Judaism makes much of the arba’a minim, the four species traditionally used in the celebration of Sukkot: the etrog or citron fruit, which is held in one hand, while the lulav made of palm, willow, and myrtle branches is held in the other hand and raised, pointed, lowered, and shaken during worship. These are the four species.
However, it’s not so clear in Leviticus 23 that these were the four exact species. Ets hadar literally means “splendid tree”; ets avot literally means “thick tree”; arvei nachal means “willow,” but there is a significant amount of evidence to suggest it might mean “poplar.”
Nor is it clear in Leviticus that the celebration is to be limited to only four species. In Nehemiah, the Jews celebrated with “olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees” (Neh. 8:15 KJV). Five species, not four. Other translations identify some of these five species in somewhat different ways, but it is still five species, not four.
Furthermore, Nehemiah does not say (nor does Leviticus say) that the Jews bound the branches together into some sort of wand to raise and point and lower and shake during worship like Jews do today. Nehemiah says they fetched the five species of branches “to make booths, as it is written.” Sounds to me like they used the branches to build booths, not to bind together into wands.
Am I opposed to using a traditional lulav and etrog to celebrate Sukkot? No, not at all. I’ve used the four species this way before. However, I’m not convinced that the Bible commands us to use the four traditional species that Jews use.
You are free to disagree with me on this, but based on the wording in
Leviticus and Nehemiah, and the lack of certainty about the identity of and the number of the various trees mentioned, I’m more inclined to believe that the Lord was using general, non-specific Hebrew words to tell us to just gather a variety of branches from different kinds of trees, whichever species are available where you live, and use them to make booths.
So that’s what I do. I gather branches from splendid trees, thick trees, skinny trees, deciduous trees, evergreen trees, whatever trees I can find, and use them to make a sukkah. And if someone has a traditional lulav and etrog to loan me, I might also use that as I worship the Lord.
Chag sameach! Happy Holiday!
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Image (top): The Feast of Tabernacles by Daniel Botkin from his Monochromatic Monotheistic Gallery on his art website DanielBotkin.com