One of the central and most striking of the precepts that are performed on the Sukkot holiday is the ritual carrying of the "Four Species,” the diverse plants that are clasped in our hands in fulfillment of the Torah's command to "take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook." The rabbis treated all the details of this elaborate ritual as a single integrated package, so that if any one of the ingredients is missing or omitted, the obligation cannot be fulfilled at all.
The Talmud ruled that the three items that come in the form of branches—the palm frond, myrtle and willow—should be kept together in one hand; and the round etrog fruit in the other hand. More specifically, the three branches must be held in the right hand and the etrog in the left, a ruling that was subsequently codified by Maimonides and other early authorities. In spite of the fact that those items are physically assigned to different hands, Jewish law still regards the Four Species as a single unit.
During the medieval era, the Jewish understanding of religious rituals was revolutionized and invigorated with the emergence of a novel symbolic approach to interpreting Jewish tradition, as taught by the esoteric theological school of the Kabbalah. The spiritual states of unity and separation became a favourite subject of theological symbolism in kabbalistic writings, which attached profound mystical significance to those concepts, as well as to the concepts of right and left sides—the former was identified with divine loving-kindness, and the latter with the qualities of justice and harsh retribution.
Thus, the earliest known kabbalistic work, known as the Sefer Ha-Bahir, discerned in the Sukkot rite of the Four Species an apt metaphor for expressing the relationship between the celestial and earthly spheres, as embodied in the concept of the “Shekhinah,” the divine presence in our world. In the Bahir's intricate imagery, the etrog is equated with the Shekhinah, the quintessential feminine principle without which the universe could not exist. “The etrog is separated from the bound branches of the lulav, and yet the precept of the lulav cannot be fulfilled without it. At the same time, it is bound together with them all, so that it is with each one, and with all of them it is together.”
The early exponents of the Kabbalah developed this theme as a profound and mysterious vehicle for expressing the dichotomy that persists between the ideal and real worlds. At present we are living in an unredeemed reality that is disconnected from its spiritual roots; however, the ultimate divine plan calls for the full merging of these realms that now appear to be disparate. This paradoxical dichotomy is symbolized by the fact that the Four Species, although they constitute a single inseparable commandment, must nonetheless be held in different hands in order for the precept to be properly observed.
Early kabbalistic authors stressed that this truth cannot be accurately represented unless the etrog is kept at a physical distance from the other species during the performance of the ritual. Only in this way are we able to draw from the opposing celestial forces of divine mercy and justice that are represented by the right and left sides. In this way, the ritual corresponds to the complexities and contradictions that are our lot in this imperfect world of mixed holiness and sin, of joy and sorrow.
It would appear, however, that the religious mentality cannot remain satisfied for long with a situation that is less than the ideal. In the late thirteenth century, a new kabbalistic masterpiece appeared in Spain that advocated a more activist approach to spiritual life. Its author was not content to acknowledge the paradox of metaphysical oneness and division. Instead, he formulated a program for overcoming that division. In order to accomplish that objective, we mortals in the lower realm must symbolically perform the act of gathering the Four Species together in a manner that will awaken the celestial powers to create absolute unity and bring about complete harmony in the universe.
A generation later, this outlook was to have a profound effect on Rabbi Menahem Recanati, the Italian author of a remarkable kabbalistic commentary on the Torah. Recanati asserted categorically that the etrog must be held together with the other three species. In support of his ruling, which was at variance with earlier practice, he told a story of how the mystery had been revealed to him in a dream on the night of the first day of Sukkot. In that dream, Rabbi Recanati beheld his house-guest, a pious Ashkenazic man named Rabbi Isaac, inscribing the four-letter divine name in such a manner that its last letter, the h”e, was written at some distance from the three previous letters. When Recanati asked Rabbi Isaac for an explanation of this unusual practice, the reply was “this is our custom in our locality.” Thereupon Recanati protested, and wrote the divine name in its usual form with no separation between the letters.
The true significance of the puzzling dream came to him next morning when the time arrived to observe the precept of waving the lulav. He observed then that Rabbi Isaac was waving the lulav by itself without the etrog, and he raised an objection.
As interpreted by the classic kabbalistic symbolism, the four Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton represent the ten “sefirot,” the emanated powers of God, with the last h”esymbolizing the tenth sefirah, the Shekhinah, which was identified with the national spirit of the people of Israel. If we subscribe to the kabbalistic premise that our actions on earth have an impact on the metaphysical realms, then it follows that our separating the “letters” of the ineffable divine name strengthens the forces of dissention in the celestial ranks, resulting in a prolongation of the exile of the Jewish people from their homeland. On the other hand, keeping the letters together will help promote a state of universal unity and concord.
As the sixteenth-century kabbalist Rabbi Meir Ibn Gabbai admonished with grave foreboding, “anyone who treats this matter frivolously will in the end have to stand in judgment for it, because all our deeds must be modeled after the heavenly paradigm.” In a similar spirit, Rabbi Hayyim Vital, the most influential interpreter of the doctrines of Rabbi Isaac Luria, declared that it is forbidden to separate the etrog from the lulav when one is clasping them for the purpose of carrying out the biblical commandment.
As the ideas of the Kabbalah achieved increasing prominence in Jewish religious life, especially in the sixteenth century following the expulsion from Spain and Portugal, the custom of holding the etrog together with three other species became the prevalent one. The question was definitively settled when Recanati's ruling was incorporated by Rabbi Joseph Caro, himself an ardent kabbalist, into his Shulhan Arukhcode, which came to be accepted as the authoritative encapsulation of traditional Jewish religious law. By now every prayer book or festival guide takes it for granted that the lulav and etrog must be held contingently when we are reciting the blessings and ritually waving the Four Species.
I would not venture to impose my personal opinions in matters related to esoteric lore or mystical symbolism. Nevertheless, it occurs to me that the very persistence of such disagreements among the learned kabbalists and halakhic authorities points to a more tangible lesson that can be derived from the imagery of the Four Species.
Indeed, they can be viewed as an eminently fitting testimony to the lively give-and-take that has characterized Jewish scholarship over the ages. Our determination to keep those objects together, in whatever manner we consider preferable, aptly reflects an openness to diverse perspectives that has contributed powerfully to the ongoing vitality of the Jewish tradition and to the unity of our people.
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