September 5, 2023

The Whole Bundle: An Ecospiritual Perspective on the Four Species

By Zelig Golden

The four species are very wise sages.

—Vayikra Rabah 30:15

Peoples from all lands across the planet have profound relationships with the botanical species endemic to their place. Plants provide food, medicine, and raw material for household goods. Earth-based people across the world also use plants to evoke sacred power and energetics for ceremonies of all kinds. During Sukkot, the Hebrew sages instruct us to gather four sacred plants and create a bundle with them—the Arba Minim (“Four Species”)—and to wave them like an earth-magic-wand in the six directions (north, east, south, west, up, and down). We wave this plant bundle at a particular point in the seasonal cycle to pray for local rains and to balance the waters of the world. Additionally, the Mishnah instructs us during Sukkot to pray for the seventy nations of the world, a euphemism for all peoples and places on planet Earth (Sukkot 55b).

The four species evoke concentric rings of power. Beginning on an embodied personal level, the four species possess medicinal properties that address the major systems of the human body. Ecologically, the four species connect to the four primary ecosystems in the land of Biblical Israel, including desert, mountain, riparian, and agricultural ecosystems. Globally, the four species invoke the four corners of the world. Just as we chant in the prayer Ahava Raba (“Great Love”) while wrapping our tzitzit prior to chanting the Shema, “v’havieinu l’shalom m’arba kanfot ha’aretz” (“may there be wholeness/peace from the four corners of the earth”), the four species are like vegetal tzitzit that we gather and wave to bring shleimut (wholeness) and shefa (abundance) to the four corners of the world.

All of the four species, each in their unique way, are expressions of the power of water. The lulav (date palm) is the most water-loving plant of the desert; the hadas (myrtle) requires the most water of all mountain plants; the etrog (citron) requires a substantial amount of rain to grow; and arvei nachal (“willows of the stream”) grow wildly only where perennial water is available on the banks of rivers and streams throughout the world. Taken together, they provide something akin to an ecological divining bundle, grown from the previous year’s rainfall and ritually used to invoke rains for the year to come. As Rabbi Eliezer explains: “The lulav and the other species taken with it, come only to offer appeasement for water, as they symbolize the rainfall of the coming year. And this symbolism is as follows: Just as these four species cannot exist without water . . . so too, the world cannot exist without water” (Ta’anit 2b).

We create the bundle of Arba Minim with a young, unopened date palm frond; a mature, ripe etrog fruit; and fresh branches of myrtle and willow. Taken individually, each of the four species provides many different uses and possesses potent medicine. Taken together, they create a powerful bundle that brings balance to the world on multiple levels.

Arba Minim: the Four Species

Lulav (Date Palm): Scion of the Tree of Life

The lulav, or date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), is the spine and namesake of the four species bundle. Also known as the “Tree of Life” by many cultures of the Middle East, it is believed to be the oldest fruit-bearing tree on earth. Cultivated in sandy desert soils, the date palm is renowned for its delicious, sweet fruit, eaten alone or processed into syrups and spreads. Beyond its nourishing sweetness, lulav fronds have been used to fulfill a plethora of life’s basic needs such as weaving shelter, mats, screens, baskets, and fans; and for fiber to make rope, coarse cloth, and large hats. The date palm has been cultivated in the Middle East for nearly ten thousand years, providing an energetic tap root into human agriculture from its very inception.

The date palm was also known by early desert peoples as a veritable medicine cabinet. Rich in vitamins A, B, and C, fiber, calcium, iron, phosphorus, sulfur, potassium, copper, magnesium, manganese, and antioxidants, dates are known to restore general health to the anemic and frail. Most importantly, desert-dwelling peoples have long used green date fruit and lulav flowers as fertility medicine to support conception and during pregnancy to nourish and fortify the reproductive body.

We take the scion of an unopened palm frond into the bundle to awaken and direct the four species’ healing powers.

Etrog (Citron): Beautiful Ripe Fruit

The etrog, citron (Citrus medica), known in the Torah as “pri etz hadar” (“beautiful tree fruit”) (Leviticus 23:40), is the heart of the four species bundle. Etrogim have been cultivated in orchards in the land of Israel since at least 500 BCE, during the time of the Second Temple, and likely long before. The aesthetic beauty and formal characteristics of the yellow or green citrus has become the obsession of the rabbis, who meticulously select their etrogim as if its unblemished perfection will determine the fate of the rains for the coming year.

The beauty of the etrog also lies in its many folk uses. After Sukkot, many have the custom of saving their etrog until Tu B’Shevat (“the New Year of the Trees”), when the Tu B’shvat seder created by the medieval Kabbalists—also called the Pri Etz Hadar—was believed to enact a psycho-physical rectification for eating from the Tree of Knowledge. One such practice is to preserve and eat one’s etrog at the Tu B’Shevat seder in the form of candy, jam, or liquor, along with prayers and kavanot (intentions) for a good harvest in the ensuing spring and summer months. Others decorate their etrog after Sukkot by pressing aromatic cloves into its skin and using it as besamim (good smelling spices) for the Havdalah ceremony at the conclusion of Shabbat.

Artwork by Jessica Tamar Deutsch

Uzi-Eli, the late Yemini Jerusalem “etrog man,” reminded us of the numerous healing properties of the etrog. He followed Rambam’s teachings that the etrog supports heart health and reduces blood pressure. Etrog juice cleans the intestines and fortifies the body. Etrog peel is purported to work magic on the exocrine system, healing wrinkles, acne, scratches, and burns. The etrog is also famed to support pregnant bodies by increasing fertility and inducing labor.

We take a beautiful etrog into the bundle to invoke the majesty and maturity of aromatic, delicious, ripe fruit.

Hadas (Myrtle): Potent Aromatherapy

The hadas, myrtle (Myrtus communis), known as the eyes of the bundle, brings pungent aroma into the bouquet. The evergreen shrub grows wild in limited parts of Israel’s mountain regions including the Golan, Galilee, Upper Jordan Valley, and Carmel. Wild myrtle is now lamentably endangered in Israel because of limited growth and overharvesting for use in the Arba Minim. Domesticated myrtle is now grown to support the wide use of the plant during Sukkot. Myrtle is the most fragrant of the four species, with potent menthol-like aromatics that enliven the senses and awaken ancient memory.

Myrtle leaves contain pungent oil, which, when extracted, play an important role in folk practices since antiquity for ritual, medicine, perfume, incense, and insect repellent. Its medicinal properties include antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and astringent qualities, which make it valuable in the treatment of many respiratory ailments and skin issues. Myrtle essential oil has strong expectorant properties due to the compound cineole, also known as eucalyptol, which imparts a camphor-like aroma that soothes the respiratory tract, removes excess mucus, and alleviates respiratory problems such as bronchitis, asthma, and coughs. Myrtle is also calming to the body, relaxing the spasms that come with dry coughs and promoting sleep. Research finds myrtle high in flavonoids known as myricetins, which can help regulate blood sugar levels in diabetic bodies. Extensive research has also revealed that myrtle essential oil supports the endocrine system, primarily in regulating the thyroid gland.

We take a vibrant branch of myrtle to enliven the bundle with pungent healing aroma.

Arava (Willow): Healing Water Wand

The arava, willow (Salix sp.), known as the lips of the bundle, is an evergreen shrub that grows prolifically all over the world in riparian zones—along the banks of streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds. Willow is one of the world’s most widespread plants, freely growing near bodies of water. On the seventh day of Sukkot, the willow is singled out and removed from the bundle to be used in the Hoshana Raba (“Great Pleading”) ceremony, when we ritually dance seven circles while chanting hoshanot (prayers of pleading) and repeatedly touching the willow to the earth to invoke the winter rains.

Willow is widely known as “nature’s aspirin.” Willow bark contains a chemical called salicin, which is similar to the active compound in aspirin. When consumed, the human body turns salicin into salicylic acid, which acts as an anti-inflammatory to relieve ailments like minor aches and pains, headaches, arthritis, and muscle soreness. Willow, which is a hardy and fast-growing plant, is also used for many domestic purposes such as basketry and furniture-making, as well as for eco-design purposes such as live fences and creative structures of all kinds.

We take a fresh branch of willow into the bundle to invoke its ubiquitous affinity for water. Then, on the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshana Raba, we take this species alone, charged with the gifts and prayers of the bundle as a whole, and repeatedly touch the sky and ground with our pleadings for rain.

Artwork by Jessica Tamar Deutsch

Balance and Wholeness

Whole Bundle, Whole Body

The medicinal properties of the Arba Minim taken together bring balance to the whole system. In the rabbinic imagination, the four species of the lulav are a map of the human body: “The spine of the palm branch is similar to the human spine; myrtle is akin to the eyes; willow is like the mouth; etrog is similar to the heart. David said, ‘In all of the limbs, there are no greater ones than these, as they are compared to the entire body’” (Vayikra Rabah 30:14). The symbolism of the four species representing the spine, heart, eyes, and mouth is related to the plants’ shapes, yet such correspondences allude to a deeper truth about the bundle of plants taken as a whole. Their collective medicinal properties serve to heal practically every system of the human body, including cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, exocrine (skin, etc.), immune, muscular, nervous, reproductive, and respiratory systems. The comprehensive healing capacity of the four species bundle for the human body suggests a wider capacity for healing the earth as a whole, guiding us to holistically understand and experience our human bodies as microcosms of and interrelated with the one earth body.

As Below, so Above

Kabbalah teaches us that sacred power works in fractals. In Aramaic, the saying itaruta diletata, “arousal from below,” suggests that through initiative taken by humans on the micro scale, such as performing mitzvot (connective conduct), we are able to elicit a response from God on the macro scale, referred to as itaruta dile’eyla, “arousal from above.” We can see this even more directly in the relationship between humans and the earth. Adam, earthling, and adamah, earth, are fractals of each other, and healing invoked on the human level can be amplified for the sake of earthly healing through the power of kavanah (intention), tekes (ceremony), and tzedek (right relationship).

Mayim Chayim—Water is Life

The waving of the four species ceremony activates the whole bundle to evoke balance for all life. When we gather the four species as a microcosm of the whole earth body, we gather plants that require substantial water to thrive from the four main ecosystems of the Land of Israel—desert, mountain, riparian, and agricultural. We wave this plant bundle each day for seven days, recapitulating the seven days of divine creativity, while casting and drawing forth medicine to heal the whole body in all six directions, all while holding and expressing Sukkot’s ultimate kavanah: to bring down balanced rains and fruitful abundance in the coming year for the land and for the whole world

Rabbi Zelig Golden‘s vision for a thriving, earth-based Jewish tradition developed out of a lifetime of nature connection, Jewish leadership, and commitment to healing our world. Founder of Wilderness Torah, Zelig invokes mentorship, facilitation, and ceremonial tools to guide an annual cycle of land-based pilgrimage festivals, nature-based rites of passage, youth mentorship, and training for Jewish leaders across the world. He provides thought leadership on the cutting edge of the earth-based Judaism movement, conducts lifecycle events, and provides spiritual direction to individuals within his community.

He received rabbinic ordination through ALEPH, supported by the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and received a Masters in Jewish Studies from Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. Zelig was ordained Maggid by Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi ztz”l on Lag B’Omer 5771. He received a B.S. in Botany, Ecology, and Conservation Biology from University of Washington. He previously worked as an environmental lawyer protecting food and farms and has long guided groups into the wilderness. Zelig lives in Occidental, CA with his beloved Rachel and their three children Emma, Ilana, and Ezra.