The Lulav
The Four Species (Arba'ah Minim)   

O n Sukkot, our rejoicing before יהוה is to be done with certain types of produce and plants in hand. (Leviticus 23:40) Traditionally, these have been understood to be the citron (similar to a large lemon in appearance and known by its Hebrew name "etrog"), branches of the date palm tree, and twigs of the myrtle and the willow. Though the name of the palm branch is the "lulav," two sprigs of willow and three of myrtle are bound to the palm branch with strips of palm and the composite of the three together is called the "lulav." Though it could be argued that Leviticus 23:40 can be interpreted in a less specific fashion, the lulav and etrog have been the popular understanding of Israel at least since the days of the Maccabees. They appear on ancient Israelite coins and in early Jewish art along with other well-known symbols like the menorah, the shofar and the Ark of the Covenant.

According to Maimonides, it is likely that these "four species" as they are known, were chosen to symbolize Israel's emergence from the wilderness into the land of plenty. They were easy to obtain in ancient Israel, two of them have a pleasant smell, and they tend to retain their freshness over the week more than most other plants.

Because of their long and loved association with Sukkot, the lulav and etrog have been assigned many spiritual meanings. They obviously connect graphically to the whole harvest motif, but the range of other symbolic meanings is quite wide.

The etrog, especially, has been the focus of much attention and care. Since they were difficult to obtain in European Jewish communities from the Middle Ages almost up to modern times, they were considered very precious and much effort and expense was expended to obtain them. Sometimes entire communities had to share one etrog.

The designing and crafting of decorative containers to hold the etrog has been a favorite project of artisans for centuries. One Rabbinic opinion claims that the etrog was the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from which our first parents ate, bringing sin into the world. Another, consequently, believes that by observing the commandment of the lulav and etrog, the damage done by Adam and Eve is repaired.

Allegorical understanding of the Four Species

In other expositions the four species are related to the organs of the human body. The shape of the myrtle leaf is like the eye, a symbol of enlightenment. The shape of the willow leaf is like the lips, the instruments of prayer and praise. The palm branch is like the spine, which carries the brain's instructions to the rest of the body and symbolizes uprightness. And the etrog is like the heart, the place of true understanding and wisdom. Each is capable of being used to do wrong or right, but combined in the service of God they have great redemptive power.

This is what Rav Shaul tells us in Romans 6:12,13:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.

Therefore, as one waves the lulav before יהוה at Sukkot, it can also be a symbolic action of presenting our whole body to Him as a living sacrifice.

The four species are also said to represent different types of the people of Israel. The etrog, with its taste and pleasant smell, is like one who combines knowledge of Torah with good deeds. The date palm produces good food but has no fragrance, like one who knows the Torah, but has not good deeds. He who does good deeds without Torah knowledge is like the myrtle, which has a fragrant aroma but no taste. He who is without Torah or good deeds is like the tasteless and odorless willow. However, when bound together as a community intent on serving God, the strengths of one cover for the weakness of another, and God receives them all.

Other Midrashic applications include various attributes of God, the patriarchs and matriarchs, the Great Sanhedrin and scholars and disciples in Israel. Even the seven guests of Ushpizin are found there-the three myrtles symbolizing Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the two willows symbolizing Moses and Aaron, the palm symbolizing Joseph, and the etrog symbolizing David.

Incredible care is taken to procure etrogim and lulavim without flaws. Here in Israel, prior to Sukkot when all that is needed for the holiday can be found in open air markets, men with magnifying glasses can be seen examining the tips of the lulav for any defect or damage. The very scrupulous spend large sums of money to buy only the most perfect. With the tremendous emphasis placed on meticulous observance of the smallest detail, it is easy to lose sight of weightier matters of the Torah such as justice and the love of God (Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42). This was certainly not lost on the Rabbis as the following story relates.

A Chasid asked his Rebbe before Sukkot to grant him a blessing so that he might have an exceptionally fine lulav and etrog for the festival. The Rabbi replied: "What you need for Sukkot is a kind heart, a humble spirit, a truthful mind, and the will to perfect yourself. After you have attained these, it will be time to concern yourself regarding an exceptionally fine set of the symbols for Sukkot."