This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Four Species, Five Opinions? *

The Torah usually provides us with explicit reasons for the various holy day rituals. Thus, we refrain from work on Sabbath to recall how God completed the creation of the world on the seventh day, we eat matzah on Passover to commemorate our ancestors' hasty departure from Egypt, and so forth. Similarly, we were commanded to dwell in booths during Sukkot "in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt."

However, scripture offers no rationale for the second major precept associated with Sukkot, the obligation to carry the "four species": "you shall take the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook...".

In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides proposed explanations of his own that he felt were true to the holiday's main purpose. He observed that the four species express the people's appreciation for the fact that they were finally allowed to exchange the parched and barren surroundings of the desert for a homeland of lush fruit-trees and rivers. It is therefore appropriate to express our joy by taking up samples of the finest products to blossom from the soil of the holy land: the most succulent of the fruit, the most fragrant branch, the loveliest leaves and the finest of herbs. Among all the items that might satisfy those criteria, the four chosen by the Torah have the advantages of being abundant and readily available, having fresh and attractive appearances or aromas (or, at least, not emitting disagreeable odors), and maintaining their freshness through the seven days of the festival.

No doubt, this interpretation has a lot to recommend it, particularly in the way that it creates a unifying link between the festival's two chief rituals: just as the sojourn in the sukkah is a reliving of the wilderness experience, so too the four species contrast the privations of the desert with the fruitfulness of the promised land.

If there was a serious shortcoming to Maimonides' explanation, it lay in the fact that it was not found in any of the classical Jewish texts that preceded him. Indeed, the pages of the Talmud and Midrash contain numerous symbolic interpretations of the four species' significance. Many of those interpretations, including the comparisons to different types of Jews or to organs of the human body that unite in worshipping the Almighty, are probably familiar to my readers, even as they were to Maimonides' own contemporaries. By what authority then, did he dismiss those traditions so glibly?

Maimonides was well aware of this problem, to the extent that he felt impelled to veer off on an extended digression in order to discuss the general character of midrashic interpretations. He assured his readers that anyone who is intimately familiar with the literary sensibilities of the ancient Jewish sages should recognize that many of the explanations that the rabbis attached to biblical texts were not intended as their actual meanings. On the contrary, audiences of the time were conversant with the practice of preachers to fashion an ingenious rhetorical connection between a profound idea or moral principle and the words of holy scripture. Those interpretations should be regarded as poetic figures of speech, and they should by no means be confused with serious biblical exegesis of the sort that Maimonides himself was proposing.

Maimonides recognized that his approach to rabbinic interpretations was not very widely acknowledged among his contemporary Jewish public. Unfortunately, this failure to appreciate the literary character of midrash gave rise to some bizarre and intellectually troubling notions. In many cases, it encouraged a mindless fundamentalism, as many Jews relinquished their ability to discern between legitimate exegesis and fanciful hyperbole.

Even more distressing were those readers who, realizing that the midrashic expositions do not qualify as credible interpretations of the text, were nonetheless convinced that the ancient sages had intended those interpretations as literal exegesis. This led them to deride the rabbis and dismiss them as incompetent simpletons.

Underlying all of this discussion is the premise that biblical texts should not have more than a single, unambiguous meaning. This was Maimonides' personal preference, and it was consistent with his scientific outlook on life, and indeed with the prevailing temper of the rationalist Arab culture in which he was nurtured. Scientific discourse, according to this view, ought to avoid all traces of obscurity and ambiguity. Of course, he assumed that the same standard of clarity must have been embraced by the ultimate source of perfect Reason and the author of the Torah. Accordingly, there can be only one true reason for the precept of four species on Sukkot; and any additional rationales, even those set forth by our revered rabbis of old, cannot be authentic ones.

A similar discussion about the nature of rabbinic interpretations is found in the writings of the thirteenth-century Italian talmudist Rabbi Isaiah di Trani the Younger. Rabbi di Trani was concerned about Jews who, in the course of teaching Torah to gentiles, rejected the unconvincing scriptural interpretations of the talmudic rabbis. He conceded that rabbinic discourse does contain elements of exaggerated hyperbole that were never meant to be believed literally, alongside miracle tales about the workings of divine providence that ought to be accepted as a matter of faith. However, between these extremes lies a gray area in which the sages advanced multiple interpretations of a single passage. It was clear to di Trani that the rabbis were not troubled by the coexistence of several expositions of a single text.

In fact, he went on to argue, not only should this not be seen as a deficiency of their exegesis, but it is actually an indication of consummate artistic virtuosity! "Do you not observe how frequently even an author of secular works can speak in such a manner that his words contain two meanings? It follows that this should be even more valid with respect to words of wisdom that were uttered under the inspiration of the divine spirit!"

On the surface, it appears that Rabbi di Trani was advocating an approach that was diametrically opposite to Maimonides' repudiation of ambiguity. In reality, though, di Trani also recognized that no biblical text possesses more than a single primary explanation. Where he differed from Maimonides was in his assertion that the additional interpretations that were expounded by the midrashic sages were also part of its "original meaning." That is to say, the divine author of the Bible implanted multiple layers of supplementary meanings into the sacred text, so that Jewish preachers of subsequent generations were not inventing novel interpretations--as Maimonides would have it--but rather, they were unearthing possibilities of meaning that had been concealed there in the first place.

And in fact, in adopting that approach, Rabbi di Trani was very much in the spirit of his contemporary Italian culture. A few decades afterwards, his neighbour Dante Alighieri declared with pride that his own poetic works were susceptible to multiple interpretations, including the literal and the allegorical. He applied these strategies to his "Divina Commedia" on the premise that this was a precedent that had been established by the Bible.

Perhaps the starting point for this whole discussion, the mitzvah of the four species, provides us with an apt metaphor. Like the countless interpretations proposed by the rabbis of the midrash and by thinkers like Maimonides and di Trani, each one of the species possesses its own unique identity. However, this precept must be observed while we are holding or binding the species together as a unified whole, true to its single underlying purpose.

Now, if only we could agree on what that purpose is...

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For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, September 24, 2010, p. 10.
  • For further reading:
    • Altmann, Alexander. "Ars Rhetorica as Reflected in Some Jewish Figures of the Italian Renaissance." In Essential papers on Jewish culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, 63-84. New York and London: New York University Press, 1992.
    • Elbaum, Jacob. Medieval Perspectives on Aggadah and Midrash. Sifriyat Dorot 68. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2000.
    • Segal, Eliezer. "Midrash and Literature: Some Medieval Views." Prooftexts 11, no. 1 (1991): 57-65.
    • Talmage, Frank. Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver: Studies in Medieval Jewish Exegesis and Polemics. Edited by Barry Walfish. Papers in Mediaeval Studies 14. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1999.