Sukkot's Unshaken Four Species
For Rabbinic Jews, the holiday of Sukkot has two distinct mitzvot: the sukkah and the four species (ארבעת המינים). The latter is often referred to as the “lulav and etrog.” Rabbinic Jews take the lulav, made up of three species (palm, myrtle, and willow), and the etrog (the fourth species) and shake them. The Rabbis derive the mitzvah of taking the lulav and etrog from Lev 23:40:
וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים.
And you shall take on the first day [of the Holiday] the fruit of the goodly tree [or the goodly fruit tree], branches of palm-trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days.
Karaite Jews do not believe the commandment refers to taking a lulav and etrog on Sukkot (and thus do not shake them). Karaite historically have understood this verse very differently.
Building a Sukkah with the Four Species: The Dominant Karaite Opinion
The Torah simply states that we are to “take” the species and “rejoice” before God for seven days (Lev 23:40). This is followed by the command to dwell in sukkot for seven days (Lev 23:42). The passage, therefore, can be understood as a description of a single mitzvah, i.e., “take these various species, build a sukkah out of them, and dwell in it for seven days.”
This interpretation finds support in a verse in Nehemiah regarding the holiday of Sukkot, in which Ezra tells the people to gather the leafy branches:
נחמיה ח:טו צְאוּ הָהָר וְהָבִיאוּ עֲלֵי זַיִת וַעֲלֵי עֵץ שֶׁמֶן וַעֲלֵי הֲדַס וַעֲלֵי תְמָרִים וַעֲלֵי עֵץ עָבֹת לַעֲשֹׂת סֻכֹּת כַּכָּתוּב.
Neh 8:15 Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, leafy branches of oil trees, leafy myrtle branches, leafy palm branches, leafy branches of a leafy tree, to make booths, as it is written.
Assuming that the Ezra’s list of leafy branches is meant as a version or interpretation of the four species, then Ezra’s interpretation of the verse is that the species should be taken in order to build sukkot (booths).
The Four Species: Rabbinic Interpretation
The Rabbis understand the four items mentioned in the verse as four separate species and therefore, define the mitzvah as the lifting of all four species, which they identify as follows:
- פרי עץ הדר (lit. fruit of a stately tree)—Citron (אתרוג)
- כפת תמרים (lit. branches of date-palms)—A closed date-palm frond (לולב)
- ענף עץ עבת (lit. the leaf of a thick tree)—Leafy myrtle branches (הדס)
- ערבי נחל (lit. willows of a brook)—Leafy willow branches (ערבות)
Whereas the Rabbanite reading of “willows of the brook” is relatively straightforward, their reading (from a Karaite perspective) of the other three species is less so. For example, the Torah specifies branches of date-palms, which Rabbanite Jews understand as closed fronds and not large leaves. The other two phrases used by the verse are even less precise. “Leaves of a thick tree” and “fruit of a stately tree” are vague, and do not imply that only a myrtle branch and a citron may be used. And thus, unsurprisingly, Karaite Jewish interpretation of these species differs from that of Rabbanite Jews in a number of particulars. We will look at each one in turn.
The Majestic Fruit of the Palm Tree: Noting the Absence of a Vav
The 11th century Karaite sage, Hakham Jacob ben Reuben (of Byzantium), in his commentary on Tanakh Sefer HaOsher (The Book of Wealth), argues that the phrase that the Rabbis believe lists the first two species is really only describing one:
פרי עץ הדר: הוא תמר, כי הוא הדר מכל עץ.
“Fruit of a stately tree” – That is, a palm (tamar), because it is the most stately (hadar) of all trees.
כפות תמרים: ולא אמ״ וכפות להודיע כי פרי עץ הדר הוא כפות תמרים.
“Fronds of Palms” – And [notice], it does not say, “and fronds”, to make it known that “fruit of a stately tree” is [equivalent to] “palm fronds.”
In other words, noting the absence of a vav (“and”), the Sefer HaOsher reads the two phrases in apposition, i.e., as one long phrase: “fruit of a stately tree, [meaning] the fronds (=fruit) of the date-palm (=stately tree).”
Daniel Al-Kumisi (10th cent., Jerusalem) supports the identification of the majestic (הדר) tree with the date-palm from a verse in Song of Songs (7:8),
זֹאת קוֹמָתֵךְ דָּמְתָה לְתָמָר…
Your (stately) form is like the palm…
The verse praises the woman’s stature by comparing it to that of the date-palm, showing that the poet considered date-palms to be particularly stately or majestic.
The interpretation of “fruit” as the branches of the tree may seem counterintuitive, but it fits well with the main Karaite Jewish conception of how these items are used. In other words, since the (three or four) species were employed to build the sukkah, they were taken to refer to construction materials. A sukkah can be built with branches, but it is difficult to build them out of fruit.
Leafy Trees and the Verse from Ezra-Nehemiah
The Sefer Ha-Osher does not interpret the “leafy branch of a thick tree” from Leviticus 23:40 to refer to something specific, and even engages in a bit of defense against Rabbanite critiques:
וענף עץ עבות: הם עלי זית והדס וכל עץ הדר. ואם תאמ״ וענף עץ הוא הדס לא כן כי מצאנו בספר עזרא ועלי הדס ועלי עץ עבות.
“And a branch of a thick tree” – These are the foliage from olive [trees], myrtle [trees], and any stately tree. And should you say, “‘and a branch of a… tree’ can [only] be a myrtle”, that isn’t so, because we have found in the book of Ezra (Neh. 8:15), “And [the] foliage of a myrtle, and foliage of a thick tree.”
To defend his view that the Torah’s “branch of a thick tree” does not refer to a specific tree, Hakham Jacob ben Reuben quotes from the story in Nehemiah we saw above, in which Ezra lists the species the people must use on Sukkot (Neh 8:15):
צְאוּ הָהָר וְהָבִיאוּ
Go out to the mountains and bring:
- עֲלֵי זַיִת
- וַעֲלֵי עֵץ שֶׁמֶן
- וַעֲלֵי הֲדַס
- וַעֲלֵי תְמָרִים
- וַעֲלֵי עֵץ עָבֹת
- Leafy branches of olive trees,
- Leafy branches of oil trees,
- Leafy myrtle branches,
- Leafy palm branches,
- Leafy branches of a leafy tree,
לַעֲשֹׂת סֻכֹּת כַּכָּתוּב.
To make booths, as it is written.
That this verse was meant to be an explanation of Lev 23:40 is clear from the ending, “as it is written [in the Torah].” Thus, the Sefer HaOsher points out, we see that Ezra understood the Torah’s injunction of “leafy trees” as general, since he felt no compunction about adding species; there are five mentioned here whereas the Torah has only four (or three according to Sefer HaOsher).
Nehemiah and Leviticus: Can They Be Aligned?
The assumption that Nehemiah and the Torah are referring to exactly the same mitzvah is not straightforward and requires some interpretive assumptions, as note by the Karaite sage Aaron ben Elijah (c.1328-1369) in his halachic work, Gan Eden.
וחכמים הציעו פירושים לישב שני המאמרים כאחד כי כל הנזכר בפסוק האחד הוא הנזכר בפסוק האחר. ואמנם החלוק שמצאנו ביניהם הוא כי ערבי נחל שנזכרים בתורה אינם נזכרים בעזרא ועלי זית ועלי עץ שמן ועלי הדס שנזכרים בעזרא אינם נזכרים בתורה. אם שני המאמרים כאחד צריך להשוות את שניהם.
The sages suggested various interpretations to make the two passages cohere, i.e., to make everything mentioned in one match up with what is mentioned in the other. Now the difference that we find in the two passages is that “willows of the brook” mentioned in the Torah are not mentioned in Ezra, whereas “olive tree leaves, oil tree leaves, and myrtle leaves” mentioned in Ezra are not mentioned in the Torah. But if the two passages are saying the same thing, it is necessary to make the two cohere.
Nehemiah mentioned olive trees and (olive) oil trees, neither of which appear in the Torah. To make this work, some sages divided between the stately tree (פרי עץ הדר) and date-palm branches (כפות תמרים), by claiming that the former refers to the olive and olive-oil trees mentioned in Nehemiah. (Personally, I have always loved the interpretation of the olive tree as the עץ הדר, and each year, I cut branches from my cousins’ olive tree in order to decorate my sukkah.)
The verse in Nehemiah makes no mention of willows. To solve this problem, some Karaite scholars say that “willows of the brook” is actually a reference to myrtles. To back this up, they note Zechariah 1:8, which describes myrtles growing near water:
רָאִיתִי הַלַּיְלָה וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ רֹכֵב עַל סוּס אָדֹם וְהוּא עֹמֵד בֵּין הַהֲדַסִּים אֲשֶׁר בַּמְּצֻלָה…
In the night, I had a vision. I saw a man, mounted on a bay horse, standing among the myrtles in the Deep (water)…
Binyamin al-Nahawendi (early 9th cent. Persia), who believed ערבי נחל to be willows, offered a creative reading of Nehemiah aimed at “finding” the missing willows:
על כן לא אמר ערבי נחל בעזרא מפני שאמר צאו ההר וטעמו עלו אתם ההר והביאו אשר נמצא בהר ואנחנו נביא ערבי נחל.
Here is why it doesn’t say “willows of the brook” in Ezra: Because [Ezra] said: “Go to the hills,” and what this means is: Go to the hills and bring whatever you find on the hills, and we will bring willows from the brook.
The Trail Mix Basket: A Minority Karaite Opinion
Separating between the Mitzvah of the Species and that of the Sukkah
A minority of Karaite Jewish sages separate the mitzvah described in Nehemiah, which most Karaites interpret to be about building a sukkah, from the mitzvah described in Lev 23:40. These scholars note that the passages are not really linked and are indeed interrupted by v. 41:
ויקרא כג:מ וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים. כג:מא וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג לַי-הוָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי תָּחֹגּוּ אֹתוֹ.כג:מב בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת.
Lev 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 LORD your God seven days. 23:41 You shall observe it as a festival of the LORD for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. 23:42 You shall live in booths seven days.
But if vv. 40 and 42 do not refer to a single commandment, to what does v. 40 refer? Picking up on the reference to fruit, these Karaite scholars—admittedly a minority—understand the mitzvah as a requirement to eat delicious fruit throughout the holiday. Sefer Gan Eden writes:
והנה במאמר ולקחתם לכם פירשו בו מן חכמינו שהרצון בו לקחת פרי עץ הדר כגון אתרוגין ותפוחין וזולתם בכפות תמרים – שצריך תוספת בי”ת – וענף עץ עבות וערבי נחל לעשות אותם אגודות לשמוח בהם באכילת הפרי ובטלטולו שאמר ולקחתם ושמחתם.
With regard to the statement “and you shall take” some of our sages have understood this to mean that we should take the goodly fruit of trees, like citrons and apples and the like, inside the leaves of palms – the verse needs to be read with an understood bet (“inside”) – and the leaves of thick trees and the leaves of willows of the brook, to wrap them together, and then to enjoy them by eating the fruit and carrying them around, for it says “and you shall take them… and you shall rejoice.”
There is certain intuitive appeal to this interpretation, since Sukkot is an agricultural holiday and the Israelites might have understood eating the species as commemorating the agricultural aspect of the holiday. Tomer Mangoubi, a Karaite contemporary, has suggested that the Karaite sages who believed the species were to be eaten, might have relied in part on Deuteronomy 14:26,  which is often understood as taking place during the holiday of Sukkot when the ma’aser (tithe) is brought to the Temple. In both verses vesamachta appears to have a similar meaning, and in the ma’aser verse, there is an explicit connection to eating.
…וְאָכַלְתָּ שָּׁם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְשָׂמַחְתָּ…
…and you shalt eat there before Adonai your God, and you shall rejoice…
Reconciling the “Trail Mix” Opinion with the Verse in Nehemiah
But how does this interpretation that the four species are edible fruit wrapped in pretty leaves connect to Ezra’s injunction to take slightly different species to “make sukkot, as it is written”? The Karaites themselves addressed these issues and raised two possibilities.
First, the phrase לעשות סוכות (which most Karaites understand to mean, “to make booths”) could be referring to doing the holiday of Sukkot, and not to making the sukkot (booths) themselves, just as the Torah says “to make Shabbat” (לעשות את השבת) (Exod 31:16). The Karaite sages who hold that the species are for construction have obviously rejected this argument. For example, the syntax between the two sentences is different (i.e., if Nehemiah 8 were referring to the holiday, one would expect to see לעשות את הסוכות).
Second, the Karaites who hold the “trail mix” opinion state that the ככתוב in Ezra may refer to the (implied) command to the build the sukkah (Lev 23:40-42), but it is not referring to the command to “take” the four species (Lev 23:40).
In the end, whether you eat your four species, sit underneath them, or shake them, I wish you a chag sameach.
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October 18, 2016
April 30, 2020
Shawn Joe Lichaa is the founder of A Blue Thread, A Jewish Blog with a Thread of Karaite Throughout (ABlueThread.com), and a co-author of As it is Written: A Brief Case for Karaism. He has spoken about Karaite Judaism at many venues, including synagogues, Jewish day schools, the Library of Congress, and the Association of Jewish Libraries.
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