A Guide To What Shouldn’t Be Perplexing

Va'Tetze Esh by Hagit Cohen from The Amen Institute's Artist Fellowship
Va'Tetze Esh by Hagit Cohen from The Amen Institute's Artist Fellowship

Unpacking One Of Shlomo HaMelech’s More Peculiar Queries

Though the four species are rich in meaning and carry layered sets of connotative significance, it is curious to read Vayikra Rabbah 30:14—when the midrash tells us that Shlomo HaMelech, in all his brilliance, was baffled by the meaning of the four species. On the other hand, the pesach, matzah, and maror—the three Passover symbols that are eaten together—was a source of inspiration and induced King Solomon’s wonderment. How could this be? Was Shlomo HaMelech not aware of all the rich understandings and metaphorical ways of interpreting the arbah minim? Of all metaphorical devices, would his creativity not be drawn to the expansiveness embedded in the four species? 

In contrast to korbanot, the various templates provided by the four species provide a foundation to allow the imagination to roam free. The three Passover symbols are three distinct concepts. Their inter-relations are not crystallized into typesets that contain all-encompassing typesets. Rather, they express a story and snapshot various moments along our trajectory towards emancipation. The maror reminds us of the bitterness of slavery, the matzah at the the exact moment that we crossed the threshold into freedom, and the Paschal offering clasps its hand into the messianic telos of the Temple future. Typically the meanings of the maror and the pesach are pretty fixed. There are some mechanisms to play with their meaning: whether it be exploring the bitterness of maror and the succulence of the paschal offering on a spectrum of sharpness, or whether the emotions that both elicit bring about a study in emotional variance, but for the most part their meanings remain pretty stagnant in comparison to the dynamic nature of the four species. 

The matzah, on the other hand, sits at the center of the two and carries within it a wide array of colorful meanings. It is described as “Lechem Onim Bo,” the bread on which much is discussed. It is both the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation; it is the tasteless bread and the one we lust after; it is the bread of poverty and the lavish bread. It is the bread of humility and the bread of prestige. It is what we are commanded to consume throughout the holiday and must avoid contact with liquid lest it become explicitly that which we are commanded against eating. This metaphoric inequivalence creates a lopsided structure that makes it even harder to derive inter-connected meanings between the three. It imposes a hierarchy and limits one’s ability to develop an integrated paradigm for all three. This is not to diminish the intrigue of the three Paschal symbols. Surely they provide the foundation for plenty of metaphoric-tilling. I am merely articulating how the type of exploration necessitated to derive meaning looks different from the arba minim. Indeed, there is no shortage of rabbinic literature that explores the complexity of bringing the three Pesach symbols in conversation with one another, and it is no surprise that Shlomo HaMelech found them enrapturing. What is beguiling though is how much stronger the arba minim work together. 

To better grasp what was at the heart of King Solomon’s confusion let us look closer at the midrash in Vayikra Rabbah. In it they describe King Solomon’s read of Vayikra 23:40 where the waving of the four species is commanded:

 וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים.

 “פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר”—Are not all fruits beautiful

 “כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים”—Why do we have only one palm frond? Is it not in the plural?

וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת ”—In Nehemiah 8:15, the pasuk lists different types of leaves in conversation with Sukkot and distinguishes between “עֵץ עָבֹת” and “הדס,” implying that the two are different leaves. Yet Chazal say to take a הדס branch. Why? 

And finally, “וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל”, why do we know that it’s ערבה? Aren’t all trees dependent on water?

But the Gemara cleverly addresses each of these questions. 

פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר” – not that it is “הדר,” beautiful, but rather that it is ripe all year. 

And “כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים” the spelling of the word כפות lacks a “ו” in the spelling. Then you have one palm frond to wave, which is like the heart. 

The Gemara concedes that not only הדס would fit the description, but finds problems with other trees either through the connotations associated with their names or the physical danger posed by gathering their leaves.

And the last one is a word play that ערבה is like אחדות—to provide a rationale for it. 

Through interesting word manipulation, Shlomo HaMelech’s questions are answered only partially. Through four different methods of associative wordplay (changing the criteria through a pun, Kri U’Ktiv, deduction, and positive association respectively), the rabbis flip meaning into the specific choices we eventually land on, but in the end, each of Shlomo’s original queries still stand. In truth, our four choices of species loosely drape over the text, where each is a stand-in for a number of choices that could have easily filled each slot. The four species are provided elevated status, but in truth they fill the place of what could have been a number of different permutations.

This is not the case of the seven species of Israeli fruit. Each is given specific halakhic status with a distinct and defined hierarchy. The implications control the choices we make in eating any meal that includes them as ingredients. There is nothing arbitrary in these choices, the structure wrought out from the phrase in Devarim 8:8 “אֶ֤רֶץ חִטָּה֙ וּשְׂעֹרָ֔ה וְגֶ֥פֶן וּתְאֵנָ֖ה וְרִמּ֑וֹן אֶֽרֶץ־זֵ֥ית שֶׁ֖מֶן וּדְבָֽשׁ”. We understand lists such as these to be described as פּרט, where their specifications are delineated with hyper-precision and excludes any item not on the list.

The opposite of פּרט is a list whose items are bound by a ruleset. The list is not exhaustive and merely provides examples to draw our attention to that rule. These groupings are called כלל. The three symbols of Passover are three different כלל typesets. In Menachot 70b, we learn that the matzah can be made from any one of the “hameshet minei dagan,” five species of grain. The korban Pesach can be either a goat or a lamb, and the maror can be any vegetable whose taste is bitter. The Mishna lists Ulshin, Tamcha, and Harhavina among examples that would fit in this כלל, and there have been many traditions over the years due to various food shortages where communities have turned to very creative solutions to fulfill the mitzvah of maror.

And so the questions that Shlomo Hamelech asks regarding the arba minim concern themselves with an imprecision in how they are described in the pasuk versus how they are interpreted by the Chachamim. Each of his questions in some form or another describe a category, a כלל, and yet the rabbis deliberately choose to pigeonhole the arba minim into פּרט classifications.

Shlomo HaMelech didn’t know the four minim. Different from the four minim that coalesce into one body, is the pesach—the sacrifice in which everyone has their moment to shine in the mikdash. The matzah represents the ability to see the full timeline of your growth trajectory. And the maror reminds us of the ability to deeply feel yourself emotionally, physically, and present in the very point in which you stand. The deep assessment of self: That is the world of wonderment in which Shlomo HaMelech thrived. It is what gave him the ability to build the Beit Hamikdash. I bless us all to see ourselves as particularly universal. To build our Beit Hamikdash and rejoice in the recurring ach sameach of the 21st day and the unrealized ach sameach of the 21st Century.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

This essay is part of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s weekly parsha wisdom. Each week, graduates of YCT share their thoughts on the parsha, refracted through the lens of their rabbinates and the people they are serving, with all of us.

About the Author
Dvir Cahana is enrolled at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He founded the Moishe House in Montreal and sat on their regional advisory board. Dvir received Jewish Week’s 36 under 36 recognition for launching The Amen Institute, where artists and rabbis come together to inspire the creation of sermons and art work.
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