Monday, October 05, 2009

Taking the Four Species

The wording of the Torah command to take the four species on the holiday of Sukkos is vague in many respects (Lev. 23:40):

ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון פרי עץ הדר כפת תמרים וענף עץ עבת וערבי נחל ושמחתם לפני ה' אלהיכם שבעת ימים.
And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, the boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.
I'd like to focus on the first phrase "ולקחתם לכם -- And you shall take for yourselves". What does it mean to "take" these species? Does that imply taking and doing something with them?

Click here for moreIbn Ezra quotes a Karaite commentary (he calls it Sadducee but he means Karaite, and I confirmed this on a contemporary Karaite website) that explains the phrase as meaning taking the species and using them to build the sukkah (booth) in which you dwell on that day. As Ibn Ezra points out, "take" is used in Ex. 12:3 to mean take and use. In that verse, the Jews are told to take a lamb for the Passover sacrifice -- i.e. take it and eat it.

In our verse, too, "take" must mean to take it and use it, and we can then ask: Use it for what? The Karaites then point to Neh. 8:15 where people are described as using various plants to cover their sukkos (booths). Therefore, the Karaites translate "take" in our verse to mean "take and use as a covering".

Ibn Ezra responds that the verse in Nehemiah is no proof because it does not even list all of the species from our verse. Instead we rely on our tradition that "take" in our verse means simply "take". Literally, just take. All you have to do with your four species is to lift them up and you have fulfilled the biblical obligation (Sukkah 42a).

This seems to me to be the simplest explanation. Even the proof from Ex. 12:3 doesn't seem convincing to me because the remainder of the passage, beginning with the very next verse, discuss eating. So maybe the "take" really does mean just "take" and the eating is understood from later verses.

More importantly, a verse later in the chapter (Ex. 12:21) uses the same form of the verb "to take" as in our verse: "ולקחתם אגדת אזוב וטבלתם בדם אשר בסף... -- And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin..." The "take" is followed by the purpose of the taking, the dipping. Clearly, the "take" means literally "take" and therefore the verse has to continue and explain what to do after you take it.

Maybe I'm missing something here. I would still side with our tradition regardless of the textual arguments but here they seem to me to be clearly in favor of "taking" the species to mean merely lifting them.

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