Our sukkah has 11 beams to be painted, most have which have 4 visible sides. But the back garden is scorchingly hot, humid, and mosquito-infested, and our air conditioning has been broken (irreparably) for weeks. The Days of Awe are imminent, and Sukkot winks at me from the other side. The only solution has been to do the job indoors, on my grandmother’s dining room table which has resided in the middle of the living room since we inherited it last autumn. With two fans blowing continuously, and the mesmerizing music of Em el Khilkhil, by the (Palestinian) Oriental Music Ensemble (faculty members of the The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, Jerusalem) playing on the stereo (you can hear them here), I’ve made progress. Pomegranates are rolling across beams rimmed with cabana stripes, etrogs dance across the entrance, intersecting a pair of lulavs that frame the entrance, as if to wave to visitors.
“And you shall take for yourselves on the first day [of Sukkot], the fruit of the beautiful tree, tightly bound branches of date palms, the branch of the braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (Leviticus 23:40).
Tradition calls for the use of “four species” during the holiday: the etrog (citron), and a lulav made up of palm frond (arba’ah) and branches of myrtle (hadass, on the right), and willow (aravah, on the left), all to be shaken to the “four corners” with appropriate blessings. Unfortunately, the 2×4 beams from which our sukkah is constructed offer only a span of “center” on which to install a lulav …
Our conversation with the past will focus on the hospitality traditions of the ushpizzin (ushpitzin), honored visitors (the patriarchs of tradition, along with the matriarchs in modern practice). We recall the counsel of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, that “the past should have a voice, but not a veto.” We will have to listen for the gentle whisper of ancient Sukkot festivals in the desert, imagining both the waving of our one-dimensional lulav in 3 dimensions and the perfume of the etrog as we cross the threshhold of our sukkah for daily meals.
There are many Midrash accounting for the four traditional “species”. With middle ages upon us, the narrative that resonates with us this year (Vayikra Rabbah 30:14) explains the species as parts of the body on the basis of similarity of shape: the lulav/palm = the spine, myrtle = the eye, willow = the mouth (or lips), and citron = the heart.
Renaissance Kabbalistic interpretations and their iconographic representations extend the corporal metaphor in the doctrine of Adam Kadmon (for instance here, or here, and an intriguing contemporary version here), the unity of the body of God and Adam/mankind:
But the metaphors of the body return to the realm of architecture in the work of Dr. Tobias Cohn (1720 or 1721), Ma’a’seh Toviyah, a rare early modern scientific encyclopedia in Hebrew. In a medical section of the treatise, Dr. Cohn compares the parts of the body to the features of a house:
One of few ghetto Jews of his time to obtain a medical education at a German university, Cohn is reported to have worked as court physician to a Turkish sultan. Perhaps he erected his sukkah in a steamy garden in the environs of the Sultan’s palace, to the strains of the oud, ney, qanoun, and percussion played by the sultan’s musicians (some of whom may well have been Jewish). As I paint my harvest of cucumbers on another 2×4 sukkah beam, I have my copy of the Oriental Music Ensemble’s recent CD set to replay.