחל ערבי). The codifiers of Halacha debate whether one is allowed to add more than 2 myrtle branches to the lulav bundle. On one hand, the Talmud mentions only 2 branches, based upon the wording or the Torah. However this number may be a minimum. On the other hand one could potentially beautify the mitzvah by adding more. Maimonides (Laws of Lulav 7:7) allows one to add myrtle branches to beautify the mitzvah but limits the number of willow branches to 2. The Shulchan Aruch (651:15) mentions both views and favours using only 2 branches.
The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 647) specifies several factors that may disqualify a willow branch and its commentators discuss and debate in detail the parameters of each disqualification. The following is a list of some of these factors: dry leaves, leaves fell off, and cut top.
There are many books and articles detailing the Halacha of the 4 species. The author finds the following references particularly useful because these sources are in English and provide numerous illustrations:
- Succos, Artscroll Mesorah Series, various authors, Mesorah Publications, 1982 First Edition, 128 pages, ISBN 0-89906-166-4.
- Yalkut Yosef, Saka Edition, Hilkhot Sukkot, Rabbi Yisrael Bitan, HaKeter Institute, 2010, 431 psges.
Reason for Mitzvah
Since the Torah does not provide a rationale for this commandment, the reader may ask:
- What is the rationale for this commandment?
- Why were these species and not others?
- Why exactly 4?
Rationale for Commandment
Talmud Taanit 2b
The Talmud 2b provides a basic rationale for this mitzvah with reference to the mention of rain in the prayers. Rabbi Eliezer says, “These four species taken on Sukkoth serve to entreat Hashem to provide a favourable judgment concerning water. This commandment implies that just as it impossible to for these species to grow without water, so too it is impossible for the world to exist without water.”
Maimonides in Guide to the Perplexed (3:43), using a rational approach from man’s perspective, writes, “I believe that the Four Species are a symbolic expression of our rejoicing because the Israelites emerged from the wilderness to a country full of fruit trees and rivers.
The Sefer Hachinuch, written in the 13th century in Spain, is a compendium of the 613 commandments of the Torah based upon the book of mitzvoth written by Maimonides and provides a rationale for each commandment. In mitzvah number 324 this source explains that man is influenced by his actions whether for good or otherwise. Therefore Hashem commanded many mitzvoth for the benefit of man both materially and spiritually. In particular, Hashem commanded taking of these species to make a person happy for enhancement of the joyous festival of Sukkoth which occurs after the harvest of grain, fruits, and vegetables.
These rationales answer the first question but do not address the other two questions, namely the actual species and the requirement of exactly 4.
Reason for Species
Maimonides continues his explanation (ibid.), “In order to remember the emergence from the desert we take the most pleasant fruit of the land (i.e. citron), beautiful branches (i.e. palm branches), best smelling branches (i.e. myrtle), and best of herbs (i.e. willow). These four kinds also have three additional purposes: First, they were plentiful in those days in Palestine, so that everyone could easily obtain them. Secondly, they have a good appearance. In addition, some of them, viz., the citron and myrtle, are also excellent as regards their fragrance. Thirdly, they keep fresh for seven days, which is not the case with peaches, pomegranates, asparagus, and the like.” The author would like to point out that although the willow leaves tend to dry out after a few days, they are easily replaceable at a minimal cost.
Number of Species
Both of these explanations do not address the question of why exactly 4 species? The following sections “Hints and Allusions” and “Secrets of the Torah” will provide reasons for numerology of 4 from man’s and Hashem’s perspective, based upon the Midrash and Zohar, respectively.
Hints and allusions – רמז
Leviticus Rabbah (Chapter 30) provides a number of explanations for the exact number of 4 species:
- 4 types of Israelites
- 4 essential components of the body
- Patriarchs and matriarchs
Four Types of Israelites
Torah Study and Observance
Leviticus 30:12 relates the four species to four types of Israelites as shown in the following table.
This Midrash explains that the citron fruit has both a pleasant taste and fragrance. (Unlike the lemon which is quiet sour the pulp of this citron has a pleasant taste whose acidity is close to an orange.) The date palm branch represents the date fruit which has a pleasant taste but no fragrance. The myrtle has a pleasant fragrance but no taste. Alas, the willow has neither a taste nor fragrance. This Midrash refers the quality of taste to diligent Torah study and fragrance to observance of mitzvoth (both between man and Hashem and man to man). Torah study is greater than observance of mitzvoth (without Torah study) because Torah study leads to proper observance of mitzvoth (Kiddushin 40b). Hence when one studies Torah properly he has both, study and observance.
This Midrash thus identifies 4 types of Israelites with respect to Torah study and observance of mitzvoth. The citron represents the highest level of the Israelites because he has both Torah study and observance. The palm branch represents the Israelite with Torah study but without observance of mitzvoth. The reader may ask, “How is it possible that a person may study Torah and not observe the mitzvoth?” Perhaps the Midrash does not mean that this person is devoid of observance. Rather the Midrash means that his observance of mitzvoth is not commensurate with his study of Torah. Similarly the myrtle represents an Israelite whose study of Torah is not commensurate with his observance of mitzvoth. The willow represents the Israelite who is deficient in both areas. Rather than ignoring the willow type Israelite, Hashem advises that all of the Israelites to group together and have a positive influence one upon the other. Hence all 4 species are required to fulfill the commandment. For example the learned Israelites should teach the uninformed. In turn the unlearned can inform the learned of the challenges of performing and understanding the mitzvoth.
Influence upon Others
The author would like to explain that the metaphor of fragrance may refer to the positive influence of one Israelite upon another, especially in terms of outreach to combat intermarriage and assimilation. For example, Genesis Rabbah 39:2 mentions that Abraham had to leave his family in Haran and go to Canaan to spread his message of monotheism because the inhabitants of Canaan were more receptive to his mission. This Midrash uses the analogy of a bottle of perfume. When closed, people do not benefit from the fragrance (i.e. Abraham in Haran). When opened people enjoy the fragrance (i.e. Abraham in Canaan). The analogy of fragrance to influence even fits the Midrash of Leviticus Rabbah 30:12. When consuming a fragrant fruit only the person who eats the fruit benefits (e.g. private Torah study or observance). However the fragrance of a cut citrus fruit (e.g. orange or etrog) even benefits the one who does not eat the fruit (e.g. influence on the community through public Torah study or observance).
In this manner, the palm branch represents a Torah scholar who does observe the mitzvoth but has a limited impact on his fellow Israelites. Similarly the myrtle branch represents an Israelite who may not be particularly learned but has a larger impact on society. The citron then represents a religious leader in Judaism combining Torah study, observance, and influence on society. The willow represents the uninvolved Israelite who neither possesses Torah knowledge nor influence in Jewish affairs. In this vein, Midrash Tanchuma Emor 17 stresses the significance of combining the willow with the other 3 species, as a reminder to prevent the unaffiliated Israelite from losing his connection with his people and his identity.
In addition to the Midrash about the 4 types of Israelites; the author would like to add the following numerology, based upon the terms used by the Mishna for these species to develop these character types. The following table lists the names of the species in English, in Hebrew using the words of the Mishna, related word through gematria, and themes of the word association.
|Species – English
|Species – Mishna
It is interesting to note that the words אתרוג and לולב do not appear in scripture but occur many times in the Talmud and Midrash, perhaps emphasizing that these two classes of scholars are strongly related to their expertise in the oral law.
Although the gematria of אתרוג is 610, one can increase this number by 1 using the inclusive method (כולל עם) by adding the word itself to the gematria of the letters. (Note: the author will use this method sparingly, preferring to use the direct gematria for a stringer link to the words. However in this case the word association is compelling.) By adding 1 to the gematria of 610, one obtains the gematria of תורה which is 611, implying that this level of scholar exemplifies a Torah life in terms of study, observance, and influence upon others. Using the direct gematria of 610 an adding the other three species one obtains 613 (i.e. 610+3) which equals the total number of commandments in the Torah, providing an explanation to the preliminary prayer recited before holding the 4 species, “May the mitzvah of (holding) these 4 species be considered before You (Hashem), … as if I have fulfilled the 613 mitzvoth associated with it.”
The gematria of the palm branch לולב (68) is the same as חכם meaning a Torah sage. As explained by the above Midrash, the palm branch represents a Torah scholar who is somewhat deficient in observance or as explained by the author does not have significant impact upon others. Hence when compared to the Torah personality, represented by the citron, this type of sage does not merit the title of a master of Torah.
The gematria of myrtle הדס (69) is the same as to your brother לאחיך, relating to a person who performs acts of kindness with his fellow Israelites. This person may not be a Torah scholar, just as the myrtle leaves have a pleasant fragrance but no taste, but his positive influence is felt by the community. It is interesting to note that the word to your brother לאחיך occurs 3 times in Deuteronomy and all of them involve mitzvoth between man and man:
- ibid 15:11 – supporting the poor.
- ibid 22:1 – returning a lost object.
- ibid. 23:20 – offering interest free loans.
In addition by replacing the letter ה with the letter ח, similar form of letter and pronunciation, and rearranging the letters we transform הדס to חסד (acts of kindness), supporting the idea that this type of person performs acts of kindness regularly.
The gematria of willow ערבה is 277 corresponding to the gematria of the words עזר (help) and זרע (offspring). These words are fitting for the Israelite who lacks both Torah knowledge and observance. He requires help to increase his connection with Hashem; otherwise his connection will wither like the leaves of the willow. In addition his withering will also affect his offspring through intermarriage or assimilation, resulting in their loss from the Torah. In fact Midrash Tanchuma Emor 17 makes this exact point, using the expression that his offspring should not be disqualified (יפסל).
Four Essential Bodily Components
Leviticus Rabbah 30:14 relates the four species to four essential components of the body as shown in the following table.
|Thought – Sight
The citron resembles the heart in shape and size. In the biblical idiom, the heart is associated with thought as the verse says (Numbers 15:39), “Remember all the commandments of Hashem; and do not follow after your heart and eyes which may lead you astray.” Midrash Tanchuma (Shelach 15), comments on this verse, “The eye sees, the heart desires, and the body sins.” (In scientific terminology the brain is the center of thought and the heart pumps the blood to sustain the brain. However the biblical idiom speaks in the language of man and recognizes that passion is associated with a faster beating of the heart.)
The palm branch, resembling the spine in shape and size, represents motion of the body. The above quotation of Midrash Tanchuma links thought to action.
The leaf of the myrtle, resembling the eyes in shape and size, represents the other component of thought as stated in Midrash Tanchuma (ibid.).
The leaf of the myrtle, resembling the lips in shape and size, represents speech as the verse states (51:17), “Hashem open my lips, and my mouth will recite Your (divine) praise.”
In summary, the 4 species remind the Israelites to serve Hashem in thought, action and speech.
Patriarchs and Matriarchs
Leviticus Rabbah 30:15 links the four species to the patriarchs and matriarchs indicating that when performing this mitzvah one should reflect on their greatness and emulate their ways. This Midrash follows a chronological order and lists the 4 species as they appear in the Torah as shown in the following table. The link may be based upon verses or the actual nature of the species.
|Bound on altar
This Midrash points out that Hashem honoured Abraham with a long and distinguished life. Specifically, this Midrash links the Torah’s description of the citron, as the fruit of a beautiful (הדר) tree (Leviticus 23:40), to the verse (ibid. 19:32), “You shall honour (והדרת) the presence of a sage (זקן) because both verses uses the same grammatical root (הדר). In turn the Midrash links to another verse (Genesis 24:1), describing Abraham as a sage (literally elder), “Abraham was a sage (literally old) and Hashem blessed Abraham with everything.” Hence we see the link between the citron and Abraham. It is interesting to note that the Midrash uses a two step approach to find this link, showing the subtlety of scripture in the domain of hints and allusions (רמז). In addition, the citron retains its beauty many weeks after harvesting showing a physical link between beauty and longevity.
The Midrash links Isaac to the date palm through a word and concept association. The Torah (Leviticus 23:40) describes the date palm in Hebrew as תמרים כפת. The word כפת also means bound which refers to the binding of Isaac on the altar (Genesis 22:9). In addition the word תמרים alludes to a pillar of smoke תימרות (Joel 3:3) through a similar spelling which refers to the burning of the ram (Genesis 22:13) in place of Isaac. The concept association refers to the word the Mishna uses for the date palm (i.e. לולב) which may be read as two separate words לב לו, “to him is the heart”, meaning the devotion of Isaac’s heart to Hashem to readily submit to self-sacrifice.
The Midrash links Jacob to the myrtle branch in terms of abundance. Just as the myrtle branch is covered with many leaves so Jacob produced the most children (12) of the patriarchs as shown in the table below. This table lists the patriarchs, number of total children, number of children who are considered as Israelites, and related verses in Genesis.
|Number of Children
|Number of Israelites
|16:15, 21:2, 25:2
In fact there are only 3 patriarchs (i.e. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) based upon Exodus 3:6. The Midrash links Joseph to the willow branch in terms of longevity. Just as the willow leaves are the first to wither of the 4 species so Joseph lived the least compared to his brothers and the other patriarchs as shown in the table below. This table lists the biblical personalities; number of years lived, and related verses in Genesis.
|Verse in Genesis
This Midrash also links the 4 species to the 4 matriarchs as in the following table.
|Bore children in old age
|Good and bad
This Midrash points out that Hashem honoured Sarah with the gift of youth when she bore and nursed her only son Isaac at the age of 90 (Genesis 17:17 and 21:7). Specifically, this Midrash links the Torah’s description of the citron as the fruit of a beautiful (הדר) tree (Leviticus 23:40) to the dignity of a distinguished long life. In addition, the citron retains its beauty many weeks after harvesting showing a physical link between beauty and Sarah’s old age. Genesis Rabbah 58:1, commenting on Genesis 23:1 notes that Sarah at the age of 20 maintained her natural beauty as a child of 7 years old who does not require cosmetics. Presumably she aged gracefully throughout her 127 years.
This Midrash compares Rebecca to a date palm which produces sweet fruit but also painful thorns. In turn she bore twins, the righteous Isaac and the evil Esau.
The Midrash links Leah to the myrtle branch in terms of abundance. Just as the myrtle branch is covered with many leaves so Leah bore the most children (6) of the matriarchs as shown in the table below. This table lists the matriarchs, number of total children, number of children who are considered as Israelites, and related verses in Genesis.
|Number of Children
|Number of Israelites
The Midrash links Rachel to the willow branch in terms of longevity. Just as the willow leaves are the first to wither of the 4 species, so Rachel lived the least compared to the other matriarchs as shown in the table below. This table lists the matriarchs; number of years lived, and related verses in Genesis. (Note: The Torah records the age of Sarah at her passing but not the other matriarchs. Therefore there are differences of opinion about these ages. The author has followed the historical work of the 2nd century, called Seder Olam, according to the interpretation of the Vilna Gaon. These ages are known by tradition and alluded to in the book of Genesis. Leah passed away before the selling of Joseph but in her case the verses in Genesis do not provide a direct link.)
|Verse in Genesis
Secrets of Torah –סוד
Characteristics of Hashem
Leviticus Rabbah 30:9 links the 4 species to characteristics of Hashem as shown in the table below which lists these species, characteristics, and related verses. The reader should not understand this Midrash literally because Hashem is not physical in any form. Rather the Midrash encourages the Israelites to reflect on these characteristics when performing the mitzvah and connect to Hashem with spiritual joy as the verse states (Leviticus 23:40),” (You shall take the four species) and rejoice before Hashem.” This is an example where the Midrash enters the world of “secrets of the Torah”, normally reserved for the Zohar.
|Dwell in Heavens
Psalms 104 speaks of the creation of the world. In particular verse 104:1 says, “Hashem, You are attired with majesty and splendour (והדר).” The Torah (ibid.) calls the citron the fruit of a tree of splendour הדר עץ פרי. Hence this Midrash links the splendour of Hashem to the splendour of the citron alluding to the beauty of the physical world created by the majestic power of Hashem.
The Midrash quotes Psalms 92:13, “The righteous (צדיק) will flourish like a date palm” to link the righteousness of Hashem to the date palm, meaning that one should consider Hashem’s righteousness when asking for rain.
Chapter 1 of Zachariah describes a vision of the prophet Zachariah who saw angels standing among myrtle trees. These angels predicted the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the second temple. Therefore this Midrash uses this prophecy to link the myrtle with revelation whose impact is felt by many, like the fragrance of the myrtle leaves.
This Midrash quotes Psalms 68:5, “Praise Hashem Who rides in the heavens (Aravoth) by His name.” Although the term Aravoth is somewhat obscure, the Talmud (Chagigah 12b) identifies this word as the 7th (highest) heaven which holds the souls of the righteous, souls of those that are destined to be born, and the dew that will lead to the resurrection of the dead. The reader may ask, “How could the Midrash link the highest heaven to the willow which represents the Israelite who is deficient in Torah and mitzvoth?” In the opinion of the author the answer lies in the contents of this heaven, namely the unborn souls and the potential for resurrection. By holding the 4 species together the Midrash wishes to emphasize that the Israelites with Torah and/or mitzvoth should influence his fellow Israelite who is deficient in these areas, especially with regard to his offspring which may be lost to assimilation and intermarriage. Hence the contents of the 7th heaven link all these parties, namely, the righteous, future offspring (i.e. souls to be born), and the deficient Israelites alluded to the dew of resurrection (i.e. rebirth).
The Zohar (1:220a) answers the question of why exactly 4 species in terms of mystical concepts as follows:
- Four letters of Tetragrammaton.
- Four worlds of Kabbalah.
Four letters of Tetragrammaton
The Zohar (ibid.) relates each of the 4 species in order of their number of branches or fruit to the four letters of Hashem’s name in their order as follows:
|Branches (or Fruit)
|Letter of Hashem’s Name
Therefore one must take all 4 species, preferably closely together; otherwise the name of Hashem is not fully represented in this mitzvah (Beer Heiteiv Orach Chaim 651:21).
Four Worlds of Kabbalah
The Zohar (ibid.) links the four species, in order of the verse, to the four world of Kabbalah starting from the first, nearest to Hashem, and the fourth which is man’s domain as follows:
The Zohar (ibid.) finds an allusion to these worlds in Isaiah 43:7, “Everyone who is called by My (divine) name (אצילות), and whom I created (בריאה) for My glory, I formed (יצירה) him, yea I made him (עשיה).” The Zohar (ibid.) further explains that actions in the lower world of עשיה ripple through to each of the higher worlds to reach the world of emanation. Therefore all 4 specie are required to make this connection. The following link provides more information on these four worlds https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Worlds.
The Zohar (3:31a) groups the 4 species into 7 components (i.e. 3 myrtle branches, 2 willow branches, 1 palm branch, and 1 citron, 3+2+1+1=7). Consequently to preserve this number of 7, which represents holiness (Sukkoth occurs for 7 days in the 7th month) and the 7 “interactive” sefirot, one should not hold more than 3 branches of myrtle and 2 branches of willow. (The other 3 sefirot refer to Hashem’s wisdom.) Hence by taking the 4 species one connects the higher and lower worlds through these 7 components. However, as mentioned above, some communities rule that the mitzvah to beautify the species overrides this consideration of 7.
This article examined the mitzvah of taking the 4 species through the 4 levels of interpretation (i.e. literal meaning, exegesis, allusions, and secrets of the Torah), thus reflecting on the depth of the Torah and the breadth of its reach upon the Israelites. The mitzvah must be relevant to all types of people and throughout time. At its basic level, this mitzvah speaks to the farm owner and worker who rejoice after a successful harvest and offer thanks to Hashem for the bounty. This mitzvah also speaks to the expert in Halacha who must determine the exact parameters for each of the species to fulfill Hashem’s will (i.e. letter of the law). The selections from the Midrash provide rationales for the mitzvah and valuable moral lessons (i.e. spirit of the law). The Zohar explains the significance of this mitzvah from the divine perspective for those who seek a mystical experience. In fact these levels apply to all of the 613 commandments connecting man to Hashem through the mitzvoth. However for this mitzvah there is ample information from classical sources. For some other mitzvoth, the student of Torah must exert more effort, knowing that this search is not in vain. For the Talmud says (Megillah 6b), “If, someone says to you: I have laboured in Torah found success, believe him. If he says I have laboured in Torah and not found success, do not believe him.”