Besides dwelling in a sukkah, the other significant mitzvah of Sukkot is the taking up of the arba·ah minim, literally “the four species.”
What are the Arba·ah Minim?
These are better known as the lulav and etrog after the two most prominent of the four: the palm branch and the citron. The other two species are attached to the sides of the palm branch: the myrtle branches, called hadasim, and the willow branches, called aravot.
The biblical source for this observance is Leviticus 23:40: “On the first day, you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Eternal, your God, for seven days.” The rabbis took the reference to the fruit of the hadar, translated to mean citrus, to be the etrog and the boughs of leafy trees to refer to the myrtle.
Why these species?
There are many wonderful explanations as to why these specific species were chosen for use on Sukkot.
One has it that the “four species” represent the different parts of the human body: the tall palm represents the spine, the ovoid myrtle leaf represents the eyes, the willow represents the lips, and the etrog represents the heart. By bringing them together, the worshiper indicates his or her intention to unite all the parts of the body in the worship of God.
Alternately, the four species are likened to different kinds of Jews. The etrog, which has both taste and fragrance, represents the pious, learned Jew who combines learning with good deeds. The lulav, which has a pleasant taste but no fragrance, represents the kind of Jew who pursues sacred learning, but who fails to perform many positive deeds. The myrtle, which has a delightful fragrance but no taste, represents the kind of Jew who actively does good deeds, yet who never takes the time to study Torah seriously. Finally, the willow, which possesses neither fragrance nor taste, is representative of the kind of Jew who combines a lack of interest in Torah study with a lack of interest in performing good deeds.
Yet the symbolism of the lulav and etrog suggests they can still all come together in the worship of God. The Jewish world is not complete without all types of people. All have their personal places in God’s plan for the world, and each has something personal and irreplaceable to contribute to its fulfillment (Va-yikra Rabbah 30:12).
How a lulav and etrog should be made
A lulav and etrog set can be purchased through most synagogues, and should include one palm frond, two willow branches, three myrtle branches, and one etrog.
When they are attached to the palm, the myrtle is placed on the right of the palm branch, the willow on the left, and the spine of the palm should be facing the holder.
The palm frond should not be too small and certainly not less than about sixteen inches long. Similarly, the myrtle and willow branches should be at least twelve inches long.
In any event, the palm frond should be at least four inches longer than the myrtle and the willow (SA Oraḥ Ḥayyim 650:1). For its part, the etrog should be as least as large as a chicken’s egg (SA Oraḥ Ḥayyim 648:22).
These specifics on lulav sizes can be found in A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Rabbi Isaac Klein (z’l), p.162.
Because so much of this mitzvah centers around the beauty and enjoyment of the arba·ah minim, effort should be made to make sure that the various components are kept as attractive and fragrant as possible throughout the festival and to prevent them from drying out.
One popular method, for example, is to take the aravot out of the holder, wrap them in damp paper toweling, and leave them refrigerated until it is time to use them again the following day.
We strive to keep the willow and myrtle fresh to make the mitzvah pleasant.
If the pitom of the etrog (that is, the tip on the opposite side from the green stem) breaks off, it is invalid for use and a blessing should not be recited until a suitable replacement is found.
What to use the Arba·ah Minim for
The lulav and etrog are used as part of the holiday worship. The general practice is to take the lulav and etrog in hand just prior to the recitation of the Hallel Service, thus immediately following the Morning Service and before the Torah Service. If for some reason the mitzvah is not performed just before Hallel, it may be performed at any time during the day.
The blessing upon taking the lulav and etrog is:
בָּרּוְך אַתָה ה’ אֱֹלהֵינּו מֶּלֶּך הָעֹולָם, אֲׁשֶּר קִדְשֳׁנּו בְּמִצְֹותָיו, וְצִוָנּו עַל נְטִילַת לּולָב.
Barukh attah adonai, elo-heinu, melekh ha-olam, asher kidd’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivvanu al n’tilat lulav.
Praised are You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who, sanctifying us with divine commandments, has commanded us regarding the taking up of the lulav.
The first time each year that one uses the lulav and etrog, the She-heḥeyyanu (also written as shehechianu) blessing is also recited:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְמַן הַזֶּה.
Barukh attah adonai, eloheinu, melekh ha-olam, she-heheyyanu, vekiyamanu, vehigiyanu lezman hazeh.
Praised are You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this occasion.
It is customary to begin by holding the etrog upside down, with its tip, called the pitom, facing down and the stem facing up. After the two blessings are recited, the etrog is turned into the proper position and the lulav and etrog are held together.
The waving of the lulav and etrog is done holding the lulav with the spine in the right hand and the etrog in the left hand. In some Ashkenazic communities there is a custom that people who are left-handed hold the lulav in the left hand and the etrog in the right. Uncertain worshipers should consult their rabbis to determine the practice in their communities.
They are then brought together and waved in six directions: to the front, to the right, to the back, to the left, upward, and downward. This same waving procedure is followed each time the lulav and etrog are waved: first after the original blessings are recited before the Hallel service, and then also during the recitation of the Hallel service when the first two verses of Psalm 118 are recited, then again when the first half of Psalm 118:25 is repeated twice later in the Hallel service, and then yet again when Psalm 118:29 is recited.
The waving of the lulav corresponds to the verses themselves. Psalm 118:1, for example, has exactly seven words, God’s name and six others. The six other words correspond to each of the six directions of the waving mentioned above, but no movement occurs when God’s name is recited.
Similarly, the beginning phrase of Psalm 118:25 is made up of four words, God’s name plus three others. Those three other words, however, have a total of six syllables, and these correspond to the six directions in which the lulav is waved.
And Psalm 118:29 consists of six words as well.
Readers may consult in this regard to p. 164 of Rabbi Klein’s A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice; M Sukkot 3:9; and BT Sukkot 37b.
Spirtuality and meaning behind the Arba·ah Minim
In some ways, the mitzvah of the lulav and etrog presents a bit of a challenge to moderns accustomed to rituals that are transparent in their meaning and easily decipherable. Still, one of the dangers in contemporary Judaism is precisely that we have become overly cerebral in our approach to religion.
After the intense High Holiday period of prayer and introspective thought, Sukkot appeals to our senses. We build the sukkah with our hands, and we smell the four species and shake them back and forth as a sign of our exuberant sense of thanksgiving to God for all that we have in this world. Judaism makes demands both on the intellect and the spirit, both on the brain and on the heart, and Sukkot is a vibrant reminder of this lesson.
The lulav and etrog are not used on Shabbat for the same reason the shofar is not sounded when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat: to prevent the desecration of the Shabbat by those who might feel compelled to carry the ritual accouterments of the festival to a synagogue. Anticipating this potential problem, the rabbis established that these items not be used at all on Shabbat.
Adapted with permission from The Observant Life.