The Torah instructs us to take up four species in hand to celebrate Sukkoth. On the first day you shall take the product of the goodly 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. [Leviticus 23:40] The first three (willow, palm, and myrtle) are bound together and collectively called a lulav. The fourth is the etrog (citron), a sweet smelling citrus fruit grown in Israel. It is held with the lulav and brought both to the synagogue where it is waved as Hallel is recited. The lulav and etrog are also waved in the sukkah. Ancient Israel was first and foremost an agricultural society and the laws, customs, and rituals described in the Torah reflect this. The four species symbolize the agricultural abundance of and God's role in nourishing Israel.

Together, the four species are shaken in six directions during Hallel, signifying that God is found everywhere. It is considered a mitzvah to acquire the most beautiful lulav and etrog available in order to honor the holy day.

Why four species? Why not three or five? While I cannot provide an academic answer to this question, there are many wonderful drashot (homiletical explanations) for the number four.

Perhaps the best known is that there are four types of Jews: the etrog, which possesses both taste and fragrance symbolizes those who possess both learning and good deeds. The palm branches possess taste but no fragrance, symbolizing those who possess learning but do not perform good deeds. The myrtle is the inverse of the palm, possessing no taste but having a pleasant fragrance; this is likened to those who are not learned but do good deeds. Finally, the willow has neither taste nor fragrance, symbolizing those who possess neither learning nor good deeds. We, of course, with to be the etrog, possessing both learning and good deeds. But the reality of life is that our communities are made of all four types of people and because community is such a high priority in Judaism, we bind all four species together, as we ought to bring together all Jews in one community.

Rabbi Stern discussing the symbolism of the lulav and etrog

Another famous interpretation of the four species likens each to a body part: the etrog is the human heart; the palm fronds are the spine; the myrtle is the eyes; the willow is the mouth. Just as one waves all four species before God on Sukkot, so too one uses all the parts of one's body to worship and serve God: heart, spine, eyes, and mouth.

The above paragraphs were excerpted from the site created by Rabbi Amy Scheineman:

As a consequence of September 11, 2001, Rabbi Stern developed additional meanings for the symbols of the lulav and etrog. The etrog stands for the heart of our society united in response to September 11th. The palm branch is our courage and fortitude in face of adversity. The myrtle leaves are the tears shed for the victims and the willow is our mouth to speak in praise of the heroes.



HOSHANA: circling the bimah, with the lulav and etrog, and requesting G-d to grant health, peace and prosperity to everyone in the world