Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sukkot (Aggadah)

For more teachings on Sukkot, see the archives to the blog at 2006_09_10_archive.html/, as well as September 2007, October 2008 (end), and October 2009. A major study of Hoshana Rabbah will follow in a few days.

Four Midrashim About Lulav

Every Israeli schoolchild knows the midrash in Leviticus Rabbah 30.12, according to which the four species allude to for kinds of Jews: those who, like the etrog, have both taste and fragrance: i.e., both Torah and good deeds; those who have one but not the other, like the lulav or the myrtle; and those who have neither, like the willow, with neither taste nor fragrance—i.e., those coarse and boorish people who seem to neglect nearly all Jewish values. By taking the four species together and uniting them, we are symbolically acting out the unity of all Israel, so that the weakness of one may be compensated by the strength of the other, and vice versa.

But this popular midrash is only one of many such interpretations of the Four Species. One of the striking features of Sukkot is that it is characterized by mitzvot which have no single, self-evident meaning (such as the Passover Seder, which is a means of telling the story of the Exodus; or the blowing of the shofar, which is a wake-up call, figuratively speaking). Hence, they invite multiple levels of interpretation and symbolic meanings. Thus, in the selfsame chapter of Midrash, we read the following, in which the four kinds are seen as symbolic of four patriarchs. Lev. Rab. 30.10:

Another thing. “The fruit of a splendid tree (‘etz hadar)” (Lev 23:40)—this alludes to Abraham, who was adorned (hadaro) by the blessed Holy One with venerable old age, as is said: “And Abraham was old, advanced in years” (Gen 24:1) and it says “You shall honor (ve-hadarta) the face of the elder” (Lev 19:32). “Palm branches (kapot temarim)”—this alludes to Isaac, who was tied (kafut) and bound upon the altar. “And boughs of a leafy tree”—this alludes to Jacob: just as the myrtle is surrounded by leaves, so was Jacob surrounded by sons. “And willows of the brook”—this alludes to Joseph: just as the willow withers before the other three species, so did Joseph die before his brothers.

Unlike the midrash cited earlier, this one does not relate to any inherent quality of the four species, but is based entirely upon word play: the etrog is called etz hadar, while Abraham reached old age, which in yet another verse is associated with the verb hadar. Isaac was tied up (kafut) on the altar, just as the palm frond is called kapot (or, in one Talmudic homily, kafut, suggesting that its leaves must be closely knit together, as if tied—an important halakhic feature that many people seek when being a lulav).

Interestingly, the second half of this midrash relates the four species to the four matriarchs: Sarah, Rivkah, Leah and Rachel, citing almost the identical qualities for each one: Sarah lived to ripe old age, Rachel died young, etc. Only Rivkah, who was of course not bound on the altar, is compared to the palm for another reason: like it, she had both fruit and thistles—i.e., a righteous son and a wicked one.

In 30.14 we find an entirely different line of thinking.

R. Mani began: “All my limbs shall say, O Lord, who is like unto You!” (Ps 35:10). This verse was only said for the lulav. The spine of the lulav is like the spine of a human being, the myrtle is like the eye, the willow is like the lips, and the etrog is like the heart. David said: None among all the organs of the body as great as these, which are tantamount to the whole body. That is: “All my limbs shall say…”

Here we find the motif of the praise of God—an appropriate theme for the four species, which play a special liturgical role in the Hallel, the psalms of praise recited in full each day of Sukkot. With a bit of imagination, one can see the resemblance in form of these four to the bodily organs mentioned, which are arguably particularly important organs: the heart symbolizes our very life; the lips the power of speech, the unique capability of humans; the eyes, the most important organ of perception; and the spine somehow unites the body and provides man with his erect posture, symbolically important as “standing before God.” Thus, holding the Four Species while reciting chapters of praise and extolling God can be seen as an enactment “all my limbs say…”

Yet another view is expressed in Lev. Rab. 30.9:

Another thing. “The fruit of a splendid tree”—this is the blessed Holy One, of whom it is written “You are clothed with honor and majestic beauty {hod ve-hadar)” (Ps 104:1). “Palm branches”—this is the blessed Holy One, of whom it is written: “The righteous [an appellation for God] shall flourish like a palm tree” (Ps 92:13). “And the boughs of a leafy tree”—this is the blessed Holy One, of whom it is written: “and he was standing among the myrtle trees” (Zech 1:8). “And willows of the brook”—this is the blessed Holy One, of whom it is written, “Lift up a song to Him who rides upon the Arabot [lit., clouds; also a name for one of the seven heavens; brought here by way of a pun on aravah]; Yah is his name” (Ps 68: 5).

Here, once more, midrashic fancy runs wild in constructing four different double-entendres by which each of the four species in turn is somehow connected with God Himself! What does this mean? Perhaps that the whole physical world ultimately points towards God, or perhaps more than that. A friend of mine, a serious mystic, once told me of this midrash and described how he meditated on it the entire first night of Sukkot. I wonder if this is an anticipation of the Kabbalistic line of interpretation, below, in which the Four Kinds indeed allude to the Divine name and/or the sefirot.

A fourth line of interpretation, then, is the Kabbalistic one, according to which the four species correspond to the four letters of the Divine Name: the myrtle is the yod, the willow the first heh, the lulav the letter vav, and the etrog the second heh. Alternatively, the seven items constituting the four species correspond to the seven lower sefirot: the three myrtles are Hesed, Gevurah and Tiferet; the willows are Netzah and Hod; the lulav is Yesod, and the etrog Malkhut.

A strange story is told in what is usually a strictly halakhic source: namely, Bet Yosef on the Tur (Orah Hayyim, Hilkhot Lulav 651, s.v. katav B”H; this lengthy work of R. Joseph Caro was the exposition on the Tur from which the Shulhan Arukh was later extracted). R. Menahem Recanati, a noted Italian Kabbalist who lived in latter half of the 13th century, recounts how a stranger, an Ashkenazic hasid, a man deeply engaged in the study of Kabbalah, once came to his city for the festival of Sukkot. That night Recanati dreamt that the man was writing a Torah scroll, but separating the final letter of God’s name from the others: i.e., he wrote YHW H. The next morning in synagogue he observed how this man shook his lulav: he moved the lulav, bound together with the hadas and aravah, without the etrog. Then, Recanati continues, he understood the dream: i.e., the final heh of the Divine name and the etrog both represent the sefirah of Malkhut. Perhaps (this is my conjecture) this man saw Malkhut, the Divine indwelling in the concrete, earthly realm, as radically separate from the other sefirot—a radical, near-heretical Kabbalistic approach known as kotzetz ba-netiot (see HY IV: Terumah=Terumah [Hasidism]). And indeed, the visitor, after being admonished by Recanati, then performed the ritual in the usual way.


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