Tag Archives: Mishneh Torah

Mourning and Music in the Omer

As we count each day during Sefirat haOmer in the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, we are conscious of the 24,000 slain students of Rabbi Akiva and observe a period of mourning. It is fitting to think of those victims as we ourselves focus on personal development and self-improvement during this time, in preparation for the Sinai Revelation on Shavuot—which didn’t just take place once some three millennia ago, but happens anew each year. Having said that, it is interesting that we seemingly have so many days of mourning to commemorate the tragedy, yet we don’t have such prolonged mourning for other terrible catastrophes in Jewish history (some of which are arguably much worse). Where did this extended mourning period come from?

If we look in our legal texts, we surprisingly find very little. The Talmud says nothing about mourning in these days. It is brought down that some of the Geonim (c. 600-1000 CE) may have mentioned mourning during this period, and that there was a custom not to hold weddings between Pesach and Shavuot (see, for instance, the collection of Geonic responsa published in 1802 under the title Sha’arei Teshuvah, #278). It is strange then that the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204), who carefully codified the Talmud and the entire corpus of Jewish law up to that point (including the works of the Geonim!) makes no mention of mourning during the Omer in his monumental Mishneh Torah. The Rambam was Sephardic so one might argue that he may have omitted a custom that developed in Ashkenaz first. Yet, the Machzor Vitry, composed by Rashi’s disciple Rabbi Simchah of Vitry (in northern France) in the 11th century, fails to mention anything about mourning during the Omer either! Neither is it mentioned by great Rishonim like the Rif (Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, 1013-1103) or the Rosh (Rabbeinu Asher, c. 1250-1327).

Timeline of Rabbinic history and halakhic eras

Its first notable mention appears to be the Arba’ah Turim of Rabbi Yakov ben Asher (the “Ba’al haTurim”, 1270-1340), son of the Rosh, who was Ashkenazi but lived in Spain. In Orach Chaim 493, he says it is customary not to have weddings during the Omer, though engagements are permitted. He then states that in some places it is also customary not to take haircuts. No mention is made of abstaining from music, avoiding reciting shehecheyanu, or any other mourning rituals. Interestingly, other sources from this time period (like Sefer Asufot) argue that the mourning period arose not because of Rabbi Akiva’s students, but because of the devastation of the Crusades on Ashkenazi communities! Later sources would combine both reasons, and explain that the mourning is both for Rabbi Akiva’s students and for the Crusades.

Massacres of Jewish communities around the time of the First Crusade (1096-1102)

It should be noted that there is an alternate, more mystical reason for mourning (or at least, for avoiding festivities) during the Omer: the Mishnah brings an opinion that the wicked in Gehinnom are judged specifically between Pesach and Shavuot (Eduyot 2:10). In truth, this is only a singular opinion of one Sage, contrasting an earlier statement that judgement in Gehinnom lasts a full 12 months. It is possible to reconcile the two opinions by saying that following a person’s passing, their soul is judged for up to 12 months, and then if the verdict is for the person to remain in Gehinnom, they are subsequently rejudged each year between Pesach and Shavuot. Since we know that the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students actually ended on Lag b’Omer and did not extend all the way to Shavuot (hence the mourning stops on Lag b’Omer), we might apply that same rule to the judgement in Gehinnom as well. In this case, we have yet another mystical reason for lighting bonfires on Lag b’Omer, as these would be appropriately symbolic of the “flames” of Gehinnom.

The above somewhat contradicts the notion that judgements take place specifically on Rosh Hashanah. We assume that all souls, both Jewish and non-Jewish, living and deceased, are judged on this day. Interestingly, the Arba’ah Turim (in Orach Chaim 581) explains that Jews customarily shave before Rosh Hashanah because, unlike gentiles, we don’t grow out our beards in fear of judgement! We are certain that God will judge us favourably. This notion presents something of a problem for the idea of not shaving because of the judgement in Gehinnom.

Haircuts and Music

Continuing our journey through halakhic history, the next major law code was the Shulchan Arukh (which was really only a summary of the larger Beit Yosef). Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) produced it by integrating the Mishneh Torah with the Arba’ah Turim, and the Rif, plus updating it with newer established customs, as well as the occasional Kabbalistic practices. It was meant to be a universal code of law, and something like the authoritative “last word”, satisfying the majority of opinions. In our times, Rav Ovadia Yosef famously argued that the Shulchan Arukh should be the supreme code of Jewish law, especially in the land of Israel where it always held primacy since its publication.

Regarding mourning during the Omer, the Shulchan Arukh again mentions only weddings and haircuts. It explains that, of course, the mourning ends on Lag b’Omer, and doesn’t extend all the way to Shavuot. The Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, c. 1530-1572) adds in his gloss for Ashkenazim that some have the custom to allow haircuts until Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and only start the mourning period after this. That actually makes a great deal of sense, since we consider the entire month of Nisan to be a festive month, and we don’t recite tachanun at all throughout the month. This is stated clearly in Masekhet Sofrim 21:2-3, which also says that fasting in Nisan should be avoided (except for the firstborn before Pesach). For this reason, many religious authorities opposed the Zionists establishing Yom HaShoah—Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day—in Nisan, because there shouldn’t be a mourning day within the festive month. It is therefore quite ironic that, at the same time, many religious authorities typically encourage mourning practices in the same Nisan days for the Omer!

It must be repeated that our ancient Sages did not actually institute such mourning, and it is a later custom. Rabbi David Bar-Hayim argues that the Sages did not institute mourning during the Omer because they understood we already have enough mourning days on the Jewish calendar, particularly on Tisha b’Av and the three weeks leading up to it. If we add several more weeks of mourning during the Omer, plus all the other fast days and sad days on the Jewish calendar, it can become quite depressing and psychologically unhealthy. Rabbi Bar-Hayim adds that while we may have a minhag to mourn during the Omer, it is certified halakhah to honour Shabbat and appear presentable and regal on the holy day, therefore it is entirely permitted to trim or get a haircut before Shabbat, even during the Omer.

For many today, the biggest question during the Omer is regarding listening to music. None of the ancient sources speak of abstaining from music, all the way up to the Shulchan Arukh, and beyond. So where did it come from? In his commentary on the Shulchan Arukh, the Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, c. 1635-1682) adds that dancing at parties during the Omer is forbidden. Based on this, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829–1908) argued in his Arukh haShulchan (first published in 1884) that if dancing is prohibited, then we must extend the prohibition to music as well, since it inevitably leads to dancing. This appears to be the first clear argument anywhere for avoiding music during the Omer. The position has been rejected by others, as there is no direct guaranteed leap from music to dancing. After all, many people listen to music just to relax, or while driving or cleaning, or to motivate themselves to work or exercise, and so on. For these reasons, some only prohibit live music, not recorded music.

Rav Soloveitchik argued that the Omer mourning should have a precedent from other mourning practices, like the shiva, shloshim, or the year-long mourning following the death of a parent. Since the Omer mourning is likened to the latter, the prohibition is only on going to parties or concerts, but not listening to music in private. His contemporaries, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Ovadia Yosef, disagreed on this and prohibited all music during the Omer. (In the case of Rav Ovadia, this is somewhat inconsistent, since he always argued for the primacy of Shulchan Arukh, which makes no mention of abstaining from music! Nonetheless, it seems he was upholding a modern-day stringency, even if it isn’t mentioned in his go-to law code.)

To summarize, there is no doubt that forbidding weddings between Pesach and Lag b’Omer is based on a valid ancient custom that likely goes back as far as the Geonim. (Though some, even today, do permit and hold weddings up through Rosh Chodesh Iyar.) Abstaining from haircuts is a bit more recent, but still has a source going back some 700 years. It should be remembered that many authorities starting from the Rishonim and up to the present allow haircuts and trimming (or even shaving) to stay presentable, especially in honour of Shabbat, or if necessary for work purposes. This is particularly true if a person is accustomed to trimming or shaving daily.

Finally, regarding music, there is no ancient source for the prohibition. While it is true that one should ideally avoid parties and concerts during the Omer, not listening to music in private is a very recent stringency, perhaps just over a century old. For those who simply cannot go so long without music, there is definitely on whom to rely to permit it. Either way, there is no need to worry about passively hearing background music in the elevator or supermarket, nor any concern for those who make a living working in the music industry. Nor should a person who has a birthday during the Omer feel condemned to never be able to have a festive birthday party in their life! (See also ‘Should Jews Celebrate Birthdays?’) Lastly, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, despite the seriousness, the Sefirat haOmer period is simultaneously a time of great joy, since we have the opportunity to do a most-precious Torah mitzvah of counting the Omer, while eagerly anticipating a new year of Torah learning ahead starting on Shavuot.

Happy counting! 

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Witches and Wizards in the Torah

In this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, the Torah prescribes capital punishment for a witch, stating that “A sorceress shall not live” (Exodus 22:17). Rashi explains here, citing the Talmud in Sanhedrin 67a, that although the phrasing is in the feminine, the law applies to a sorceress or a sorcerer. Both female witchcraft and male wizardry are forbidden. The reason that the Torah phrases it in the feminine is simply because sorcery is more common among women. The Zohar (I, 126b) explains why it is that women are more drawn to witchcraft than men:

It all goes back to the Garden of Eden, where the Serpent approached Eve and “injected into her a zuhama”, a spiritual impurity. Although this zuhama went on to “infect” all mankind that descend from Eve, women are more prone to its effects, and more drawn to the “Other Side”, the Sitra Achra. However, the Zohar also states elsewhere (such as in III, 230a, Ra’aya Mehemna) that women are more attracted to all faith in general, and it is easy to see how women today and throughout history were a lot more dedicated to their faith than men. Women are naturally more drawn to matters of faith, belief, and mysticism—whether good or bad.

Now, what actually constitutes witchcraft or sorcery? The Sages derive that there are 10 types of sorcery, based on Deuteronomy 18:10-11, which states “Let no one be found among you who consigns a son or daughter to the fire; or an enchanter who enchants, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer; one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.” The first in the list of ten is an “enchanter” (קסם), and then the term “who enchants” (קסמים) implies two more distinct types of enchantments. (In Modern Hebrew, this root term is used for a magician or illusionist.) Then we are given seven more practices.

A me’onen (מעונן) is one who predicts ominous times and seasons, from the root onah meaning a “season” or period of time. The same root here implies wasting seed, like Onan son of Judah in the Torah (Genesis 38). Thus, the Sages suggest that a me’onen is a person who performs sorcery using semen, or involving some other sexual perversion (see Sanhedrin 65b). Next comes a menachesh (מנחש) who “divines” and, literally, “guesses” the future through various means. For instance, in the Torah we read how Joseph would be menachesh using his special silver goblet (Genesis 44). The Talmud (ibid.) adds that a menachesh uses omens and derives meaning from all kinds of random events, or even from the activity of birds, fish, and other animals.

Then comes the mechashef (מכשף), this time phrased in the masculine, for a generic sorcerer. A chover (חבר) is translated as one who “casts spells” but that definition seems more fitting for the sorcerer. A literal reading of chover implies someone who connects and brings things together, lechaber, perhaps one who brews potions, reminiscent of a witch’s cauldron. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 65a) adds here that a chover is one who burns different concoctions of incense to idols or demons. The purpose may be to summon or gather those demons. Another possibility is that what a chover brings together is animals, for example snakes, scorpions, or insects. A chover, therefore, might include a malicious snake charmer.

The final three in the list of ten all seem to be about contacting ghosts and spirits. First is a person who inquires of ov (אוב). Based on the root, it may be a person who channels their dead ancestors (avot). Another is one who inquires of yidoni (ידעוני), translated as a “familiar spirit”, perhaps the ghost of someone famous and well-known like a great historical figure. The last is a medium who contacts the souls of the dead directly. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) suggests that a person who practices ov may get possessed by a ghost and speak in their name. Often, this is done by the use of a skull. A yidoni, meanwhile, uses the bone of a certain animal called yadua to contact the dead. Finally, the generic “necromancer” is a person who fasts and then goes to sleep in a cemetery to collect information from dead spirits.

Biblical Warlocks

The Zohar (I, 166b) states that history’s greatest sorcerer was Laban, father-in-law of Jacob. In fact, when Jacob complains that Laban flipped his wages ten times, aseret monim (Genesis 31:7), the true meaning here is that Laban used all ten types of wizardry (outlined above) against Jacob! So, when Jacob later told Esau that he lived with Laban, im Lavan garti—that he lived with the infamous sorcerer and escaped his clutches—he meant to tell Esau that just as he escaped all forms of Laban’s sorcery, he would similarly withstand Esau.

The Zohar here says that the next great warlock of the Torah, Bila’am, learned his sorcery directly from Laban, who was actually his grandfather! The Talmud, meanwhile, has an opinion that Bila’am was one and the same person as Laban (Sanhedrin 105a). The Arizal reconciles the two by teaching that Bila’am was the reincarnation of Laban. Thus, he was both Laban’s descendant on the one hand, and at the same time literally Laban because he was his reincarnation (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Balak).

The Tanakh (Joshua 13:22) actually calls Bila’am a kosem, the first type of sorcery on the Torah’s list. The verse here says that the Israelites killed Bila’am and his disciples el halaleyehem (אל חלליהם). The standard translation is something like “with their corpses”, but this reading doesn’t make much sense. The Zohar explains that halaleyehem really refers to their flying crafts, because Bila’ams team of sorcerers knew how to fly using magic! (In Modern Hebrew, a halalit is a spacecraft.) Today, flying on a broomstick is associated with witches. Where did this notion come from?

Talmudic Witches

The only woman directly called a “witch” in Tanakh is Jezebel, the wife of the wicked Israelite king Ahab (II Kings 9:22). Jezebel is the one that relentlessly persecuted the prophet Eliyahu, but was ultimately defeated. The Talmud suggests that Ahab was such a wicked king only because he was bewitched by Jezebel (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:2). Another Biblical figure thought of as a sorceress is the “Witch of Endor”, although she is not addressed this way in Tanakh (I Samuel 28). It was this necromancing woman that Saul went to in order to summon the soul of the prophet Samuel. The Tanakh makes sure to note there that Saul had previously banned all forms of necromancy, but when he himself needed the council of his now-deceased prophet Samuel, he hypocritically resorted to a ba’alat ov, a woman who practiced the ov form of necromancy.

Nikolai Ge’s “Witch of Endor” (1857)

The Talmud says much more about witches, and recounts multiple stories featuring them. In the most famous such incident, Shimon ben Shatach (early 1st century BCE), president of the Sanhedrin in his day (and brother of Queen Salome Alexandra), managed to execute eighty witches in Ashkelon at once. In fact, when he ran for president, Shimon ben Shatach’s campaign promise was that he would eliminate witchcraft from Israel. The Talmud says he initially failed to keep his promise, but when things got out of hand, he gathered a group of eighty men and headed to the cave in Ashkelon where the witches were headquartered. Through a clever ruse, he managed to capture all eighty of them, and had them all hanged.

The Talmud Yerushalmi mentions this in its exploration of the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 6:6) which teaches that it is forbidden to try two capital cases in one day. Yet, Shimon ben Shatach tried and hanged eighty. Presumably it was necessary in that situation, since the witches were highly dangerous and had to be eliminated immediately. The Talmud also mentions this story because the Mishnah presents an opinion that women were never hanged at all, only men were subject to hanging, yet here we have proof that Shimon hanged eighty women. Again, it was probably an exceptional case. (The Talmud Bavli also speaks about this incident briefly in Sanhedrin 45b).

In the Shimon ben Shatach story, the witches are able to conjure items at will, seemingly speaking them into existence. One conjured bread, another conjured a food, and a third produced wine. Some of the Sages were also described as being able to conjure, however not through black magic, but rather white magic, as taught in Sefer Yetzirah and other ancient mystical texts. Rav Oshaya and Rav Chanina had made a calf, while the sage Rava had bara gavra, produced a human-like golem (Sanhedrin 65b). Some say the magical incantation of “abracadabra” comes from Rava bara gavra, while others derive it directly from the Hebrew-Aramaic evra k’dibra, “I will create as I speak”. I have not heard a theory regarding the origins of the final word of the magical formula, “alakazam”, but my own conjecture is that it comes from al hakesem or al hakosem, through the powers of the kosem, the first of the Torah’s ten types of sorcery, the same term used to describe Bila’am.

As a general requirement, the Talmud teaches that a sage who sat on the Sanhedrin actually had to be knowledgeable in witchcraft and wizardry (Sanhedrin 17a). This is so that, like Shimon ben Shatach, the Sanhedrin would be able to properly apprehend and try witches and wizards. Relatedly, in Shabbat 81b we read how Rav Chisda and Rabbah bar Rav Huna were once on a ship and a witch wanted to sit with them but they refused, so she uttered a spell and the whole ship stopped in the middle of the sea! The rabbis uttered something of a counter-spell of their own, and the ship started moving again. The witch soon gave up, noting that the rabbis’ righteous conduct prevented her from harming them. In Pesachim 110a-b, the Sages teach a formula to recite in order to keep witches away, a lengthy phrase that includes statements like “may your hair fall out” and “may your spices scatter in the wind”.

Witchcraft Symbolism

The Zohar (II, 185a) explains that the Torah prescribes sacrificing a se’ir, a particular type of hairy goat, as a way to counter the powers of witchcraft. This is because the goat is a major symbol of witchcraft and sorcery. This symbol is often combined with a pentagram, a five-pointed star. The six-pointed star of Judaism, meanwhile, is something of a “one-up” over the pentagram, to subdue the wicked powers of the Other Side. It is interesting to point out that a se’ir goat was offered on Rosh Chodesh in particular, as a “sin offering” (Numbers 28:15). This was partly a sin offering for the sins of witchcraft, since Rosh Chodesh is considered a feminine holiday, traditionally observed more stringently by women, whose bodies similarly follow a lunar-like cycle.

An 1856 depiction of the goat-headed “Baphomet”, with the moon on the side and a prominent pentagram.

Modern-day “Wiccans” and witches still use the pentagram as their main symbol, as well as the goat-headed “Baphomet”, among others. And what of the classic image of a witch wearing a pointy hat, brewing in a cauldron, with a black cat, and a flying broomstick? Historians believe this image actually emerged in the 15th and 16th centuries as a smear campaign against women who had, until then, dominated the beer-brewing industry:

Since ancient times, it was women who made and sold beer. During the Protestant Reformation in Europe, this was discouraged and women were expected to stay home, while men should engage in business and go out to the marketplace. Women who brewed beer were depicted as witches, their cauldrons holding poisons and potions instead of beer. In those days, beer-brewing women did indeed have cats with them, to keep rats and mice from eating their grains, and they did wear long, pointy hats to be more visible in the marketplace. The broomstick, too, probably came out of a need to always sweep the dust and grain chaff in their breweries. Thus, its only in recent centuries that the image of a typical female beer-brewer—with cauldron, broomstick, cat, and pointy hat—turned into the image of a typical witch!

Finally, and most importantly, we must ask the big question: is witchcraft and wizardry actually real? Might it only be an illusion or a set of false beliefs and superstitions? Perhaps the effects of witchcraft are only placebo-like, and harm only those who believe in them? The Talmud and Zohar certainly make it seem like witchcraft and sorcery are real and potent. Yet, the great rationalist Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) was among those who held that witchcraft is nonsense. He argued that the Torah forbids it not because it has real power, but because it is just meaningless, idolatrous drivel. One should stay away from any such beliefs or ideas. It is worth concluding with the Rambam’s eloquent words:

The masters of wisdom and those of perfect knowledge know with clear proof that all these crafts which the Torah forbade are not reflections of wisdom, but rather, emptiness and vanity which attracted the feeble-minded and caused them to abandon all the paths of truth. For these reasons, when the Torah warned against all these empty matters, it advised [Deuteronomy 18:13]: “Be of perfect faith with Hashem, your God.”
(Sefer HaMadda, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11:16)

Medicinal Properties of Arba’at HaMinim

‘Sukkot in the Synagogue’ by Leopold Pilichowski (c. 1894)

As we continue to celebrate Sukkot this week and “shake” our arba’at haminim, it is worth exploring the properties of these unique four species. One of the intriguing things about them is that they all happen to be prominent players in medicine. Perhaps most well-known is the bark and leaves of the willow tree (the aravot of the four species), which is the original source for what is today aspirin. The active ingredient in aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, a synthetic variant of salicylic acid found in high quantities in willow trees. Incredibly, archaeologists have found that teas made from willow were used medicinally as far back as ancient Sumeria (birthplace of Abraham) and ancient Egypt. The ancient Greeks used it to bring down fevers, and it was a staple medicine among Native American tribes.

It was in 1853 that French chemist Charles Frédéric Gerhardt first synthesized acetylsalicylic acid in the lab. The problem was that these types of medicines were very hard on the stomach. In 1897, a Jewish chemist named Arthur Eichengrün, working for Bayer, invented a new process for producing and purifying acetylsalicylic acid. This one was much easier on the stomach and worked extremely well. Thus, aspirin as we know it was born, and is today the most widely-used drug in the world. Things didn’t turn out so well for Eichengrün, though. When the Nazis came to power, they could not tolerate a Jewish inventor for aspirin, so they wiped his name from the history books and instead made sure to credit German scientist Felix Hoffman with the invention. Eichengrün was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Thankfully, he survived the Holocaust. Altogether, Eichengrün held 47 patents, and also invented Protargol, which was the standard treatment for gonorrhea for over 50 years.

The way that acetylsalicylic acid actually works in the body was only discovered in 1971. It’s main mode of action is by blocking a family of enzymes called cyclooxygenases (COX), key players in the inflammatory pathway. By inactivating these enzymes, aspirin is able to reduce pain and inflammation. It also helps to block the formation of blood clots. More recently, acetylsalicylic acid has been shown to help improve the function of mitochondria—those tiny organelles within each of our cells that powers our bodies.

One of the main uses of aspirin today is to help treat and prevent heart attacks and heart disease, which is the world’s number-one killer. The main cause of heart disease is poor diet, particularly high cholesterol and saturated fats, as well as high sodium which increases blood pressure. Another major cause is smoking. Fittingly, our Sages taught that the aravot parallel the mouth, and resemble the shape of the lips. The purpose of the aravot is to both spiritually rectify the sins of the mouth, as well as to remind us to control what goes in (and out) of our mouths. We ask every morning in birkot haTorah that God should make words of Torah “pleasant-tasting” in our mouths (וְהַעֲרֶב נָא יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ אֶת־דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָתְךָ בְּפִֽינוּ) and this ties directly to the mouth-like aravot (ערבות). We should increase the use of our mouths for words of Torah, and decrease its use for the oral vices that end up harming people.

Myrtle Leaves

The other leaves in the four species, myrtle or hadassim, also happen to contain high amounts of salicylic acid. Additionally, they are rich in various antioxidants. Those mitochondria mentioned above use the oxygen we breathe in the production of energy. More specifically, producing the energy molecule ATP requires the movement of hydrogen ions. To keep those hydrogen ions moving in the right direction, oxygen comes in to bond with them, and pick up a pair of electrons, too, generating water. This is the main reason for why we need to breathe! The primary role of oxygen in the human body is to be an “electron acceptor”, picking up some electrons and some hydrogens so that energy production can continue.

The Electron Transport Chain within the mitochondria in our cells produces most of our energy. Water is generated at Complex IV, where oxygen comes in to serve as the final electron acceptor. Energy (in the form of ATP) is produced at the Synthase pump, driven by the movement of hydrogen ions. 

In this process, however, sometimes the oxygen molecules don’t bond properly, and form dangerous “reactive oxygen species”, or “oxidants”. These free radical oxidants can attack other structures within the cells, causing cellular damage and “oxidative stress”, strongly linked to aging and cancer. Thus, we need anti-oxidants to neutralize these troublesome free radicals. This is why you might see “antioxidants” advertised on the labels of health foods, cosmetics, and other commercial products. The leaves of hadassim naturally contain very high levels of antioxidants.

Throughout history, myrtle leaves have been used medicinally. Today, they have two main uses: One, the essential oil of myrtle is used in aromatherapy and to treat lung illnesses. Myrtle helps to open up the airway and reduce inflammation in the lungs. Second, it is used to treat and help prevent the spread of HPV, a sexually-transmitted disease. It is interesting to point out that our Sages paralleled the hadassim to the eyes. As we read in the Shema, God warns us not to follow after the lustful desires of the heart, which follow the eyes that are easily enticed by inappropriate sights and images. The Torah specifically uses the word zonim, implying sexual immorality, which begins with inappropriate sight. Thus, the use of myrtle leaves in treating sexually transmitted diseases is all the more appropriate!

Date Palms

The kapot tamarim, or lulav, is the “spine” of the date palm, and our Sages paralleled it to the spinal cord of the human. Both the fruit of the tree, and the “hearts of palm” of the lulav are highly nutritious. Their high fibre content was historically used to treat constipation. Recall that the Rambam held constipation to be a major root of poor health, writing in the Mishneh Torah that “Whoever sits comfortably and takes no exercise, holds his waste or has ‘hard’ innards, even if he eats all the best foods and follows the top medicine, all his days will be full of pain and his strength will decline.” (Hilkhot De’ot 4:14-15)

Mitochondria under a microscope.

In ancient Israel, the date palm was the source of honey. As is well-known, when the Torah speaks of Israel being a land flowing with “milk and honey”, it is referring to date honey, not bee honey. Honey is about 80% sugar, our body’s main energy source. In fact, those electrons in the mitochondria mentioned above, which drive the “electron transport chain” to produce our ATP energy, are extracted from sugar! We now see how the main ingredients in aravot, hadassim, and lulav all play a big role within our mitochondria, driving our biological life force.

Dates are also very rich in potassium—50% more than in bananas! Potassium ions play the most important role in the transmission of nerve signals. Every nerve conduction requires an exchange of sodium and potassium. So, it is appropriate that the lulav is compared to the spinal cord, the most important bundle of nerves in the body. Sefer haBahir, one of the most ancient mystical texts, states that not only does the lulav parallel the spinal cord, it also parallels the letter nun sofit (ן), which resembles a spinal cord. The value of the nun is 50, alluding to the 50 Sha’arei Binah, “Gates of Understanding”.


Finally, we have the citrus etrog. As expected, it has a very high vitamin C content, typically considered the most important vitamin in the body. The greatest champion of vitamin C was Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling. (Pauling is actually one of just four people to win two Nobel Prizes!) He was also ranked the 16th greatest scientist of all time. It was Pauling who first proposed that vitamin C can combat cold and flu infections. He later took it further and suggested vitamin C as a cure for all kinds of ailments, including cancer. His main work was in using vitamin C to treat heart disease and angina. Today, this method is still referred to as Pauling Therapy, though it remains controversial. Nonetheless, it is quite fitting since, of course, our Sages stated that the etrog parallels the heart!

The other known medicinal use of the etrog (or “citron”, in English) is as an antibiotic. Specifically, it is the rind of the etrog which is thought to contain strong antibiotic properties. This would help to explain why the Torah calls the etrog a pri etz hadar, one of the classic explanations of which is that it is a “long-lasting” fruit that doesn’t spoil quickly. Spoilage is caused by a number of factors, one of which is the proliferation of bacteria. By containing an antibiotic in its rind, the etrog stays fresh much longer than other fruits.

Related to this is that the etrog has an insecticide property. The ancient Greek scholar Theophrastus (c. 371-287 BCE) wrote that it was common to keep etrogim around clothes to repel moths and bugs. Similarly, Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79 CE) wrote in his Natural History that the etrog “is very useful in repelling the attacks of noxious insects.” (A useful tip for those of us who have to deal with wasps and mosquitos in the sukkah!) This is yet another reason for the etrog remaining fresh and long-lasting. Both Theophrastus and Pliny note how the etrog bears fruit all year round, which ties to the final reason for why the etrog is identified as the Torah’s enduring pri etz hadar. Lastly, Pliny mentions that pregnant women would chew on etrog seeds to prevent morning sickness and nausea, fitting neatly with the notion that the etrog is a potent segulah for fertility.

In short, just as the four species are physically healing, they are even more so spiritually healing. As the Zohar famously states, this lower material world is only a reflection of the higher spiritual worlds. Thus, if the four species have potent medicinal and chemical properties in this lower world, their root in the spiritual realms must be all the more powerful and effective. Something to keep in mind as we fulfil each day of Sukkot the mitzvah of netilat lulav.

Chag Sameach!