Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals – the shalosh regalim – where the bible (Leviticus 23) tells us that the people must come to Jerusalem with their harvested produce, to give thanks to God.
We read ““The fifteenth of this seventh month shall be the feast of booths for seven days to the Lord… Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep a feast to the eternal seven days: on the first day shall be a Sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a Sabbath. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree hadar, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook… You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…” Lev 23:33ff
Fascinatingly, this text about Sukkot gives us two reasons for its celebration – both an agricultural one with the celebration of the harvest, and a theological one, reminding us of our dependence on God during (and after) the exodus from Egypt.
In fact Sukkot is referenced in bible in a number of different ways. The book of Exodus repeatedly calls it “Chag haAsif – the Festival of Ingathering”; In Leviticus and Deuteronomy it is referred to as Chag HaSukkot – the Festival of Booths/Sukkot; In the Books of Kings, Chronicles and Ezekiel it is called simply “HeChag” –THE Festival; and in Leviticus in the text quoted above it is called “Chag Adonai” – the Festival of God. The first two names are clearly agricultural in origin – they reference the acts of harvesting and of living in small booths in the fields during the harvesting/birthing of animals. The second two are clearly more theological/national in origin. It remains for the rabbinic tradition simply “HeChag” The festival par excellence. And the rabbis have one more name for it, again deriving from the Leviticus piece quoted – it is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing.
What is this joy about? Is it because we have an abundance in the Autumn, before the harshness of the winter sets in? Is it because we not only are faced with out vulnerability as we live on and work the land, but because we also are secure in God’s protection?
In the Talmud (Sukkah 11b) there is a debate – Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva are trying to understand the verse “That your generations will know that I made the Children of Israel live in booths [sukkot] when I brought them from the land of Egypt..” Rabbi Akiva understands these to be literal physical booths, while Rabbi Eliezer understands them as metaphor – these booths are the clouds of glory that descended from God to protect the wandering Israelites in the desert. If we were to follow Rabbi Eliezer we would understand that the mercy of God protects us, and in particular if we would see the context of Sukkot as part of the set of Autumn Festivals, then these clouds continue to hide our sinfulness and give us even longer to repent and return to a merciful God. Given that there is a tradition that one can continue to do the work of Elul/Rosh Hashanah/ Yom Kippur right up to the last day of Sukkot – Hoshanah Rabbah, this metaphorical understanding of the Sukkah is a way to give us extra time with a patient and merciful God waiting to offer us protection – something surely to be joyful about.
The text in Leviticus, besides telling us both the agricultural and the theological/peoplehood reasons for this festival, and giving us the command to rejoice before God (no other festival has this commandment), tells us to take four different plants – only two of which, the palm and the willows of the brook, are named. The others- the fruit of goodly trees, and the branches of leafy trees, require some interpretation.
The Book of Nehemiah describes an event that occurred on the date of Rosh Hashanah during the early Second Temple period. We are told that all the people gathered themselves together as one into the broad place that was before the water gate in Jerusalem; that they spoke to Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which God had commanded to Israel. Later in the same chapter we find: “Now they found written in the Law, how that the Eternal had commanded that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month; and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: “Go forth to the mountain, 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.” 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. 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 until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness (Neh. 8:14-17).
This is clearly a description of Sukkot, yet there is no etrog, rather the branches of olives and wild olives, and the leafy tree is named here as the myrtle. There is also no mention – unlike the passage in Leviticus – of putting the four species together and enacting a ritual with them. Indeed, it is clear to the people of Nehemiah’s time that these branches are for the creating of the booths/sukkot, and this is also reflected in a Talmudic discussion (BT Sukkah 36b – 37a), that Rabbi Meir says a sukkah can be built of any material, whereas Rabbi Judah, basing himself on the description in the Book of Nehemiah, says it can only be built with the woods of the four species.
It seems also, that the fruit of the goodly tree should, by rights, be the olive. It was and it remains a staple in the agriculture of the region, the oil used as both food and fuel for lighting, for medicine and for religious ritual. The olive also is harvested around this time. When you factor in the statement by Jeremiah (11:16) “16 The Eternal called your name a leafy olive-tree, fair with goodly fruit”, it seems a bit of a no-brainer that the fruit of the goodly tree would be the olive
Yet we have instead, the rather ambiguous fruit – the etrog. Why?
The earliest text probably is that of 1st -2nd century Targum Onkelos, the first translation of the bible (into Aramaic), which has a habit of also interpreting the text, and which clearly writes “the fruit of the etrog tree”. Josephus (1st century Romano-Jewish writer) also describes the use of the Etrog when he writes about the festival. The Talmud (TB Sukkot 34a) tells the story of the Hasmonean king and High Priest Alexander Yanneus (103-76 BCE) who was not respectful of the ritual of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (the ceremony of the water libation) and was pelted with etrogim by the angry worshippers. The Hasmonean coins of the period show etrogim, and it was clearly an important symbol of the nation at that time.
I wonder if the etrog came to be one of the four species (arba’a minim) because it had a particular quality that the rabbis wanted to add to the ritual – and what that quality might be.
By the time of the Mishnah (2nd Century CE) the etrog is part of the group of the four species. While it is practically inedible in its raw state, it does have a particularly lovely smell should you scratch the skin a little with your nail. The old joke usually told about Israelis being like the sabra fruit, that they might be prickly and unedifying on the bush, but deliciously sweet when opened, is maybe better designed for the etrog – they appear to be firm dense and unyielding, but the smell of them when touched is exquisite. They also have another quality – leave most fruits and they will soften and rot. The etrog will generally wither and harden, but not rot, and the smell continues for a long time – not for nothing are they a favourite to make as the spice box for havdalah.
There are midrashim that talk about the four species describing the different people in a community – the date palm has taste but no smell, and describes the one who knows much torah but does not do good deeds. The myrtle has smell but no taste, the one who does good deeds but knows little Torah. The willow has no taste or smell – denoting the person who neither learns Torah nor does good deeds; and the Etrog has both taste and smell – the ideal. We put them together in our sukkot ritual waving of the arba’a minim – because every community has people of each kind, and every community needs people of each kind.
There is a midrash that the four species resemble a whole person – the willow leaves look like lips, the myrtle leaves look like eyes, the palm is the spine and the etrog – the etrog is the heart. Again, we need to use our whole bodies when we worship.
But the midrash I like best, and the one I have the feeling was the reason for the Etrog joining the branches of the other trees, is that each of the four species is a distinct botanical type, each quite different from the other.
The palm trees love hot and dry climatic conditions – they don’t fruit well in the humid coastal areas, but like to be in dryer, desert conditions. And so the palm branch represents the desert areas of the Land of Israel.
The myrtle thrives best in the colder and mountainous regions of the northern parts of the Land, and the willow needs to be in the areas close to the yearlong streams of water ; The etrog does best in the irrigated land of the lower coastal areas and the valleys.
The Land of Israel, small as it is, is a land of micro climates, and each one of the arba’a minim represents a different climate and so a different part of the Land. Sukkot is par excellence the festival of agriculture, of the awareness of the need for rain to fall appropriately and in timely fashion. The three trees named are, to a gardener’s eye, representative of three quite different climates. The olive is no such sensitive plant, so a different plant should be chosen to represent the carefully farmed areas of the land.
The shaking of the Lulav, the connection with harvest and agriculture, the pouring of water at Simchat Beit HaSho’eva – this is a festival both of thanksgiving and of request for the coming year. The shivering of the palm leaves as one shakes the lulav sound like the rain pattering onto the ground. What good would it be if one part of the land is well irrigated if another part suffers drought or floods?
As we become ever more aware about the problems of the changing climate – the hurricanes, the floods, the delayed monsoons, the scorching drying sun which allows fires to spread so quickly – we begin to realise what an interconnected world we live in, that what happens in one part of the world impacts upon us all.
So when we pick up the four species, let’s focus on the lesson it give us, in particular the substation of the etrog for the olive, to remind us that we are all inhabitants of the same earth, all individual parts of a greater whole, and lets do what we can to protect the earth, the crops, the rivers and the deserts, the frozen areas of the poles and on the mountains, the glaciers and the seas… Sukkot is all about how we respect water, Mayim Hayim, the giver and supporter of life.. and how we respect the world and its Creator.