Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

How to Recycle an Etrog and Bible Blog Your Life


The etrog is one of the four species on the holiday of Sukkot that symbolizes the Jewish people. It is held together with a long date palm frond and myrtle and willow branches and waved in all directions.  The etrog is a fragrant and tasty citrus fruit.  Dates are tasty without fragrance.  Myrtle leaves are fragrant without taste.  And willow leaves are neither fragrant nor tasty.  The four species symbolize those with both Torah learning and good deeds, those with Torah learning, those with good deeds, and those with neither Torah learning nor good deeds.  Without holding all four species together the mitzvah cannot be fulfilled.

Jewish unity that includes all Jews as symbolized by the four species is the most urgent message for the New Year 5778.


My first Times of Israel blog post for 5778 presents creative ways for appreciating the spiritual significance of the etrog by recycling it for the Havdalah ceremony that marks the ending of Shabbat and by photographing and blogging it.

Below is an excerpt from my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life that is based upon the Torah Tweets blogart project that I created with my wife Miriam.  It relates to my photograph above of Miriam recycling an etrog.  The photo appears on the cover of the book and in the first of 52 Torah Tweets blog posts.


Look beyond the surface images of your photographs by applying a method of Torah study that looks beyond the literal text.  This traditional method aimed at discerning deeper levels of significance in biblical texts can be valuable in mining meaning beneath the surface of the images you create.  This method of discovering levels of meaning is called PaRDeS, which means grove or orchard. Creatively reading biblical texts is compared to tasting sweet fruits that we pick and eat while wandering through a grove. PaRDeS is related to the word “PaRaDiSe.”


PaRDeS is an acronym for four levels for looking beyond the Torah text. P’shat is the simple, literal meaning of the biblical words. Remez is a hint of innate significance. Drash is a homiletic interpretation.  And Sod is a mystical, inspirational meaning.

There is a considerable body of theoretical literature on reading photographs that establishes categories for analyzing images that parallel PaRDeS.  A comprehensive review this literature is presented in Shlomo Lee Abrahmov’s chapter “Media Literacy: Reading and Writing Images in a Digital Age” in my book Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersection of Art, Science, Technology and Culture (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press). He proposes three categories for analyzing photographic images: Factual Level (observing factual details), Interpretive Level (assigning significance to factual details), and Conceptual Level (deciphering the intrinsic/deep meaning). P’shat corresponds to the Factual Level, Remez to the Interpretive Level, and Drash to the Conceptual Level. Sod is an additional category derived from kabbalah that adds a profound dimension that is not found in literature outside of the Jewish tradition.  All four levels of PaRDeS are significant in reading photographs of God in action.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe links the four levels of PaRDeS to the four worlds in kabbalah: Action, Emotion, Mind, and Emanation.  The World of Action in space and time corresponds to P’shat — the plain, simple, direct reading. The World of Emotion corresponds to Remez — the affective, allegoric, symbolic meaning. The World of Mind corresponds to Drash — the cognitive, conceptual, comparative meaning.  And the World of Emanation corresponds to Sod – the esoteric, mystical, hidden meaning reached through inspiration or revelation.

I will first demonstrate this four-step method by exploring the biblical text describing Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder.  Then, I will apply it to a photograph that I created to illustrate human hands continuing the process of Creation after God finished His part.


“He had a vision in a dream. A ladder was standing on the ground, its top reaching up towards heaven as Divine angels were going up and down on it.” (Genesis 28:12)

That a ladder is a ladder is P’shat.

That the ladder was spiral, like a spiral staircase, is the Remez. We arrive at the spiral shape of the ladder by noticing that the numerical value of the Hebrew words for “ladder” and for “spiral” are both 130. Creative play using numerical equivalents of Hebrew letters, a system called gematriah, can lead to fresh insights.

A more contemporary Remez links Jacob’s ladder to the DNA spiral ladder with rungs on which codes for all forms of life are written with four words: A-T, T-A, C-G, G-C.   The SPR root of SPiRal is found in many ancient and modern languages.  The hand-written scroll of the Five Books of Moses is called SePheR Torah.  SPR appears in SPiRitual and inSPiRation, two words most significant for this book.

That the ladder was a metaphor for Mount Sinai reaching up towards heaven from the ground below is Drash.  Jacob’s dream was a prophetic vision of angels ascending the mountain to bring the Torah down to earth. The numerical value of “Sinai” is also 130.

The deepest significance of the ladder as symbolized in Sod is offered in the Zohar, the major work of kabbalistic thought.  The Zohar teaches that Jacob’s ladder is Jacob’s body with his head in the clouds dreaming of what can be while his feet rest on the ground where dreams are realized.  Every human being has the potential to connect heaven and earth by making spiritual energy flow through him into the everyday world.


I will apply the PaRDeS method of looking beyond the surface of an image to a photograph in the Torah Tweets blogart project.   It is a post for the opening chapter of the Bible – Bereshit / In the beginning (Genesis 1:1-6:8) – titled “Creation of the World at Our Doorstep.”

The photo is the last in a sequence of six images representing life forms in the biblical creation story.   I photographed them all in and around my home:  a cactus plant on our porch, red-leafed plants in front of our house, a cat hiding in the bushes between our door and a pet shop selling goldfish, and our dog Snowball. The sixth photo shows fingers pressing cloves into a yellow citrus fruit.

P’shat (literal meaning) is an image of a woman’s fingers pressing cloves into a lemon.Remez (innate significance) is that the fruit is not a lemon, but a citrus fruit called a citron, in scientific nomenclature Citrus medica and in Hebrew etrog.  Jews hold an etrog together with a palm frond and branches of myrtle and willow leaves, on the holiday of Sukkot in accordance with the biblical mitzvah: “And you shall take on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days!” (Leviticus 23:40).

Drash (homiletic interpretation) is that the four species symbolize four types of people that taken together form a community.  The etrog has both a pleasant smell and taste, the date from a palm tree has no smell but a sweet taste, myrtle has a nice smell but no taste, and willow leaves have neither smell nor taste.  Smell represents Torah study and taste good deeds.  The etrog symbolizes a person who both engages in scholarly pursuits and performs good deeds.

Sod (inspirational meaning) is that my wife Miriam is recycling a mitzvah.  After the holiday of Sukkot is over, the ritual role of the four species has ended.  Instead of discarding the etrog, Miriam presses cloves into the entire etrog to preserve it for use in the havdalah ceremony marking ending of the Sabbath day.  So that the extra soul we gain on the Sabbath to make it a sweet day does not make us faint as it suddenly departs, a pleasant fragrance is used to prolong it.  We enjoy the wonderful smell of the etrog preserved by the cloves for the entire year through the mitzvah of havdalah. Havdalah is a multisensory ceremony in which the olfactory sense in joined with a visual experience of flames of a multi-wick candle, and the taste of sweet wine.

A deeper meaning is Miriam becoming God’s partner in continuing God’s work.  God created the etrog and cloves.  She married these two divine creations to create a new human creation that honors the Sabbath.  Two of God’s botanical creations in the realm of space are joined by human creativity to honor God’s creation in the realm of time.                    


Read the word “context” as “with-text.”  Create photographic images in the context of word texts as you blog your life. Situate your images between two verbal texts – the biblical text that you read and your life text that you write.  Find inspiration for your photographs in your creative reading of biblical texts.  Then sandwich your photographs between these inspirational texts and word texts that you create.  Let your texts explore how your life enters into a dialogue with both the photographic images and biblical texts.

To augment photographs with word texts is a controversial point in photographic theory.  Purists believe that the images should speak for themselves without the need for verbal commentary.  However, conceptual art forms and digital photography disseminated through social media invite establishing contexts for images with words.  Reading visual images illustrated by verbal texts creates a vibrant dialogue that can create new levels of meaning.

When you open your Facebook page, you read “Write something” or “What’s on your mind?” inviting you to post a verbal message before posting a photograph.  If you post a photograph first, then Facebook asks “Say something about this photo.”  When you post a photo on Flickr, you see “Click here to add description” and “Add a comment.”  Photobucket opens with “Everyone has a story to tell. What’s yours? Tell your complete story with photos, videos and words.”  LinkedIn and Twitter invite posting photographs in the context of your words.

The powerful significance that a photograph can gain from a brief text is presented in Lewis Blackwell’s coffee-table book Photo-Wisdom: Master Photographers on Their Art. The book begins with a photograph of a lone leaf resting on a light background, a quite boring brownish leaf from a ficus tree.  I asked why Blackwell would begin his beautifully illustrated book of seminal essays on photography by renowned photographers with such a mundane photo of little interest.  Then I read the caption.  “Ficus religiosa, Tel Aviv, Israel.  When the sixteen-year old Palestinian Aamed Alfar blew himself up in a Tel Aviv market on 1 November 2004, this leaf was propelled to the ground by the force of the explosion.” I can never open this book again and only see an ordinary leaf.

This photograph was made by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, a collaborative photographic practice that is enriched by a constant conversation and exchange of ideas.  Broomberg and Chanarin describe the significant role that text plays in relation to their images:

It is rare that a photograph appears outside the context of words.  From a humble newspaper photograph to a fine art photograph hanging on the wall of a museum, there is always a context that is defined by words.  Captions, titles, essays, criticism, reviews, etc.  We have always chosen to engage with this relationship.  Ultimately, we are trying to tell stories.  And photographs alone are often inadequate.

About the Author
Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer, and blogger working at the interface between art, technology, Jewish thought, and living the Zionist miracle in Israel. He is the author of "Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media," "The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness," and "Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art" in Hebrew. He was professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife artist Miriam Benjamin.
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