What is green, fragrant and vibrant, and comes with a blessing of renewal?
The Hebrew month of Tishri encompasses the High Holidays, a period filled with high hopes for blessing and renewal. The month begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment for mankind: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month… a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts [of the ram’s horn]” (Leviticus 23:24). This is followed by ten days of prayer and repentance culminating on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), after which come seven days of sitting in sukkot (booths), commemorating that period in the lives of our forefathers when they wandered for 40 years in the desert.
As is the case with most biblically ordained festivals, the historical importance of Sukkot goes hand in hand with the significance of the seasonal agricultural reality in the Land of Israel. Sukkot marks the time of the year when the Israelite farmer gathered in the last of the year’s harvest: “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered the fruits of the land, you shall celebrate the festival to the Lord…you will dwell in booths for seven days…so that your future generations may know that I gave the children of Israel booths in which to dwell, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:39-43).
An integral aspect of the holiday of Sukkot are the Four Species: “… you will take the fruit of a goodly tree, date palm fronds, and boughs of a leafy tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). The Sages of the Talmud determined that because its branches are densely covered with leaves year round, the myrtle (Myrtus communis) is the “leafy tree” in the verse.
The myrtle grows wild in the north of Israel – the Carmel, the Galilee and the Golan Heights. Currently there are 49 known sites where wild myrtles grow in Israel, most of which are outside of the national nature reserves. Due to the yearly over-harvesting of myrtle branches in the weeks before Sukkot, the wild myrtle is inכ danger of extinction and has been placed on Israel’s Red List of endangered plant species. Cultivated myrtle varieties are grown commercially not only for the Sukkot “four species” market, but also for sale as ornamental plants in gardens and as protective hedges along roadsides. There is serious concern that the hybridization of the cultivated strain with the wild strain may lead to the complete disappearance of the wild myrtle.
In summer, myrtles blossom with many white flowers, each of which produces an abundance of stamens, which in autumn produce blackish, berry-like fruit, resembling small blueberries. The berries are edible, although seldom eaten, but they are especially enjoyed by birds. The fruit and flower closely resemble other members of the myrtle (Myrtaceae) family commonly found in Australia, which includes the eucalyptus, the guava, the pitanga (Surinam cherry) and the feijoa. The myrtle is the only member of this family that grows wild in Israel.
The myrtle generally grows as a bush, but if left untended it can reach a tree height of 4.5-5 meters (14-15 feet). Many traditions associated with the myrtle in Judaism and in other cultures are drawn from the plant’s botanical characteristics – the leaves are branched and thick. The small leaves, which totally cover the woody branches, grow in opposing pairs on either side of each branch. They are leathery and stiff to the touch, covered with a waxy cuticle that protects the leaves primarily from water loss due to evaporation. All of this gives the myrtle a thick, dense, vibrant appearance, green and refreshing year-round. Additionally, the plant is endowed with pleasant-smelling essential (volatile) oil. Hold up a myrtle leave up to sunlight, and you will see bright dots spread throughout the leaf – these are the oil glands that produce the lovely fragrance you enjoy when you crush a myrtle leaf between your fingers. On a practical botanical level, this fragrant oil protects the myrtle from pests and helps to further reduce its evaporation rate. Its delightful fragrance and refreshing vitality transformed the common myrtle into a symbol from ancient times.
In Jewish tradition, the myrtle accompanies a person from birth to death. In many Jewish communities, myrtles are used to decorate the bed in which a baby is born, the cushion used at the brit milah (circumcision), or the ceremony of Pidyon HaBen1 . The myrtle is brought as part of the blessing for a bar mitzvah, at weddings, and laid on the bed of the deceased, as a sign of purity as well as symbolic protection against “Sitra Achra”2. Over the course of the year, myrtles are often used at the end of Shabbat for Havdalah, as well as for blessing a new home or opening a new business as a symbol of hoped-for success.
In determining that the myrtle is the “leafy tree” of the Four Species of Sukkot commanded in the book of Leviticus, our Sages were not satisfied with the short, small branches with opposing leaves characteristic of the wild myrtle. They determined that to be ritually acceptable (kosher), the myrtle branches must be 3 tefachim (= handbreadths; a handbreadth is approximately 3-4 inches long), with three leaves growing from each node along the length of the branch (called the “triple” myrtle).
In order to force the myrtle bushes to produce these kosher branches with three-leaved nodes, several months before Sukkot, myrtle dealers ruthlessly prune the bushes or set them on fire. Amazingly, the myrtle reacts to this abusive treatment by growing out even stronger, producing branches with many three-leafed joints, and within a matter of months more than replacing what was so violently destroyed. This ability of the myrtle to flourish in adversity isreminiscent of t he biblical description of the Israelites in Egypt: “the more they (the Egyptians) oppressed them (the Children of Israel), the more they multiplied and flourished” (Exodus 1:12).
It is therefore not surprising that the myrtle and the Four Species of Sukkot are connected to the idea of survival and renewal of the Jewish people.
For example, the biblical heroine Esther, whose intelligence and resourcefulness saved the Jewish people from destruction, had a Hebrew name, Hadassah, which is Hebrew for myrtle, “And he (Mordechai) raised Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter” (Esther 2:7).
With the Return to Zion from the Babylonian exile, Nehemiah commanded the Jews to “Go to the mountain and bring olive branches, and branches of the oil tree, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of leafy trees, to make booths (sukkot), as it is written” (Nehemiah 8:15).
Even in times of great military adversity and privation during the Bar Kochba Revolt (12-135 CE), Bar Kochba made certain that the commandment to build sukkot could be observed by the fighters, and he sent soldiers to provide the four species for the Sukkot festival: “And you shall send others from among you to bring myrtles and willows and to install them.(3)”
With a new year upon us, our hope is that we as a people can exhibit the same growth and renewal we see in the myrtle, and that we will have the strength and vitality to overcome the challenges that lie before us. We will strive to preserve the traditions of our forefathers that bind us to the Land of Israel and to its landscapes, to the plants and vistas of Israel that have shaped who we are. As Nogah Hareuveni, founder of Neot Kedumim, wrote, “With our return [to the Land of Israel] to renew our lives here, we must be especially vigilant to uncover the treasures of the past and accept the great heritage bequeathed to us by our forefathers through the plants of Israel, many of which survived in the land, awaiting our return. In this way we will be able to continue to build the culture of our flora…(4)”
(1) “Redemption of the first born son,” the Jewish ceremony in which the firstborn son is redeemed from priestly obligations by a Kohen (a member of the priestly class).
(2) An Aramaic expression meaning “the Other Side”, referring to evil entities, such as Satan.
(3) Based upon Yigal Yadin’s translation from Aramaic of the Bar Kochva letters discovered in caves at Wadi Murabba`at and Nahal Hever.
(4) Nogah Hareuveni “The Flora of Ramat Gan” from “Ramat Gan at 25” (1946), p. 264