Sukkot’s symbols underscore Jewish unity

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Everyone is familiar with the Four Kinds although not everyone takes the time to consider the symbolism behind them.

According to the Orthodox Union’s website, the etrog, or citron, represents the heart. Its pleasant taste and aroma are symbolic of someone in possession of both knowledge of Torah and good deeds, while the lulav, a palm branch, is meant to suggest the spine and represents someone who has knowledge without deeds by having only a pleasant taste. The myrtle suggests the eyes and has aroma but no taste showing good deeds without Torah knowledge. The willow represents the lips and has no taste or smell. Together, these represent the totality of the Jewish people.

“The mitzvah of the Four Kinds teaches us that if you don’t have every Jew, none of it counts,” said Rabbi Avi Rubenfeld. “That’s Jewish unity, bringing all four together to make the blessing. It’s a very powerful message of unity.”

Rubenfeld is manager of the Source Judaica Unlimited, a local outlet for Judaic products. He said that there are subtle gradations among etrogim. In larger Jewish communities, he noted that truly exceptional etrogim can garner prices as high as $1,000.

“You do have some etrogim that are literally perfect,” he said. “They have all the qualities that make a beautiful etrog. Those are the ones that generally fetch the top dollar.”

The Source sells four gradations of citron, divided by quality and ranging in price from $45 to $80. Shape is often considered important. A symmetrical appearance is preferred over a lopsided or uneven one. “Cleanliness” is another factor. Rubenfeld said etrogs free of mark or defect on the top third of the fruit are considered best.

“There is also the texture of the etrog which is a smaller factor but for some people, that’s a big factor,” he said. “The custom is to actually increase in your beautification of the mitzvah each year so you go up a level from the etrog you got the year before.”

The Source sells the Four Kinds as a set. There is less variation among the other kinds but some divergences do occur.

“Within each species there are different qualities,” he said. “On the palm branch for instance, there are different preferences. Generally, you want to have a very straight spine.”

But that’s not the biggest worry with the lulav.

The most important factor is that the middle leaf has not opened,” Rubenfeld said. “If the middle leaf has opened, then it is unfit for use. Some people also prefer the top of it bent.”

In 2005, the market for lulavs was sharply disrupted when Egypt, a longtime exporter of the plant, refused to sell it. However, Rubenfeld said shortages weren’t experienced in St. Louis and there hasn’t been any problem with The Source getting them in this year either. The early holidays prompted a message from The Source to its customers.

“Our demand is up actually,” he said. “We reminded people because of the schedule this year.”