With Willows as Weapons

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
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Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira

The fourth year of the Great Revolt, 69-70 C.E., was harsh and discouraging. The Roman army, headed by Vespasian, occupied all of Judea's towns except Jerusalem. Refugees from outlying areas flocked to the city, itself torn by ongoing struggles between various factions, whose members neither hesitated to kill one another nor to destroy each other's food stores. In the spring of the year 70, Vespasian's son Titus approached the city with his soldiers.

Against this background of despair, destruction and defeat, new coins appeared in Judea bearing a symbol intended to instill hope in the fighters and the nation: the Four Species. This choice was no coincidence, explains Naomi Liran, of the University of Haifa's department of Jewish history. The Four Species' symbolism, says Liran, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the subject, was known to every person who had experienced celebrations at the Temple during Sukkot, which in Second Temple times was the most important holiday. In the Jewish spiritual world of that time, the Four Species were real weapons that played a role in a ritualistic drama of a battle which was reenacted every year at the Temple during the festival.

According to Liran's analysis, this drama, with the active participation of all the pilgrims, constituted a ceremonial reconstruction of a battle in which God protected his people from demonic forces and other nations that sought their destruction. The ritual ended with God's victory, which reflected a renewal of the people's covenant with him, and was greeted with joy and thanksgiving.

The dramatic ritual was also reflected in several places in the Book of Psalms, in particular Psalm 118, which many researchers read as a song of praise for a great victory.

The notion that the Four Species were weapons that staved off evil forces could be gleaned from discussions among the sages about the way they were to be used. Each one apparently symbolized a different empire: The etrog (a citrus fruit) stood for the Kingdom of Babylon, the lulav (palm frond) for the Median empire, the hadas (myrtle) for Greece, and the arava (willow) for Edom.

Myths from the Ancient Near East show that in Mesopotamia, Persia and ancient Egypt there was a widespread belief that trees had the power to defeat demonic enemies. According to Liran, this concept stemmed from the plants' therapeutic properties. An Egyptian myth says that at dawn, something called the "eastern tree" protected the rising sun from enemies, from the sons of darkness. The jujube played a major role in destroying the sun's enemies, which explains why the preferred weapon of the god Horus was a spear whose haft was made from one of its branches. Ugaritic poetry describes a vicious battle between the sun and the god of the netherworld, Horon. Juniper and palm trees join the battle against Horon and send him back home in disgrace. In Zoroastrianism, the priest's daily prayer of glorification was uttered while he held a bouquet of sanctified branches (nowadays called barsom or baresma) in his hand. In the past these were branches of a pomegranate or a palm, cut in a special ceremony in preparation for the ritual.

It seems the Israelite tribes began to observe an autumnal festival, adapted to their religious needs, even before their kingdom was established. In the cultures in which it originated, the seasonal ritual signaled an expectation of renewal, as summer was about to give way to fall. Liran believes the battle drama ritual, with the Four Species, was introduced in the Temple during the reign of Hezekiah, in the 8th century B.C.E., as part of the social and religious ceremonial reforms undertaken by the Judean king.

Four directions

The battle drama, according to a reconstruction suggested by the researcher, was presented on the holiday's first day, as pilgrims from every social class converged outside the Temple's gates. When the ceremony began, the participants shook the green branches and said the "Hallel" prayer of glorification. They pointed the branches in all the four directions, as if repelling enemies attacking from all over - and sounded a battle cry. Thus a decisive victory was finally achieved, as described in Psalm 68:22: "Surely God will smite through the head of His enemies, the hairy scalp of him that goeth about in his guiltiness."

Normally, only priests were allowed to enter the area of the altar, but during Sukkot everyone could go in; on the holiday's seventh day, both old and young were permitted to circle it with the Four Species, and beat it with the willow (Mishna Sukkah 4:5).

The ceremony began with a prayer of thanks. The Hallel was accompanied by the shaking of the Four Species - indeed, up to this day it is customary to do so in the synagogue. God's battle was thought to begin after recitation of the prayer: "Out of my straits I called upon the Lord; He answered me with great enlargement ... All nations compass me about; verily, in the name of the Lord I will cut them off. They compass me about, yea, they compass me about; verily, in the name of the Lord I will cut them off" (Psalms 118:5; 118:10-12).

Not only the use of plants and branches, but the wording of the text is also based on Mesopotamian myths. A phrase that parallels "All nations compass me about," for example, appears in the Babylonian tale of creation, Enuma Elish, when the god Marduk fights Tiamat, the goddess of the salty groundwater. Marduk's battle against Tiamat was reconstructed in the most important religious ritual of Babylon's New Year celebrations. "On that day the gods surrounded them on all sides, the gods his fathers surrounded him on all sides," says the Babylonian text.

Liran assumes that the Babylonian king or high priest, who represented the god Marduk in the drama, fought Tiamat with both these words and with a plant in hand. In the Israelite ritual, all the attendants participated in the ceremony. The green branches were ostensibly cosmic weapons that represented God's eternal and beneficent power, and were also considered symbols of his rule: "The rod of Thy strength the Lord will send out of Zion" (Psalms 110: 2).

Perhaps the people who imitated God in the battle drama believed they were holding not only his weapons, but also symbols of his power. With the branches' help, they believed that salvation would come: "Thou didst thrust sore at me that I might fall, but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and song; and he is become my salvation" (Psalms 118:13-14). That was followed by the joy of victory: "The right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly" (Psalm 118:16).

God attacks his enemies with his mighty right hand, which becomes a symbol of his victorious power. While people called out joyously and victoriously, the green branches were raised as a sign of divine supremacy that defeats all God's enemies.

Further down in Psalm 118 is a sentence that many researchers interpret as describing the circling of the altar with the Four Species: "Order the festival procession with boughs, even unto the horns of the altar" (verse 27).

The ancient myth began to come to the fore during the Great Revolt's fourth year. At that time the description of the enemies encircling Jerusalem became a concrete and threatening reality. Beside images of the Four Species, coins minted that year also carried the phrase "For the Redemption of Zion." The reality was, as is well-known, much harsher than the ritual, and the Jewish people were not saved. Titus destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

The symbols of the Four Species appeared again on coins during the Bar-Kochba rebellion of 132-136 C.E., but by then they were depicted clearly as military symbols. The palm frond, for example, looked like a long and narrow sword, while the myrtle and willow branches resembled swords whose blades were shaped like sickles. Researcher Liran posits that the change shows that Bar-Kochba's warriors did not count on a godly victory or on divine weapons, but rather attributed utmost importance to the soldiers' abilities and real weapons.

Since the rebellion against the Romans failed, the battle drama ritual and the myths associated with it were not repeated. The Four Species' symbolic significance and the belief in their active cosmic power as weapons have, apparently, been lost forever.