Symbolism and the Succot species

Symbolism and the Succot

myrtle willow 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
myrtle willow 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
King Solomon, the wisest of men, admitted to being ignorant in regard to four things (Proverbs 30:18). According to Midrash Raba (Leviticus 30:14), Solomon's quadruple ignorance had to do with the four plant species over which blessings are recited on each day of Succot. This same midrash contains the famous comparison of the four Succot species to four kinds of Jews. Where these plant species are concerned, taste represents Torah scholarship and fragrance represents mitzvot. The lulav, cut from a palm tree with tasty dates, but having no fragrance, is the Torah scholar. The myrtle, with pleasantly spicy foliage but nothing sweet to eat, is the Jew for whom life is pure action and performance of mitzvot. The etrog, with both taste and fragrance, is the tzaddik. The willow, with neither taste nor fragrance, is the Jew who neither learns Torah nor engages in mitzvot. Brilliant insights from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as elucidated by the hassidic essayist Yanki Tauber, shed light on why the symbolism of the four species was incomprehensible to Solomon. Let's start with the etrog. It is called pri hadar because it dwells (dar) on the tree throughout the year. Such year-round exposure to the harsh elements of nature seems hardly befitting the perfect fruit. It should have a predictable warm season of leisurely growth and development. By the same token, it makes no sense that the tzaddik should have to suffer, yet those who live the most difficult lives are often richest in Torah and mitzvot. Maimonides, for example, led a life filled with uncertainty, turmoil and exile. While only a child, Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulhan Aruch, was forced to flee from his home in Spain and then from Portugal at the height of the Inquisition. And don't we see the same thing in Israel every day - so many people who have suffered, yet always have a pleasant smile and a good word? The lulav, made from a single palm frond and representing Torah scholarship, also makes no sense. Torah is about argument and diverse opinions. In famous antagonistic pairs such as Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, Rav and Shmuel, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish, each represents a different mode of thinking, a different brand of holiness. In this vein, it would make more sense to have several palm fronds represent Torah scholarship, each pointing in a different direction. The three-leaf combinations that cover myrtle stems represent the world of mitzvot, since the third and highest expression of the soul, after thought and speech, is action. The myrtle instructs that our focus on intellectual stimulation, spiritual inspiration, or enthralling words is misplaced. God prefers that we simply do His commandments. Improbably and inexplicably, it is our embrace of the physical world and sanctification of mundane objects - ordinary tree branches comprise a succa roof - that please God most of all. Our performance of mitzvot, even if by rote or without inspiration, gives off the perfumed myrtle scent that He desires. Last, we come to the willow (arvei nahal), whose Hebrew root, arev, suggests brotherhood, as in "All Jews are responsible for one another" (kol yisrael arevim zeh bezeh). It takes 10 Jews, no matter what their level of observance, to make a minyan. The power of 10 Jews who have neither Torah study nor mitzva performance to their credit is still greater than that of nine tzaddikim who have never sinned. This is beyond understanding. In Tauber's words, "How does 10 times nothing add up to something? If each on his own possesses no visible expression of his innate holiness, how does that change when 10 of them come together?" ALL OF THE four Succot species can be cultivated in a typical Israeli garden, except in cold winter areas where date palms and etrogim have to be grown as indoor plants. Date and etrog seeds are easily sprouted. I have seen seeds taken from fresh dates germinate while submerged in a shallow cup of water. Alternatively, seeds from dried dates can be placed between the fibers of moist peat moss (kabul in Hebrew) in a plastic sandwich bag. Inspect the seeds every few days for signs of germination and then plant them in fast-draining soil containing sand and compost. To germinate etrog seeds, soak them in a small cup of water for a week, changing the water once a day. Then plant your seeds 1 cm. deep in a well-drained potting soil, or make the soil yourself from 50 percent peat moss and 50% washed sand. Seeds should sprout in about two weeks. Myrtle and willow are propagated from 10- to 15-cm. shoot tip cuttings inserted into a sand-and-peat-moss mix. You will want to make sure that the myrtle you propagate has the proper configuration of leaves for ritual use. Willow is the most cold-tolerant of the four species. Dwarf blue Arctic willow (Salix purpurea "Nana") survives winter temperatures down to minus 30º. It is a gorgeous shrub with icy blue foliage, grows up to two meters tall, may be used as a specimen plant or in an informal hedge and is appropriate for Succot blessings. Please send all your gardening questions, including full name and location, to: