Skip to main content

Sukkot Tastes and Smells

The holiday of Sukkot is marked by joy. In fact during ancient times it was the most important holiday—more significant than even Yom Kippur. During Sukkot the first and second Temples were dedicated. There are two primary observances. We build a sukkah and eat our meals there. Some even sleep in their sukkah.

We do so for several reasons. These booths remind us of the fragility of life. They must be temporary structures. They also teach us about our connectedness to nature and to God’s creation. After the loftiness and almost otherworldliness of Yom Kippur (such is the delirious state created by a day of fasting and praying), we are returned to this world and our dependence on God’s creation.

We also wave the lulav and etrog. To be honest, this is a rather bizarre ritual. We hold together a palm branch, two willow and three myrtle twigs along with one strange looking lemon like fruit, the etrog and wave them in six directions, signifying that God is all around us. To be honest it looks like a Jewish rain dance. Given that Sukkot begins the rainy season in the land of Israel there may be some connection to this observation.

The Torah commands: “On the first day you shall take the fruit of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (Leviticus 23:40) The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean the four species that we hold today.

They expanded upon the meaning and symbolism of the four. They observed that the palm has taste but no smell. They myrtle (boughs of leafy trees) has smell but no taste. The etrog (fruit of hadar trees) has both smell and taste. And the willow has no taste and no smell. They taught that smell represents the doing of good deeds and that taste symbolizes the study of Torah.

I have often wondered why the ancient rabbis assigned taste to Torah study and smell to good deeds. One could perhaps argue that it should be reversed. So why did they seize upon this symbolism? Torah study requires the passion of eating. (The food tasted so good at break fast!) You have to sink your teeth into it. My teacher Rabbi David Hartman z”l used to say that you have to taste the text. You have to devour its meaning. And why smell? Because a beautiful deed, like the smell of the brisket many of us just enjoyed, can travel from room to room. A beautiful smell can find you wherever you might sit. A good deed can touch you by surprise.

The rabbis teach that there are Jews who, like the etrog, are engaged in both Torah study and good deeds. There are others who only study. And still others who are only devoted to doing good. And there are even some who do neither. Yet a community requires all types of people. This is why the four species are held firmly together.

A community holds many different types of people together. A community welcomes all.