Chag Sameach Sukkot!

Things are so busy that I haven’t had time to write my intended post for Sukkot. I’ve been exploring the idea of a local lulav and etrog and REALLY wanted to write something formal up for this year. I guess an impromptu version will have to do.

I forget which book, maybe Arthur Waskow’s Seasons of our Joy, there was a discussion as to how the elements that make up the lulav were partially chosen because they were easily found in Israel. You wouldn’t need to go searching — they were common place.

“On the first day you shall take to yourselves the fruit of the goodly tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (Lev. 23:40)

While the Torah has a simple enough commandment — we’ve layered all kinds of symbolism, or uncovered all kinds of symbolism, over the centuries. For some the four items represent the patriarchs or matriarchs, for others the four rivers, winds, worlds, and/or elements.

I happen to really like the associations with the four elements. Probably because I understand that the best. The idea of waving a wand made up of the four elements in the six directions — I get that. I also like the association of the matriarchs and patriarchs because it ties into the tradition of the Ushpizin/Ushpizot — now I’m wondering what element each corresponds to. I’m sure one of you already has ideas — so please share.

Here’s my understanding of the associations of the Lulav and Etrog and the Four Elements:

  1. Willow: Water
  2. Myrtle: Air
  3. Palm: Fire
  4. Etrog: Earth

Now, considering these elemental associations and that the etrog is never mentioned by name, what substitutions to locally available plants could you make? Willow is easy to find here in the DC region, so I would still use that. I might be able to find Myrtle, but if not then I would probably substitute Bay, which also has a lovely scent. What to use for the fire element is harder. I thought spice bush, but I have no really good reason why — other than it is plentiful. I guess I need to think about which trees have a fire association. As for the Etrog — I thought of Osage Orange. Both the bark and the fruit have a sweet scent, which is the same reason the etrog was chosen as “the fruit of the goodly tree.” But — Osage Orange isn’t edible so I wonder if this is a good choice or not.

I’ll keep pondering and maybe ask the Ushpizin & Ushpizot their thoughts on during Sukkot.

May you all have joyous holiday and I hope your harvests are abundant.

As we take up our palm branches, willows, myrtles, and etrogim on Sukkot, as we wave them in the six directions, may we come to feel how connected we are to all times and places. As we build each sukkah to be a latticework of light and darkness, may we feel the totality of what we are as bodies and spirits. As we invite our ancestors into the sukkah each evening, may we know we are linked to past, present, and future. As we walk in the circles of the festival, may we find ourselves encircled and sustained by the Weaver of the web of life.
-Rabbi Jill Hammer, Tel Shemesh Newsletter

I can’t think of a better way to end this than to quote my teacher, R’Jill.

Chag Sameach!



  1. Chag Sameach!
    Regarding to the elemental correspondence, I would associate the palm tree with the earth, and the etrog with fire.
    The palm tree is a tree that sustains life, like the earth. it is also the symbol of Ashera, who is definately an earthy goddess.
    The Etrog, as a citrus fruit, reminds me of the fire element.

    Regarding the substitutions – I don't know what plants you there in the US, but I would consider this:
    Willow: should be a plant that grows on water. should have no taste or smell.
    Myrtle: should be a plant with a lot of leaves on the branches (עץ עבות). should have smell and no taste.
    Palm: should have taste and no smell.
    Etrog: this is a tricky one. The bible sais: פרי עץ הדר. that could mean:
    – a member of the citrus family.
    – a nice looking tree.
    – a tree that it's leaves and it's fruits have the same taste & smell.
    – a tree that grows fruits all year long.
    anyway, it should have both taste and smell. I thing I'd use lemon or orange.

    Good luck and wonderful harvest,

  2. Carly (Chava Chai - /


    Interesting perspective. Clearly in Israel, you don't need to worry so much about recreating a local lulav! Interesting elemental associations. I don't tend to incorporate Asherah in my thinking, so I would never have thought of her association to the Palm tree.

    Turns out that I saw the same associations in R'Jill's book "The Jewish Book of Days." She also mentions the association of the different parts of the body with Lulav and Etrog.

    Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Zion Mystic /

    Does the spice bush give a hot spice? If so, maybe that's why you might associate it with fire? Just suggesting.