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Parashat Emor 5758-1998
The "Four Kinds" in Yemenite Tradition
Dr. Aharon Gimani
Interdepartmental Jewish Studies
This week's reading mentions the commandment of the "four kinds," (Lev. 23:40): "On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, ..." This is translated by Onkelos, the Aramaic Targum, as "etrogs, lulavs, myrtle and willows." Below we shall present several aspects of the observance of the mitzva of Arba Minim on Tabernacles (Sukkot) according to Yemenite tradition.
The minimum length stipulated for the myrtle and willow branches by the halakha is three tefahim, or approximately 10-12 inches, and for the lulav, a spine measuring four tefahim, or 12.5-16 inches. Each set of the four kinds is comprised of one etrog, one lulav, two willow branches, and three branches of myrtle.
The Jews of Yemen called the commandment of the four kinds sh`ana, derived from the word hoshanah (hosha- na), which is the refrain in the liturgical poems of the festival, perhaps of Aramaic origin. Rabbi Yihye Karah, a nineteenth-century Yemenite scholar, makes the following remark in his work, Marpeh Lashon, regarding the scriptural reference to "branches of palm trees" (cf. Ha-Taj ha-Gadol, an edition of the Torah with fifty commentaries):
The Targum calls it a lulav because it is to be waved. The Sages also referred to it as hoshanah, from the word ni`nu`a (shaking), based on Targum Jonathan's rendering of "and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (Isaiah 55:12) as "shall shake their branches [yesha'anun be'anfehon]."
The Arabs who provided their Jewish neighbors with the items required for this commandment called it sh`a'nin.
The Yemenite Jews place great emphasis on the commandment of the four kinds because of its aesthetic requirement [noy mitzva or hiddur mitzva], as Rabbi Shlomo Korah wrote (Arikhat Shulhan, 3, p. 294):
Even though by the strict letter of the law an etrog need be no larger than an egg, the larger the etrog the finer; likewise with the length of the lulav, myrtle and willow, people take pride in larger and longer branches.
The Talmudic discussion of the requisite size of the etrog contains the following story (36b): "Rabbi Jose said: Once Rabbi Akiva came to the synagogue carrying his etrog on his shoulder." Rabbi Joseph Kafih, in his discussion of the requisite size of an etrog, cites halakhic sources affirming that an etrog can be quite large. On the Talmud's remark just cited (cf. his edition of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Zemanim, vol. 2, Laws of Lulav, ch. 7, hal. 8, n. 24, pp. 586-587) he comments:
Such specimens are only found among our etrogs [i.e., Yemenite ones], for they are natural as the Lord created them, and some even weigh as much as three kilograms. But among the grafted ones, whether single grafts which they [Ashkenazim?] call "not grafted'', or double and triple grafts, one does not find such large specimens, not even one "which can be held in two hands" [another Talmudic description]. For the second partner, the lemon, is of smaller dimension and stunts the development of the other part...
Only Yemenite etrogs, according to Rabbis Josef Kafih and Yizhak Ratzhabi, are sure to be from non-grafted trees. They consider such etrogs more suitable [kasher, mehuddar] than others on the market for fulfilling the commandment (cf. Rabbi Y. Kafih, ibid., p. 587; Rabbi Y. Ratzhabi, Shulhan Arukh ha-Mekutzar, 3, 117.8).
According to Yemenite practice, the branches of willow and myrtle are bound to the lulav using leaves from the palm branch. The Yemenites use more than two branches of willow and three of myrtle, adding branches of myrtle that do not necessarily have triple leaves. This is mentioned by Saadiah Gaon in his prayer book (pp. 236-237): "One may add to the two branches of willow and three stems of myrtle as many as myrtle branches as one wishes that are not three-foil [meshulashim], until the bundle is filled out." Yemenite practice in this regard was ruled on by Rabbi Yihye Zalah (Mahariz), the greatest Yemenite posek, who lived in the 18th century (Takhlal Etz Hayyim, S. Zalah ed., 2, p. 334):
Our practice to add myrtle branches that are not three-foil is in accord with all halakhic views and no one dissents, to claim that it is forbidden on the grounds of "thou shalt not add," since it is a variety of myrtle [and not the addition of a fifth type to the four species], as written in Sefer Tanya by the geonim. To embellish performance of the commandment, they make it [the hadassim] into a bundle. Moreover, there is a great advantage in its being a bundle: it does not dry out and wither as quickly, since 'one branch helps the next'. This is not the case when one uses only the requisite three branches, for then they dry and wither quickly, even by the second day, taking away all its grandeur, so that it looks neither distinguished [hadar] nor fine.
It is common among Yemenite Jews to buy a lulav even for minors, in accordance with what we read in Mishnah Sukkah (3.12): "Every minor who has sufficient understanding to shake [the lulav] is obligated to take a lulav." The Jews of Yemen are ashamed to go to the synagogue without the Four Kinds in their hands, and they generally invest great time and money to perform this commandment with great adornment. Rabbi Amram Karah, the last leader of Yemenite Jewry in the Diaspora, tells of an ordinance passed in the community of Sana regarding performance of this commandment in hard times (cf. Saarat Teiman, p. 121):
There were years when etrogs became very expensive, and sometimes also myrtle, and the leaders at the time wished to rule that each synagogue should buy only three or four lulavs to be shared by all, each performing the commandment of waving the lulav in turn. But no one listened to them, for each person felt that if he were to greet the holiday without a lulav of his own, he would be deprived of his festivity. It would be even more embarrassing to enter the synagogue to pray and recite Hallel without a lulav in hand to shake and to sound its joyous note! Therefore, they even preferred to sell their household belongings in order to perform this commandment as they saw fit.
The novellae on the Shulhan Arukh (still in manuscript form) by Rabbi Shalom Mansoura, a nineteenth-century Yemenite sage, mention the custom of keeping the "four kinds" at the door of the house, after conclusion of the holiday. The lulav was later used to stoke the oven for baking matzah:
It is our custom here in Sana, among some of the community, to use it for stoking [the oven to bake] the matzah commanded [to be eaten on the first day]. After each piece of dough is plastered to the sides of the oven, a few leaves of the lulav are cast into the oven.
Other customs regarding the use of the "four kinds" after the holiday are to be found in Be-Ma`agalot Teiman, by Y. Ratzhabi (pp. 218-219). The women in the family, generally the older ones, would weave the leaves of the lulav into trays and storage dishes (as in my parent's home). Some people kept the lulav in their home, or would take it with them on trips, believing it to have protective qualities. Others would add it to the branches used to cover their sukkah the following year. As for the etrog, small ones were left to dry up and large ones were eaten on Simhat Torah. Some people kept the etrog as a charm for an easy birth. The etrog was soaked in water, and the water then given to the woman giving birth to drink, or the etrog was placed on the navel of a woman having difficult labor. Another custom was to soak the myrtle leaves in water and then use the leaves for medicinal purposes. Others used the myrtle water in the Taharah (cleansing) of the deceased