The arba’at ha-minim and the Jewish woman


The festival of Succot contains two major mitzvot, dwelling in the Succah on the night of the 15th of Tishrei, and the taking of the Arba’at ha-Minim (the Four Species). Both of these acts are in the halachic category of mitzvot aseh sh’hazman grama (time-bound positive commandments); as such, while women may fulfill these commandments, they are not obligated to do so. This principle is based upon a major Mishnaic period source: “And in all cases of time-bound positive commandments, men are obligated and women are exempt.” (Mishna Kiddushin 1:7)

The following midrashic interpretation of the Arba’at ha-Minim is particularly intriguing in light of the Mishna’s statement:

An alternate explanation: “The fruit of a beautiful tree [etrog]” — this refers to Sarah, since the Holy One blessed be He honored her (sh’hidrah, literally, beautified her) with good health in her old age. As the text states: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, coming on in years.” (Bereishit 18:11) “Date palm fronds [lulav]” — this refers to Rivka, for just like a date palm tree has both fruit and thorns, so, too, did Rivka give birth to a tzadik (Ya’akov) and a ra’asha (Eisav). “A branch of a braided tree [hadas]” — This refers to Leah, for just like the hadas is filled with leaves, so, too, was Leah [blessed] with many children. “Willows of the brook [arvei nachal]” — This refers to Rachel, for just like the arvei nachal wither before the other Arba’at ha-Minim, so, too, did Rachel die before her sister [Leah]. (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, Parashat Emor 30:10)

We are immediately confounded by the midrash’s choice of the emahot (matriarchs) as metaphorically representing the Arba’at ha-Minim. After all, what is their connection if, as we have seen, women are exempt from mitzvot aseh sh’hazman grama?

In my estimation, the midrash followed this path in order to teach us a crucial lesson: Judaism is comprised of two beautiful and equally vital massorot (traditions), the massorah of the fathers and the massorah of the mothers. Given this context, it is proper for the midrash to compare the Emahot to the Arba’at ha-Minim.

In modern times, there was no greater proponent of this approach than my rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal, who wrote that “people are mistaken in thinking that there is only one Massorah and one Massorah community; the community of the fathers. It is not true. We have two massorot, two traditions, two communities, two shalshalot ha-kabbalah [chains of Tradition] — the massorah community of the fathers and that of the mothers. …

“What kind of a Torah does the mother pass on? I admit that I am not able to define precisely the masoretic role of the Jewish mother. Only by circumscription I hope to be able to explain it. Permit me to draw upon my own experiences.”

At this point we are privy to the Rav’s deepest personal reminiscences of his beloved mother:

“I used to have long conversations with my mother. In fact, it was a monologue rather than a dialogue. She talked and I ‘happened’ to overhear. What did she talk about? I must use an halakhic term in order to answer this question: she talked me-inyana de-yoma [about the halakhic aspects of a particular holy day]. I used to watch her arranging the house in honor of a holiday. I used to see her recite prayers; I used to watch her recite the sidra Friday night and I still remember the nostalgic tune. I learned from her very much.”

What was the essence of that which the Rav learned from his mother that changed his being? As he states in his unique and unparalleled manner:

“Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life — to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “A Tribute to the Rebbitzen of Talne,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 1978, Vol. 17, number 2, pages 76-77)

It is, and perhaps always has been, the unique privilege of Jewish women to enable our people to “feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon [our] frail shoulders.” Therefore, when we rejoice with the Arba’at ha-Minim this Succot, let us remember the midrash’s essential and powerful message, to embrace both the massorah of the mothers and the massorah of the fathers, so that we may fulfill this mitzvah as a “living experience” in all its “flavor, scent and warmth.”

With Hashem’s help, may we be zocheh (merit) to do so. V’chane yihi ratzon.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!