Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sukkot (Ramban)

Ramban on the Four Species

The taking of the Arba’ah Minim—the four species of plants: palm fronds, etrog (a kind of citrus fruit), myrtle and willow branches—on Sukkot and their waving during the course of the prayers, is one of the more enigmatic Jewish rituals. Unlike the Passover Seder or the lighting of Hanukkah candles, it has no clear commemorative purpose, nor, like blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, does it have an immediate emotional impact that can be seen as “awakening sleepers.” Thus, it has been the subject of numerous and varied attempts at explanation and interpretation in the midrashic and later literature. Ramban, in his commentary on the Torah verse commanding this mitzvah, suggests several new and unexpected directions for its understanding:

Lev 23:40: “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree, palm fronds, branches of a thick tree, and water willows.” … Regarding the reason for this mitzvah, they [the Sages] said by way of aggadah, that these species come to appease [God] regarding the water. And by the way of truth [Kabbalah]: “the fruit of a beautiful tree” (pri ‘etz hadar) is the fruit regarding which there is the greatest desire, and it was in it that Adam sinned. As is said, “And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and attractive to the eyes, and the tree was pleasant to make wise, and she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen 3:6). And the sin was involving it alone, and we appease Him with the other species.

This is a surprising and even extraordinary interpretation: the taking of the four species, rather than being an act of celebration, symbolizing perhaps the unity of the Jewish people (see, e.g. Lev. Rab. 30.12, where it symbolizes different kinds of Jews with varying virtues), or even the unity of forces within the Divine or letters of the Divine Name (as in ibid., 30.9, cited below, or in various Kabbalistic interpretations), it is seen as an act of atonement for the primal sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Moreover, rather than viewing all four species as being of equal weight, complementing one another and each making up for the shortcomings of the other by their being joined together in a single bundle, the etrog is seen as of central importance, having itself been (in one opinion in Gen. Rab. 15.7, alongside wheat, grapes, and figs) the forbidden fruit of which Adam and Eve ate, with dire consequences.

The etrog is also special in that it is not physically bound or tied together with the others in a single bundle (eged), but is held somewhat apart, at once separate, distinct, but also part of the unity. This idea gradually emerges in the sections which follow, which develop the Sefirotic symbolism of all four kinds:

And the palm fronds are the head of the central line [i.e., of the Kabbalistic schema, uniting “right” and “left”; it is usually identified with Yesod], double [being composed of paired leaves running its entire length] and high over all of them. And the branch of a thick tree [i.e., the hadassim, or myrtle branches] alludes to the three sefirot which are in one line [Hesed, Gevurah, Tiferet], as is said, “From the hand of the mighty one of Jacob” [Gen 49:24; Jacob=Tiferet, which harmonizes these three qualities, and is also the culmination of the three patriarchs and as such the classic progenitor of the Jewish people]. And the willows of the water (Aravot) are like the matter of which it is said, “Lift up a song to He who rides upon the clouds [aravot]” (Ps 68:5). For they are mixed [yit’arvu—a further pun on aravot] of the attributes of Judgment and that of Mercy [an allusion to Nezah and Hod, the two lower sefirot which, like Hesed and Din, balance the right and left side]. And from this you may understand and know that the etrog is not with them in the bundle, but its presence is essential to them [m’akev; in the halakhic sense, its absence disqualifies them]. For it corresponds to Atzeret [the eighth day], which is a festival in its own right and is the completion of the first. And they are all one in potential, albeit not in actuality. And I have already explained this reason.

Here the uniqueness of the etrog is hinted in its correspondence to the Eighth Day, which both is and is not part of the Sukkot festival and which, like all “eights” in Judaism, points towards that which transcends nature. The number seven suggests the seven days of Creation, or the seven lower sefirot or middot; eight takes us beyond this. Yet etrog also corresponds to Malkhut, the seventh sefirah; it is the seventh item in the bundle (after two willows, three myrtles, and one palm frond; i.e., six). In an earlier comment to which he alludes here, on v 36, Ramban sees the eighth day as relating to Shabbat and Knesset Yisrael, both of which are symbols of seven/Malkhut.

I am reminded of a strange passage in what is ordinarily a strictly halakhic work, Beit Yosef (Orah Hayyim 451, s.v. ketav) describing a guest, an Ashkenazic Kabbalist, who once visited for Sukkot, some time in the 15th century, the community in which R. Menahem Recanati was rabbi. In a dream, Recanati saw this man writing a Torah scroll; each time he wrote the Divine Name, separating the final letter heh from the first three. In the morning, he noticed this visitor shaking the “bundle” of the lulav while holding the etrog stock still—and he understood his dream. Was there some sort of Kabbalistic view that one ought to separate the etrog from the others? And was this a heretical position, one that somehow upsets the Divine unity (kotzetz ba-neti’ot or mafrid ha-binyan? Or does Ramban’s description somehow relate to this?

And the reason for the entire passage, “you shall celebrate the feast of [the Great] God for seven days” {v. 41, with changes} of the acts of creation, and attached to them the eight day of assembly, as in the matter which is said, “To the Leader, on the eighth [day?]” (Ps 6:1). And during those seven days you shall take therein the fruit of the beautiful tree, and the lulav in the bundle; and therefore the etrog is placed first. But on the eighth day it is not needed, for it [the day] is itself beautiful. And this is the meaning of “You shall celebrate them as a festival to the Lord [seven days in the year]” (v. 41)—that you shall celebrate seven days together with the year, with [the matter of] going around and circular procession. From the language of “And the circle of the heaven” (Job 22:14); “And you shall draw it with a compass” (Isa 44:13); and “a multitude rejoicing” [hogeg – celebrating: from the root hgg, to make a circle; Ps 42:5).

This is suggestive, but there is much that is dense and enigmatic. I do not fully understand this passage, but have translated as best as I can. One central point is the relation between the verb hgg, meaning to celebrate, and to dance or go about in a circle, perhaps alluding to the circular processions of Sukkot—in the ancient Temple, and also in the synagogue (did this already exist in Ramban’s time, or was it only introduced by Lurianic Kabbalah?). And, once again, the eighth day, like the etrog, is both attached to the seven while also somehow separate.
He now turns to another midrash, which takes us in a different direction. Here, all four species allude equally to the Holy One blessed be He (see my discussion of this in HY III: Sukkot [=Midrash]).

And our Rabbis already alluded to this secret, saying in Leviticus Rabbah (30.9): “’The fruit of a goodly tree’—this is the Holy One blessed be He, of whom it is said, “Glory and splendor [hadar] are before Him” (Ps 96:6). ‘Palm fronds;—this is Holy One blessed be He, as is said, ‘the righteous shall flourish like a palm tree’ (Ps 93:13). ‘Branches of a thick [or: leafy] tree’—This is the Holy One blessed be He, as is said, ‘and he was standing among the myrtles in the glen’ (Zech 1:8). And ‘willows of the brook’—this is the Holy One blessed be He, as is said, ‘Lift up a song to He who dwells in the clouds [aravot] (Ps 68:5).

Finally, he cites a series of passages from Sefer ha-Bahir, a proto-Kabbalistic book of unknown origin, but which clearly predates all of the earliest known figures of Spanish Kabbalah, which Ramban often quotes:

And in the midrash of Rabbi Nehunyah ben ha-Kanah (Sefer ha-Bahir, §§172-178, with variants): What is the fruit of a beautiful tree? As they translate in the Targum: the fruit of the tree of etrog and lulav. And what is hadar? That is the beauty of all. And this is the beauty of Song of Songs, as is written, “Who is this that gazes forth like the dawn [fair as the moon, bright as the sun]” (Cant 6:10). And why is it called hadar? Do not read hadar (splendor) but hadar (separate). This is the etrog, which is separate from the bunch of the lulav, but the mitzvah of lulav is not fulfilled but through it, and it is bound with all; for it is with each one, and it is with all of them together.

Without saying so explicitly, but based on this and on other passages cited earlier (e.g., the reference to etrog being the object of “greatest desire”), it would seem that etrog represents the feminine—which is both an object of desire, and keeps herself somewhat separate from men. Some say that its very shape is suggestive of the womb, or perhaps of the yoni. In a Bahir passage which Ramban does not quote here, this is stated more explicitly: “This is like a king who planted nine male palm trees in his orchard. He said: If they are all of one sex, they cannot sustain themselves (i.e. reproduce)! [NB: date palms exist in both male and female] What did he do? He planted an etrog among them, and it was one of those nine which he thought to make a male; but the etrog is female…” (§172)

And what is lulav? It corresponds to the spine. And the “branches of a leafy tree,” whose leaves cover the majority of it, like a man whose arms protect his head. “Branch” to the left and “leafy” to the right, and “tree” in the middle {the order of the Hebrew phrase being ענף עץ עבות: lit. branch – tree – leafy]. And why is it called etz (tree)? For it is the root of the ilan [the sapling?]. And what is “willows of the brook”? The name of the place where they are fixed, whose name is nahal (brook), as is written “all the brooks [or: rivers] go down to the sea” (Eccles 1:7). And what is the sea? That is the etrog [again, the centrality of the etrog, as the place to which all others flow: very much a characteristic of Malkhut, or the feminine]. And from whence do you know that each aspect of these seven is called “brook”? As is said, “and from Matanah to Nahaliel” (Num 21:19): do not read nahaliel, but nahal el (the brook of God).

He concludes with a straightforward halakhic comment: that this structure, of three myrtle branches, two willows, and one each of the etrog and lulav, is based on a specific opinion in the Talmud (which was accepted as halakhah); there was also a rejected view that it was one-one-one-one. Perhaps this was worthy of mention because the total of seven items is significant in terms of the Sefirotic schema.

And this midrash is based upon the view [of Rabbi Ishmael, in b. Sukkah 34b] that there are three myrtle branches, two willows, one lulav and one etrog. And such is the halakhah according to the Geonim and all of the Rishonim.

One final observation: while Ramban was an extremely incisive thinker with razor-sharp critiques of views he considered wrong, when it came to matters of ta’amei ha-mitzvot or Kabbalah he felt no need for consistency in his presentation. (He lived centuries before such systematizers of Kabbalah as R. Joseph Gikatilla or the school of the Ari). Thus, as he does here, he presents a variety of different views and approaches which do not necessarily coalesce into a single, unified whole—albeit his central insight, that the etrog, symbolizing what came to be called Malkhut, lies at the very center of the four species, emerges clearly.


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