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Four Species

by Tim O'Hearn

The Jewish holiday of Succos (beginning October 3 in 2009) is different from other Jewish holidays in a number of ways. Coming, as it does, less than a week after Yom Kippur, it is noticeably different in attitude, being a feast rather than a fast. It, like Purim, is a holiday of rejoicing. Like most Jewish holidays, it is a holiday of the home; yet it is not a holiday in the home, being celebrated in temporary structures. One particular mitzvah of the holiday is unique.

And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. (Lev 23:40)

This is the command of the “four species.” On this holiday, celebrants carry two items. One is the etrog, the fruit of the citron. People will search carefully to buy only the most perfect of these heart-shaped fruits for this celebration. The other item is a bundle consisting of three branches tied together: the palm, the myrtle (a “thick tree”), and the willow. Commonly called the lulav, the Hebrew word for the palm frond, this makes up three of the four required species. Holding the etrog in one hand and the lulav in the other, the congregants then march around the synagogue reciting psalms and blessings, waving the four species in all four principal directions.

Some of the rabbis point out that the four species may represent organs of the body. The etrog looks like a heart. The palm, which should be the central palm frond rather than one of the side branches, resembles a straight spine. The leaves of the myrtle are like eyes, and those of the willow are like lips. Thus the four species represent the whole person.

There is, however, another aspect of the four species from which we may gain a measure of encouragement. The way the four species are carried may say something about us.

The celebrants carry the etrog in one hand (usually the left). This may represent the individual before God. We each have our own responsibility in our obedience and worship.

The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. (Ezek 18:20)

One person cannot worship for another. The other person cannot repent for the one. Each heart is individually important to God. The Buddhist ideal is to lose individuality in the sea of consciousness. God’s people have as an ideal to present themselves individually to God. (Psa 5:7)

The bundle of branches held in the other hand may represent our other aspect before God. He talks in scripture about his people, not his person. Humans have a dual nature. We are individuals, certainly, but we are also social beings. We consider the hermit or the loner to be abnormal. While we make heroes of mountain men, few of us could live like that for long. We need the company of others. That extends also to our position before God. We can and do worship God individually. Nevertheless, he also expects us to worship together. (Psalm 95)

Succos is celebrated with the four species. Each, like we, has its place. Sometimes it is alone. Sometimes it is together. Always it is in reverence toward God.