By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
September 21, 2002
One of the central mitzvot of the festival of Sukkot is the
taking of the four species (Arba Minim). After
apparently completing its description of Sukkot (Vayikra
23:33-38), the Torah adds, almost as an afterthought:
However, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you
gather in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of Hashem
seven days on the first day is rest and on the eighth day is rest. And you
shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the beautiful (HADAR)
tree [the citron, etrog], branches of palm trees [lulav], and the boughs of
thick-leafed trees [the myrtle, hadas] and willows [aravah] of the brook, and
you shall rejoice before Hashem, your G-d, seven days (verses 39-40).
A novel and authentic approach to the significance of this mitzvah is discussed
by Dr. Arthur Schaffer in HaTzofeh, Oct. 4, 1998, translated from his “The
Agricultural and Ecological Symbolism of the Four Species of Sukkot,” Tradition,
1982. He argues that these species embody the need for water in the land of
The people of Israel, at home in their land, are synchronized with its rhythms
and attuned to its seasons. Sukkot is the festival of the in-gathering, at the
end of the year (Shemot 23:16), when all the
anxieties of the previous year vanish, as the people
gratefully and joyfully reap the fruits of their labors.
At the same time, they are acutely aware of their dependence on rain:
The land you are about to cross into and possess, is a land of hills and
valleys, from the rains of heaven shall you drink; a land which Hashem, your
G-d, seeks out; the eyes of Hashem, your G-d, are constantly upon it, from the
beginning of the year until the end of the year (Devarim 11:11-12).
The rainy season, after the long, hot and dry Israeli summer, begins immediately
On Sukkot judgment is passed regarding rain (Mishnah Rosh
This is the reason for so many water and rain-based ceremonies
and prayers during Sukkot, such as the nisuch ha’mayim (the water libation on
the altar) and its accompanying celebration (simchat beit ha’shoeva); the
beating of willow branches (chibbut aravah) on Hoshanah Rabbah; and the prayer
for rain (Geshem) on Shemini Atzeret.
The four species, says the Talmud (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 1:1), grow on water;
therefore, they come as intercessors for water.
But, although all plants can be said to “grow on water,” these
“thirsty” species exemplify the need for water in four different environments:
• Etrog requires artificial irrigation, like vegetables (Rosh
Hashanah 3a, 14b; see Rashi, Sukkah 39b), grows on the plains. (In fact, a
Talmudic play on words suggests a similarity between HADAR and the Greek word
• Lulav grows in desert oases:
in Elim were twelve fountains of water and seventy palm trees (Bamidbar 33:9);
Jericho, city of palms (Devarim 34:3).
• Hadas grows in the mountains:
in place of the thistle will arise the myrtle (Yeshayahu 55:13).
• Aravah grows in the river valleys:
willows of the brook (Vayikra 23:40).
Despite its small area, the land of Israel is geographically varied:
the land of Israel . . . is variegated with everything: regarding all other
lands, one has that which the other lacks. However, the land of Israel lacks
nothing, as it is said (Devarim 8:9), “You will lack nothing in it" (Sifri, Ekev
Dr. Schaffer concludes:
The four species, then, symbolize water in the diverse ecological habitats of
Israel: the desert wilderness, the mountains and hills, the cultivated plains,
and the river valleys. They are part of a stimulating and thought-provoking
ritual of thanking G-d for the previous year’s rain and, at the same time,
serves to direct and concentrate man’s prayers for the rains to come.
The Israelite, aware of the contours of his land, would know that waving the
four species in all directions, he is holding his entire land in his hands.
Perhaps we can take this idea further. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12) says
that the four species represent the diversity of the Jewish people:
“The fruit of the beautiful tree” is Israel: just as the etrog has taste and
fragrance, so Israel contains those who have learning and good deeds. “Branches
of palm trees” is Israel: just as a palm tree has taste [the date] but no
fragrance, so Israel contains those who have learning but not good deeds. “And
the boughs of thick-leafed trees” is Israel: just as the myrtle has fragrance
but no taste [no fruit], so Israel contains those who have good deeds but not
learning. “And willows of the brook” is Israel: just as the willow has no taste
and no fragrance, so Israel contains those who have neither learning nor good
deeds. And, what does the Holy One, Blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them
is impossible. Rather, says the Holy One, Blessed be He, “Let them all be tied
together in one band, and they will atone one for the other. And if you have
done so, at that moment I am exalted.”
When we combine the four species, we unify both the various elements of the
Jewish people and we also bring together the land of Israel, in all its
diversity, through the universal, primordial and unifying element of water.
While Sukkot expresses our joy for the past year
However, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, while you gather in the
produce of the land,
we must also look forward to the new year’s rains
. . . you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the beautiful
tree, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick-leafed trees and willows
of the brook, uniting the land, uniting the nation and you shall rejoice before
Hashem your G-d seven days.