Finding Joy in Sukkot
What Do the Arba Minim (Four Species) Represent?
Sukkot is called the “Festival of Joy””, but what exactly is so joyful about it? The other major holidays are named after their very essences - Passover is the “Festival of Our Redemption,” Shavuot is the “Festival of the Giving of Our Torah.” What’s the deep connection between joy and Sukkot? The answer is something you might not expect. Join Ami Silver and Imu Shalev as they discover what it is.
Ami Silver: Hi everyone. This is Ami Silver, one of the scholars at Aleph Beta. What you’re about to hear is a conversation between me and Imu Shalev, exploring the mitzvah of the arba minim – the four species that the Torah commands us to take during the holiday of Sukkot.
And to me, this mitzvah has always been of the stranger things that we do throughout the year. I mean, we build a sukkah for the holiday. Okay, I get that. We like to decorate it, that’s fun. But then the Torah is saying: Beyond the sukkah itself, you need to make sure to take these four very specific kinds of plant species – lulav, etrog, hadassim, and aravot – and you just kind of hold them together in your hands. And to me it was always kind of bizarre.
So I started to look a little more deeply into it and go back to the source itself. And strangely enough, the Torah seems to indicate that the mitzvah of the four species actually has something to do with simchah – with joy, with happiness. And this really got me wondering. Because Sukkot itself, this holiday, is known as zman simchateinu, as a potent time of joy. And it’s actually not so obvious why that is.
But I started to explore this. Does the four species, this very strange and mysterious mitzvah, have something to do with joy? And if it does, might it actually be a key to understanding the joy of the holiday of Sukkot itself?
So, without further ado, here is me and Imu. I hope you enjoy this as much as we did. Chag sameach (a joyful holiday)!
Ami: So Imu, before we dive into any text, I'm going to kind of just ask you some holiday trivia.
Imu Shalev: Okay.
Ami: Here we'll refer to the liturgy of the festivals. Because in the liturgy of the three festivals, for Pesach (Passover), Shavuot, and Sukkot, there is a special kind of description of what that day is. So for example, Pesach is called zman – do you remember, zman what?
Imu: Cheruteinu, time of our freedom.
Ami: Cheruteinu, time of our freedom and liberation. It totally makes sense for Pesach to be zman cheruteinu. What's Shavuot called in the festival prayers, do you remember? Zman –
Imu: Zman matan Torateinu.
Ami: And does that one make sense?
Imu: Yeah. It's Shavuot, the holiday of Torah giving. Totally makes sense. Passover, freedom day. Shavuot, Torah day. And Sukkot is – this is where you're going, right?
Ami: Sukkot is zman –
Imu: It's zman simchateinu.
Ami: Zman simchateinu. The time of our –
Imu: Our happiness.
Ami: Now, why is that?
The Time of Our Happiness
Ami: With Passover and Shavuot, not only did they make sense, but it's the essential identity of that holiday. The whole holiday of Passover is about celebrating the liberation from Egypt. The whole holiday of Shavuot, the reason for this holiday, so to speak, is that it is dedicated to celebrating the day of – that the Torah is given.
And Sukkot, it's the time of our happiness. If I were to just look at them and I'd think, well, maybe the rabbis didn't have a good thing to call Sukkot. So they gave it a generic thing – simchateinu, it's a holiday, it's a joyous time. But you know, I don't buy that. Sukkot actually has quite a lot of particularity about it as a holiday. It's not just a day where we do nothing.
Now, what's interesting is that if we look in the Torah's description of Sukkot, we actually do find an element of joy in it. Part of what I want to do with you here today is explore the nature of that joy. What is the joy associated with Sukkot? Why might Sukkot be this particular time of joy? I think actually the kind of joy that we encounter there, or the quality of that joy, has the potential to raise some really interesting directions for us here.
I want us to start by looking at actually the first place that the holiday of Sukkot appears in the Torah. This is in Vayikra (Leviticus), where we sort of get introduced to a lot of the holidays for the first time. It says the following (Leviticus 23:39-40): Ach bachamishah asar yom lachodesh hashevi'i, but on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, b'os'pechem et tevuat ha'aretz tachogu et chag Hashem shiv’at yamim, when you gather the harvest of the land, you will celebrate God's holiday for seven days. Bayom harishon shabbaton uvayom hashemini shabbaton, the first day will be a shabbaton, a kind of festival observance day, and the eighth day will be shabbaton, a festival observance day.
So this is the first thing we hear about what's happening on this holiday. It's the holiday that's happening when you're gathering your harvest, and you're celebrating for seven days.
Let's go to the next verse. U'lekachtem lachem bayom harishon, and on the first day you will take for yourselves pri etz hadar, a fruit from an etz hadar. The word hadar – what do you make of that word?
Imu: Pretty. It's a pretty tree, a beautiful tree.
Ami: A fruit from a beautiful tree. Kapot temarim, palm fronds, va'anaf etz avot, and a branch of an etz avot. Avot means thick.
Imu: Right. Very thick.
Ami: V'arvei nachal, and river willows. U'semachtem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem shivat yamim, and you shall rejoice before Hashem your God, seven days.
Imu: There's that word simchah (joy).
Ami: There's that word simchah, right. And the next verses basically iterate that this will be an eternal holiday, and then explain that it's because we sat in these sukkot (booths) when we left Egypt, and we will remember that for all time. So this is the descriptor about the holiday of Sukkot.
Where is the joy on Sukkot? What's the joy about on Sukkot?
Imu: It's unclear what you're "joying." But the simchah part, if you're asking me to pay attention to the rejoicing, it seems to come in the middle of this list of laws, right? It's telling you: “Hey, on the fifteenth, you've got to keep this holiday, Sukkot. You've got to grab a bunch of weird plants.” And then you could read it in two ways. You can say: “Grab a bunch of weird plants.” Period. “Also, you should be really happy on this holiday.”
Or, a way of reading it that I think would be appropriate, would be somehow… One of the laws of Sukkot is to gather these weird plants, and through these weird plants – I'm calling them weird just because I think that the idea of this is kind of funny – but take these plants and be happy with God. Somehow the plants are a vehicle for being happy before God.
How Do the Arba Minim Help Us Rejoice?
Ami: Right. And you're talking about – I think you said “gather the weird plants,” but the funny thing here is that actually, in the previous verse, in lamed-tet (39), there's actually a lot of plant gathering happening. B'os'pechem et tevuat ha'aretz.
Imu: You're totally right.
Ami: We're in an agrarian society. This is harvest festival. This is a big deal.
Imu: That actually makes far more sense. It's the Jewish version of Thanksgiving. “Everybody, get all of the last harvests. Take the gourds and the pumpkins and your bounty and your cornucopia and have a major feast, a celebration, happiness.” But that's not where the happiness commandment actually comes in.
Ami: Right, and that's the thing. If you were writing this, then you should make an edit here. You should take that phrase u'semachtem lifnei Hashem, rejoicing before God, and you should put it up at the end of the previous verse. It should be: “When you gather all the crops of the year, gather them in at this time of year and rejoice before God for seven days with all of your bounty.”
But here we have this very strange thing. Gather in all your harvest at this time of year, period. Go take for yourself this fruit, from this tree. These palm fronds, some branch, make sure it's thick, and then river willows. Oh, and then… U'semachtem! And when you do that, wow, are you going to be happy!
Imu: It's actually funny. If I were to show up to my mom's Thanksgiving, and everyone pot-luck – you know, my sister brought the yams with the delicious marshmallows on top, and another brother brings some potatoes, and I bring the thick branch and the river willows… like, “The joy is here, everybody!”
Ami: The party doesn't start until Imu comes with those branches in his hands.
Imu: River willows, exactly.
Ami: Then everyone is just going to get up and dance for seven days straight. They would just be so gripped with ecstasy!
So granted, this is weird. Associating rejoicing before God with what we call the four species, the arba minim, seems out of place. And if we even just take a step back, it really is a very weird part of this holiday, anyway. We've been doing this, you and I, for decades. Our people have been doing this for millennia. You know, if someone were to ask you, stop you walking down the street with your arba minim (four species) and say, “Hey, what are you holding in your hand? What is that?” What would you even say to them?
Imu: This is my ritual bouquet.
Ami: My ritual bouquet. “Oh. And what do you do with it?” We shake it. “Why these plants? What are these plants?” I don't know. But you know what? The Torah is telling us these plants somehow are connected with some kind of joy.
Imu: I think what you're getting at is such an elementary, basic question, that I think I'm almost afraid to go there. I'm almost afraid to ask. Right? Because it's such a good question, you better have a really good answer for me. Because I think many people have waxed poetic on what is the meaning behind the four species, that no one really expects a very good answer.
Ami: Well, I'd say that a lot of the explanations that are given tend to be very, almost metaphorical. “It's the four kinds of Jews. It's the four letters of God's name. It's four parts of the body.”
Imu: That's not a very common explanation we give to our mitzvot in general.
Ami: Because the Torah's very insistent and specific. The Torah is like: “This kind of fruit, these kind of plant parts. This is what you get.” And it doesn't tell us why. So, what are the arba minim (four species)? What is this mitzvah? And what does it have to do with simchah, with joy?