Why the Palm?


Of all branches of all the trees the Torah could have singled out for use on Sukkot it is the palm frond that is specifically required (Leviticus 23:40).  Yet the Torah does not explain why this should be the case.

In fact, the Book of Nehemiah (8:15) lists other majestic trees – olive and pine – that could very well have been used in the celebration of the festival.  None of the classical or modern commentators offer an answer, let alone ask the question.  Perhaps, at one time, the reason for taking the palm frond was so obvious that no explanation is necessary.  Similarly, the myrtles and citron (etrog) are described obliquely rather than identified explicitly because their usage was well known and obvious. 

Nevertheless, there remains the possibility that there was something unique about the palm tree that qualified it to be the centerpiece the vegetative bundle.  This possibility is suggested in the work of Professor Michael Zohary who served as chairman of the Department of Botany at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  According to Zohary (Plants in the Bible, p. 60), the date palm is useful for its trunk, its leaves, its sap, and its fruit.  The particularly sturdy palm wood could be cut into logs for fencing or thatching for roofs.  The wood was also buoyant: making it valuable for constructing rafts or barges to navigate water systems.  The leaves of the date palm could be woven into baskets, mats, and household utensils.  The sap of the tree supplied what Zohary calls “a tasty juice.”  And the plentiful fruit could be eaten dried or ground into a delicious, natural honey.  Collectively, this made the date palm the most versatile – and valuable – of all the trees mentioned in the Bible.

The date palm was so important that it became the symbol of the Hasmonean dynasty that minted its coins with the palm as an emblem of victory.  The Roman saw the date palm as the symbol of Judaism, depicting a woman seated under a palm as the image for a captured Judaea.

To the ancient Israelites, the palm tree represented the fullness of God’s blessings: a tree that provided food, drink, shelter, and furnishings.  There was no better reminder of the debt owed to God for his munificence than the palm and no better symbol appropriate to the autumnal harvest season.

In thinking about the uniqueness of the date palm, Jews today can bridge the gap between the performance of an ancient ritual and the meaning that probably was ingrained in it.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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