The festival is also expressed in the four species of plants and fruits.
A. The Palm
The date palm, native to the Sinai desert. Wherever there are underground springs in the Sinai, one can find date palms, even when the water is not visible on the surface of the ground.
The nomads in Sinai used to build booths, real sukkot, from the dried- out fronds of the date palm. Even today, one can find such sukkot in Sinai, exactly as written in the Torah:
"I caused the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt."(Leviticus, Ch. 23)
The nomads lived in sukkot during the very season of the Sukkot festival - at the end of the summer when grazing land is very scarce in the desert. From the ripe dates, the nomads prepared dried dates and date honey for the rest of the year; from the ground husks of the date fruit they prepared food for their camels. The date frond - a gigantic leaf with a very strong spine, and leaflets on both sides - spread out to the blue skies and afforded shade in the desert heat. They even use the fibres, wound around the trunk of the date palm, for tying bundles, and for weaving baskets.
The date frond was selected as one of the Four Species of Sukkot to remind us of that early period in our history when our ancestors sojourned in the desert and used the products of the date palm in their everyday activities.
After the Israelites crossed the desert of Sinai, they came to the area of the Jordan river. On either side of the Jordan there is rich, green vegetation, a striking contrast to the desert vegetation.
B. The Willow
The A'rvey-Nahal (willows) grow very close to the river Jordan, and near other rivers and streams which flow into the Dead Sea and near the Euphrates river in Babylonia. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan, under the leadership of Joshua, they were instructed to take twelve, large stones from the stream, and to set them up on the other side of the Jordan as a memorial of the event. Thus we may presume that the Israelites were also instructed to select willow branches, and to weave them into the Four Species of the Sukkot festival.
C. The Myrtle
When the Israelites entered Israel, they observed that vast mountainous regions covered with thick, thorny forests, were uninhabited and uncultivated. It was very hard to penetrate these areas. Joshua suggested to the Ephraimites, who complained that they didn't have enough land,
"If your tribe is indeed so numerous, then go up to the forests and cut them down."(Joshua, Chapter 17)
This explains why the Israelites added to the date frond and the willow, still another species: ETZ AVOT -- "a thick tree," from the forests, to remind them of the early periods of their settlement, when large areas of the land were covered by thick forests.
D. The Etrog
Vineyards and groves, with figs, pomegranates, olives and vines abounded. The PRI ETZ HADAR, "the most majestic fruit," mentioned in the book of Leviticus, symbolizes the beauty of the fruit harvest, at the end of the season, at Sukkot time.
There is historic symbolism in the Four Species of fruits and plants, as used in the observance of the festival of Sukkot.
This period for bringing BIKKURIM, "first fruits", to Jerusalem began with Shavuot and concluded on the first day of Sukkot. The Torah instructed the Israelites to celebrate both the beginning and the end of this season. Starting at Shavuot time, they brought bikkurim to Jerusalem, and on Sukkot they selected a perfect and majestic fruit -- pri etz hadar. This fruit demonstrated the great accomplishments of Israelite settlement. When the bikkurim were presented at the Temple, a paragraph from the Torah was recited, reviewing the early history of our people. Similarly, when the pri etz hadar was used at Sukkot time, the three species of plant life were joined to it, again calling attention to several important periods in Israel's early history:
- the wanderings in Sinai,
- followed by a period of temporary settlement in the Jordan Valley and
- leading to Israel's entry into the Promised Land,
- where our ancestors felled thick forests,
- and prepared the soil for agriculture.
Why these particular species?
In later generations, more than a thousand years after the original settlement of Israel by our people, the Mishnah and the Talmud were compiled. The sages of Israel defined, in great detail, how the biblical instructions concerning Sukkot should be observed.
- Instead of the open date frond, they instituted the use of the Lulav, which is the embryonic frond.
- Instead of just any kind of thick tree, they took the myrtle, and
- instead of just any variety of majestic fruit, they took the Etrog.
- Our sages also took great pains to define what kind of willow was proper for inclusion in the Four Species.
A. The Lulav
The Lulav grows at the very top of the date palm, at its heart - the origin of the Hebrew word "lulav." You will recognize the Hebew word "lev" (heart) in the word "lulav."
Among many peoples, the lulav was a symbol of victory. Our sages saw in it a symbol of Israel's victory over its enemies, and a victory over its own transgressions, too. The Holy One, Blessed be he, sitting in judgment on YOM HAKKIPPURIM (The Day of Atonement), has granted continued life to the people of Israel, and had accepted their sincere repentance.
B. The Willow
There were two kinds of willow trees considered kasher or "proper" for the mitzvah of the Four Species.
This tree, and others similar to it, grow near streams in many parts of the world, but, the willow trees which grow near the Jordan are not of the same variety. These have various shapes of leaves and grow only where there is a lot of water, or they could not survive.
Because of this dependency on water, the willow branches possessed an additional symbolic significance: they were associated with the prayer beseeching God to save Israel from a year of drought. The Festival of Sukkot precedes the rainy season in Israel. The fate of the crop depends entirely on the winter rains. That is why the daily prayer for rain is traditionally recited, from the end of Sukkot to the beginning of Pesach.
The most important ceremony in which the branches of the willow are used, was set for the seventh day of Sukkot, which is called "Hoshana Rabbah."
C. The Myrtle
The Torah does not mention the myrtle by name, but only refers in general terms to a "thick tree." Why did our sages determine that the myrtle was that plant?
The myrtle grows on the slopes of the mountains, in the natural forests; it has many branches, spreading out from a thick trunk. For that reason it is proper, no less than any other tree in the forest, to be called "Etz Avot" -- "a thick tree."
The myrtle leaf contains aromatic oil, which gives it its wonderful aroma. It is one of the reasons why myrtle branches remain fresh so long after they have been picked from the trees. The myrtle is the best representative of the perfume plant in Israel.
Its straightness and freshness explain why the myrtle was a symbol of the continuity of life and immortality among ancient, Near Eastern peoples. Ancient peoples used to tie myrtle branches to the coffins of those who had died.
In a happier vein, myrtle branches were used for decorations at wedding celebrations. Perhaps Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, was called Hadassah because of the connection between the myrtle -- HADASS in Hebrew -- and the star of brilliance, Venus. From this, the myrtle also became a symbol of prosperity and success in life.
This symbolic value of the myrtle is woven in with the willow, symbolising the farmer's hope for the success of the coming year: "Ana H' Hoshia Na, Ana H' Hatzliha Na."
D. The Etrog
Why did our sages institute the Etrog as pri etz hadar - the "most majestic fruit" - to be used on the festival of Sukkot?
The Etrog didn't even grow in Israel during the time of the early Israelite settlement. It came from a very distant land in Asia, by way of India and Persia (Iran), and began to grow in Israel only during the second Temple period, the first cultivated citrus fruit in Israel, in the more suitable lowlands, to which the population had shifted.
The valley of the coastal region is particularly suited to all kinds of citrus fruits, and this is where the modern Israeli orchards are situated.
The Etrog flowers have a large pistil, which protrudes from the flower. It is the only fruit where the pistil and its stigma (the top part of the pistil), do not drop off after the fruit has begun to grow and ripens.
This unusual feature made the Etrog a symbol of fertility.
Now we may understand why the Mishnah requires that the Etrog, in order to be suitable for religious use in the celebration of Sukkot, must have its Petam (the style and stigma) on it. The Etrog tree is supported by trellises in modern Israel, to protect the tree from the wind, so that the Petams will not be blown off.
The Etrog was, therefore, the best representative of the pri etz hadar, the most majestic fruit of the tree. By including it among the Four Species, the sages symbolised our hope for the fertility and abundance of the new agricultural year.
Allegory of Unity
The ARBA'A MINIM (the four species) also symbolize the unity of the people of Israel:
- The etrog has a sweet taste and a delightful aroma;
- the fruit of the date-palm, from which the lulav is hewn, has taste but no fragrance;
- the myrtle has fragrance but no taste;
- the willow has neither taste nor fragrance.
So it is, our Sages say, with our own people.
- Some possess both knowledge of the Torah and good deeds;
- some possess knowledge of the Torah yet no good deeds;
- some possess good deeds but no knowledge of the Torah;
- some (like the lowly willow) possess neither knowledge of the Torah nor good deeds.
G-d then binds the four species (i.e., the four kinds of Jews) together in a single bond of brotherhood, and lets each one forgive and seek forgiveness from the three others.
The materials in this file have been adapted from the "SUCCOT" folder written and produced by the former Publications Division of the Youth and Hechalutz Department, WZO and from "SUKKOT", a leaflet by the American Zionist Youth Foundation, WZO, New York.