The Four Species of Sukkot

Published: September 29th, 2010 | Updated: 17/01/15

“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of goodly tree, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook” (Leviticus 23: 40).

Of all the explanations of the meaning of the four species which Jews around the world hold (or should hold) during the festival of Sukkot, I like best Nogah Hareuveni’s. He sees the four species as landmarks on the journey of the Children of Israel on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Crossing the deserts on their way, they camped near springs. The dominant tree of these oases is [Phoenix dactylifera] (date palm; Fig. 14.2.1). When the wanderers reached the banks of the Jordan River they saw and probably dwelt under [Populus euphratica] (Fig. 14.2.2) which, according to N. Hareuveni, is the most “kosher” willow. Continuing on their way, they climbed the mountains where impenetrable Mediterranean woodland prevailed. Such woodland may be seen at present in the Upper Galilee where [Myrtus communis] grows (Fig. 14.2.3).

Fig. 14.2.1: Spontaneous date palms, Phoenix dactylifera, inhabiting a desert oasis with a high water table.

Fig. 14.2.2: A grove of Populus euphratica at the beginning of fall. The slopes of En Avdat Canyon.

Fig. 14.2.3: Myrtus communis on the Golan slopes, near the waterfall of Nahal Sa’ar.

The etrog (citron, Citrus medica ) represents the cultivated trees that were planted after deforestation of the spontaneous woodlands of this land. Detailed and in-depth explanations of all aspects concerning the four species may be found in N. Hareuveni’s (1980) book “Nature in Our Biblical Heritage.” With the approach of Sukkot, and with the above interpretation of the four species not generally well known, I wish to add here from my own observations in Israel. I will expand a little in the date palm chapter, as a gesture of gratitude to the trees that made me so happy when I met them in the desert.

Date palm leaves

The date palm leaves are presented by Hareuveni as representative of the date palms ([Phoenix dactylifera]) which “hosted” our forefathers when departing from Egypt. The natural habitats of [“Phoenix dactylifera” P. dactylifera], growing spontaneously in the Middle East, are desert springs in Israel, Sinai and Jordan (Figs. 14.2.4-14.2.6). Several authors who have considered desert springs as the primary habitats of [Phoenix dactylifera] include A. Aaronsohn, M. Zohary and D. Zohary. I followed the opinions of these authors in articles and books that I have written. Spontaneous trees often branch from their base and form a tuft-like tree (Fig. 14.2.6). D. Zohary suggested a way of recognizing a spontaneous population: the ratio of male trees/female trees is 1:1. Palm growers plant only female trees and pollinate the female inflorescences with pollen from special, selected trees. The phenomenon of trees from the Palm family ([Palmae]) growing spontaneously beside desert springs repeats itself with other palm types. [Hyphaene thebaica] (the Doum palm; Figs. 14.2.7, 14.2.8) grows together with date palms in several sites along the southern Arava Valley and along the Gulf of Elat. The Doum palm has palmate leaves (Fig. 14.2.8 right) and this links us to [Washingtonia filifera] (Washingtonia palm) which grows by desert springs in the Mojave Desert in southern California (Figs. 14.2.9, 14.2.10).

Fig. 14.2.4: A spontaneous date palm population Phoenix dactylifera, in south-western Sinai. The tree tufts are a result of the development of branches from the mother plant.

Fig. 14.2.5: When the date palm is accompanied by Juncus and Phragmites there is a good chance of finding a high fresh-water-table at the site.

Fig. 14.2.6: A date palm that germinated, established itself, and branched from its base on spring water. A decrease in the quantity of the spring water leads to plant desiccation. En Erga, north of En Yahav.

Fig. 14.2.7: Hyphaene thebaica (doum palm) with typical plants of desert springs. En Evrona, the Arava Valley north of Elat. Palmate leaves.

Fig. 14.2.8: Hyphaene thebaica with date palms at the Nuweiba beach, Gulf of Elat, Sinai.

Fig. 14.2.9: A spring in southern California, supporting Washingtonia filifera palm trees.

Fig. 14.2.10: Washingtonia – one of the present-day, common, ornamental plants of Israel.

Fig. 14.2.11: Huts or sukkot (Hebrew) made of date palm leaves make up the principal shelters or houses in certain parts of northern Sinai.

The Washingtonia palm has been planted as an ornamental tree since the beginning of the last century and is an escapee from cultivation. A good example of this is the Washingtonia tree growing in the “ring-spring” near En Bokek. Birds ate the fruits of the Washingtonia planted near the hotels near En Bokek, and excreted seeds; one of them germinated, established itself beside the spring water and grows successfully.

The date palm has been known as a very useful tree for a very long time. Our ancestral sages used to say: “What is this date palm that has no waste, but dates to eat, lulav for praising, dry leaves to cover the house, fibers for cords, ribbed branches of the inflorescence for sieves, and plenty of trunks to build the house” (Midrash Rabba, chapter 3). The residents of northern Sinai built temporary houses, as if following the latter statements (Fig. 14.2.11). [usefulplantsb2 Dry palm leaves are used in many places around the world to construct roofs].

Similar temporary dwellings (Fig. 14.2.12) were found at the oasis in SW Sinai presented in Figs. 14.2.1, 14.2.4. The “plenty of trunks” are beautifully demonstrated by houses at the SE Sinai oases of Nuweiba and Dahab (Fig. 14.2.13). We came across a unique situation in SE Sinai (Fig. 14.2.14), where a “tuft-like” palm had germinated or been planted in a dry alluvial fan. A circle of stones surrounded this palm and the center of the circular tuft was empty. Tin cans with remnants of candle wax, hanging on leaf bases gave a clue to the function of this natural house. The expert on Bedouin life in our expedition said that it looked like a Bedouin mosque.

Fig. 14.2.12: A temporary, simple dwelling place made from dry palm leaves, leaning on a living tree.

Fig. 14.2.13: Houses made of living and dead date palm trunks and leaves in Dahab, southeastern Sinai.

Fig. 14.2.14: A Bedouin mosque in south-eastern Sinai. The circle of densely growing trees is the offspring of one tree. The inner parts died, were removed and thus was formed the inner space of the mosque.

Fig. 14.2.15: Lulav is the central young leaf before its leaflets open. The right one displays the well packed leaflets in the lulav.

The date palm has an important role in the “Four Species of Sukkot.” The young leaf, still folded, and present in the “heart” (lev in Hebrew) is the “lulav” which represents the leaf in the Biblical proverb (Fig. 14.2.15). Many readers of our “Plant Stories” will have read [usefulplantsa the detailed chapter on the preparation of cords and strings].

To each copy of my book “Botany of the Shroud,” I attach as a bookmark and souvenir, a string that I myself make from plants. I use mainly the leaf fibers of a [Washingtonia robusta] palm that grows in my own garden. The fibers are long and fine and it is easy to make a string from them.

People living in the desert preferred to make strings and cords from trunk fibers of date palm (Figs. 14.2.16, 14.2.17). Now I need a photograph and I am sorry that I did not think of taking a photograph when I arrived at Ein el Khudra in eastern Sinai in 1968 (Fig. 14.2.18). The subject was an old Bedouin, seated in the shade of palms at that oasis, making a long cord from trunk fibers of date palm. The Bedouin who followed me in the Sinai investigations used baskets made of palm leaves, strengthened with cords made from trunk fibers (Figs. 14.2.19, 14.2.20).

Fig. 14.2.16: A network of trunk fibers is seen on the base of each leaf.

Fig. 14.2.17: A cord made of the trunk fibers of a date palm. It was discovered at an archaeological site 1000-2000 years old, Moa, Arava Valley (Shamir 1992; courtesy of the Antiquity Survey).

Fig. 14.2.18: Ein el Akhdar, south-east Sinai. Visiting there, I saw an old Bedouin in the shade of palm trees, making a cord from trunk fibers.

Fig. 14.2.19: A basket made of date-palm leaflets, strengthened by cords made from palm trunk fibers.

Fig. 14.2.20: Cords made from the trunk fibers of a date palm and used to strengthen the basket margin and as a handle.

Fig. 14.2.21: The coin known as “Judea Capta” stamped by the Romans upon conquering Judea and the Temple.

I wrote these lines one day after the ninth of Av (the eleventh month in the Jewish calendar), when our first and second Temples were destroyed in Jerusalem. The Romans made a coin with the symbolic words “Judea Capta” (the enslaved Judea) engraved at the top; the date palm represents the land of Eretz Israel (Fig. 14.2.21).