The Four Species

This week is Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles; Lev. 23:33–36, 39–44), also known as zeman simchateinu (season of our joy; Deut. 16:14) and the Feast of Ingathering (Hag HaAsif; Exo. 23:14–16).

For seven days, or eight outside Israel, Jews celebrate Sukkot by dwelling in temporary shelters called sukkahs, taking the four species (more on that below), and rejoicing. The joy of Sukkot comes to a climax in Simchat Torah, the rejoicing with the Torah which marks the conclusion of the annual Torah reading cycle and heralds the beginning of the new. There are many wonderful folktales, parables, maxims, and jokes about Sukkot. I want to share a midrash about the four species (Lev. 23:40): the etrog–citron, lulav–palm frond, hadass–leafy myrtle branches, and aravot–leafy willow branches. Collectively, the four species are called the lulav. Every day during Sukkot, we take the four species and wave them in a specific way to rejoice before God.

In one midrash (Vaykira Rabba 30), each of the four species represents a type of Jewish person.

  1. The fruit of the beautiful tree — The etrog both tastes good and smells good; it has flavor and scent. This represents Jews with wisdom (Torah learning) and good deeds.
  2. The branch of a palm tree — The lulav (date palm frond) tastes good but lacks scent, so too are Jews who possess Torah learning but lack good deeds.
  3. The bough from a leafy “avot” tree — Just as the hadass has scent but lacks taste, so too are Jews who possess good deeds but lack Torah learning.
  4. Willows of the stream — The aravah (willow) lacks both taste and scent. It represents Jews who lack both Torah learning and good deeds.

The major point is one of unity. Just as the four species must be bound together, to work together, we as Jews and those from the nations must work together. If one of the four species is missing, the entire lulav is invalid and cannot be used to fulfill the commandment. The same is true for individuals: we cannot achieve fulfillment unless we are willing to bind ourselves with others and to work together. We need one another.

Let’s learn from the four species about the importance of unity and working with others, no matter their taste or scent.

This post was written by MJTI Academic Dean Dr. Vered Hillel.

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