For the week ending 4 October 2014 / 10 Tishri 5775

Plants vs. Zombies - a deeper look at the four species

by Rabbi Richard Jacobs
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Glance through the window of any shul on Succot. Anyone unfamiliar with the mitzvah of the four species may well wonder as he observes the congregation waving shrubbery and fruit in the air or parading around the room holding the greenery aloft: “What planet are we from?”

There’s no doubt about it. The mitzvah of the four species — lulav, etrog, hadas (myrtle) and aravot (willow) — is one of the more curious of the commandments.

It is well known that each of the four species symbolizes a different segment of the Jewish People. The quality of taste (ta’am – which also means reason) represents Torah learning, and the quality of smell represents good deeds and the doing of mitzvot (a fragrance spreads the same way the reputation of someone who does good deeds does). Thus the etrog (with both taste and smell) denotes the tzaddik (righteous person) with both Torah learning and good deeds; the lulav (with taste — the date fruit —but no scent) represents a learned person without good deeds; the hadas (with its strong aroma and no taste) indicates one whose actions are good but is unlearned); and the aravot signify someone who is neither learned nor possesses good deeds.

We can make several interesting inferences from this symbolism, and the fact that the mitzvah requires the bringing together of all four species. Firstly, no matter what one’s level of knowledge or observance, they can have an integral role to play in Klal Yisrael. Secondly, while all four species need to be brought together to actually perform the mitzvah, only three are bound up together, whereas the etrog is kept separate except at the time of fulfilling the mitzvah. This indicates that while it is important for tzaddikim to interact with the other members of the Jewish People, this should be while they are involved in a mitzvah.

There is an interesting law common to all four species which the gemara first discusses regarding the lulav. A lulav that is dry is invalid for the mitzvah. What is considered dry is the subject of discussion, with the two prevailing opinions being when it crumbles under the fingernail (Tosefot) and after a period of twelve months (Ritva). Why is a dry lulav invalid? The gemara explains that there is comparison to the etrog which the Torah describes as “hadar” (with splendor). This means that just as the etrog needs to be splendorous, so too must the lulav, and a withered lulav is not hadar. Rashi further explains that a dry lulav would not fulfill the requirement of “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him” (Shemot 15:2), whereas Ra’avad says “The dead cannot praise G-d” (Tehillim 115:17), and rules that a dry lulav is invalid because it is like it is dead.

Interestingly the word lulav (lamed, vav, lamed, beit) has the same gematria (numerical value) as the Hebrew word for “life” – “chayim” (chet, yud, yud, mem); 68. The lulav itself symbolizes life.

If so, we may well ask, why is it only when the lulav is dry that it is invalid? Surely this should be the case from the moment that it is cut from the palm tree?

As any horticulturalist could tell us, as long as the lulav is still moist and not completely dry it is possible to put it in water and revive it. Plants sometimes even grow new roots (e.g. houseplants grown from cuttings). The lulav is therefore not considered dead until it is completely dry and impossible to return to its moist state.

This imparts two essential lessons for all of us. Firstly, we need to remain “moist” and connected to Torah, which is often compared to water (the origin of the expression “the water of life”). Secondly, we should never give up on any member of the Jewish People no matter how far removed he is from his heritage. If he would only soak in the “water of Torah and mitzvot” then he – like a plant – will flourish and “grow new roots”!

  • Based on ideas in Torah l’Da’at

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