Over the last few days, families can be seen walking in Riverdale carrying a bundle of assorted plants. While one plant, a date palm segment, is recognizable, the rest are more obscure.
The holiday of Sukkot is the third of three Jewish holidays that occur in the September/October time frame following Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. One of the observances marking Sukkot involves prayers in which these plants figure.
The other observed Sukkot custom are the small huts, also named sukkot, that everyone builds under open sky. Homeowners with a yard can build one easily, while apartment dwellers usually build a larger, communal sukkah in the building courtyard. The sukkahs are usually decorated with paper chains and tinsel decorations, only limited by the creativity of the owner.
Since Sukkot also is known as the “harvest festival,” many decorations are of plant origin. Colored Indian corn makes a good decoration, as do dried flowers.
The custom in my family is to hang three small bottles from the bamboo roof covering — one filled with flour, one with oil, and one with wine to symbolize the three basic food elements recognized in ancient times.
Let’s return to the plant bundles. The Torah in Leviticus 23:40 states that during the Sukkot holiday, “You shall take the fruit of a goodly tree, palm switches, a thickened branch, and river willow bunches.”
The fruit of a goodly tree is interpreted to be an etrog (citron), the palm branches — known as a lulav since Mishnaic times (between A.D. 70 and 220) — come from the date palm, the thickened branch (hadas) is a myrtle, and willows are obvious.
Dates have a long history in the Middle East as food and as a raw material for construction and mat-making. They are the most important tree growing in an oasis, providing shade for the shorter trees and plants.
They have been cultivated for more than 5,000 years, originating in southern Iraq or western India. The scientific name is Phoenix dactylifera. The epithet is a combination of daktylos from finger, and fero, meaning, “I bear.” That works because it evokes the shape of the fruit.
However, all I know about “phoenix” was that it was a rejuvenating bird, which seems illogical. It turns out that “phoenix” comes from the Phoenician meaning purple-red. Now it all makes perfect sense — a plant bearing a purplish-reddish, finger-like fruit.
For clarity’s sake, the lulav is not part of the fruiting structure of the date palm. It is simply a closed frond about three feet in length.
Dates are dioecious, having tall, stately females and small males. They are wind-pollinated in nature, but when cultivated, they are hand-pollinated by workers so that the number of females — which produce the fruit — can be increased at the expense of male plants.
The etrog (citron) is named scientifically Citrus medica. The epithet medica refers to its usage in ancient times for a variety of medical conditions. It is one of the four original citrus fruits from which all the rest of our modern citrus varieties have been developed through natural cross-fertilization or plant breeding.
The other originals are the pommelo, the mandarin and the papeda. Originating in southeast Asia, there is evidence of their presence in the Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt, already 3,000 years ago. Its pollen has even been found in plaster walls from an Israelite palace in Jerusalem dated to 538 B.C.
The myrtle is Myrtus communis from the Myrtaceae family, related to the eucalyptus. It is an evergreen shrub, native to the Mediterranean basin. The leaves are aromatic when crushed, and the plant is drought resistant. The variety used has three leaves growing from a single point on the stem versus the usual two, which gives it a unique appearance.
Willows (salix) also are common to our area, so they require little discussion.
There are many theological discussions about the inclusion of these plants on Sukkot. I think the explanation is straightforward.
Israel, both ancient and modern, is largely arid and deeply dependent on seasonal rainfall for its existence. These four species represent the four types of water usage by plants. The willow guzzles water and grows near running water. The myrtle is drought-resistant. The citron is irrigated, and the date palm is found in oases drinking from subterranean waters.
Together, they represent all the agricultural possibilities under different water regimes.
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has examples of the date palm, the lulav and the myrtle in the conservatory, with the willow growing outdoors. If you are shy about asking a Jewish neighbor to see the four specimens, you can take a trip out to Brooklyn to check them out.
Have a thought or comment for Sura Jeselsohn? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.