Hebrew In Israel | Nehemiah 8:15 and Sukkot – Learn Torah

sukkot, four species, feast of tabernacles

Hebrew In Israel | Nehemiah 8:15 and Sukkot – Learn Torah

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I have for many years dealt with the subject of the four species of Leviticus 23:40, and how they are understood in rabbinic interpretation.  This discussion is closely tied to Nehemiah 8:15, a verse that some argue means that the four species mentioned in Lev 23 are to be used for building the sukkah.  This is the Karaite and Samaritan understanding, but I want to point out some things before people reject the traditional rabbinic interpretation.  I will admit that there are problems with the rabbinic opinion, but there are fewer issues with it than the Karaite/Samaritan opinion.

The Definition of Sukkah

First I want to clear some issues I find every year with the meaning of “Booth-Temporary place of dwelling”.  This has led many to campout with tents, which by definition are NOT a Sukkah but an Ohel.  A Sukkah defined in Hebrew dictionaries is a temporary structure built by farmers in the field from ready materials such as branches and leaves.  A Sukkah is different from a tent-אהל-Ohel by the fact that the roof is not made of cloth.  In semi-nomadic culture a tent is NOT a temporary dwelling.  To this very day we find in Bedouin and Arab culture the use of temporary field structure to safeguard planted fields from harm [1]. Hence, the use of plants, and specifically the four species mentioned in Leviticus 23, can arguably be describing the materials from which one is to build the Sukkah.

Nehemiah 8:15

The question is raised: Did the returners to Zion understand the the four species are to be used in building the Sukkah?  Let us look at what the Text tells us:
 וַאֲשֶׁר יַשְׁמִיעוּ, וְיַעֲבִירוּ קוֹל בְּכָל-עָרֵיהֶם וּבִירוּשָׁלִַם לֵאמֹר–צְאוּ הָהָר וְהָבִיאוּ עֲלֵי-זַיִת וַעֲלֵי-עֵץ
שֶׁמֶן, וַעֲלֵי הֲדַס וַעֲלֵי תְמָרִים וַעֲלֵי עֵץ עָבֹת:  לַעֲשֹׂת סֻכֹּת, כַּכָּתוּב
And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: ‘Go forth unto the mount, and fetch

1. olive branches עלי זית
2. and branches of Pine (not wild olive as most translations have) עלי עץ שמן
3. and myrtle branches   עלי הדס
4. and palm branches   עלי תמרים
5. and branches of thick trees   עלי עץ עבות
to make booths, as it is written.״

  Lev 23:40

 וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים, וַעֲנַף עֵץ-עָבֹת, וְעַרְבֵי-נָחַל; וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם–שִׁבְעַת יָמִים״

And you shall take for you on the first day

1. the fruit of goodly trees פרי עץ הדר
2. branches of palm-trees   כפות תמרים
3. and boughs of thick trees ענף עץ עבות
4. and willows of the brook   ערבי נחל
and you shall rejoice before YHWH your God seven days.״
The Leviticus text describes this list after a break in the text which separates the two portions.  This may be an indication of two separate rules regarding the feast.  It is important to note that the Emar calendar, which dates to the same time as the writing of the Torah, creates such a break too, and such a break is not unusual.  It is possible that the Torah used this method of writing to separate two distinct laws so in order that they are not confused with one another.
As can be seen, there are discrepancies between the two texts which show a possible
disconnect between the two sources.  Did the people read Leviticus and not care about the text, or are we looking at something else completely?

Methodological Note On Biblical Interpretations

In the Karaite opinion it is stated that the four species mentioned in Lev 23 are to be used to build the sukkah.  I will note that Karaite books of law do not always follow the written word of the Torah.  Karaites and all Bible-based groups always add things to the Torah.  This is a fact, and when one wants to understand the text, one must only read it and not depend on another tradition of interpretation.  What the Karaites say is essentially not always different than what rabbis say, both groups are made up of human beings and both add their own interpretations so one point of view need not necessarily be better than the other.  Often how the rabbis interpret is based on actual texts and there can be more than one perfectly legitimate way of understanding the written word.  Hence it is problematic to maintain a predetermined idea toward either group.

The Problems

The first thing that should strike us as a problem is the number of plants mentioned.  The Torah talks about four while in Nehemiah we have five.  Did they add to the Torah?

Second, if one looks at these two lists one can see that there are differences between them.  Even if we try and match some of the species we will find problems.  The only two plants that match are the thick trees and palm leaves.  One of the other possible matches is olive branches as glorious fruit (פרי עץ הדר), which has no specific definition in the Leviticus text, but that is only possible if we look at the small fruit (the olive) as a goodly/glorious fruit.  However, even this does not match because the verse refers to עלי  – leaves and not fruit.  We cannot say that in the same verse the word עלי can mean both leaves and fruit[2].

Third, the phrase “As it is written” does not necessarily mean that they literally built their sukkot by using the four species as building materials, but rather essentially as the Torah commands to build a sukkah.  In some texts (especially in Chronicles) this phrase does literally mean that this was the exact command in the Torah[3].  However, in our case we can’t maintain this interpretation because there is an only a partial match between the Leviticus text with the Nehemiah text.

Other issues

The text in Leviticus also states some other things that don’t square with the idea of using the four species as building materials:

1.  Leviticus states that we are to take the species on the first day.  If we are to build it on the first day, it would be work on a feast day.

2.  The Torah says to rejoice before YHWH, and the texts which deal with the feast are held in the Temple.  How does one rejoice with the sukkah?  I know this can be explained in that we are to rejoice before God and have the sukkah nearby.  We even know from Nehemiah 8:16 that they built Sukkot in the courts of the house of Elohim.  Even with this we are still left in my opinion with the question of why does the text link the four species to the rejoicing?  Do we dance around the sukkah?  Do people take up one corner of the sukkah and carry it around?  I know this is an exaggeration, but we do find a disconnect in Leviticus between the commandment to build the Sukkah, and the four species.

3.    The text in Leviticus does not link the sukkah to the four species; it says to take them in verse 40, then to celebrate for seven days in verse 41, and only then does the text talk about sitting in a sukkah.  Nowhere does it say that we are to build the sukkah from the species.

4. The verb used here is ולקחתם from the root of ‘to take’ ל.ק.ח  , and in conjunction with the four species we only find this verb and the verb ש.מ.ח  to rejoice.  Nowhere do we find the root ב.נ.ה (to build) or ע.ש.ה (to make) in conjunction with this verse.

It is also important to note that we do not find that the words ענף (branch) and עלי (leaves of) are not interchangeable between early (Leviticus) and late (Nehemiah) Hebrew.  Meaning that they did not focus on the branches, but on the leaves, something which raises more questions about the intent and meaning of what was actually being done.

Possible answer

I think the answer can be found in another text such as 2Sam 6:5:

 וְדָוִד וְכָל-בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, מְשַׂחֲקִים לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, בְּכֹל, עֲצֵי בְרוֹשִׁים; וּבְכִנֹּרוֹת וּבִנְבָלִים וּבְתֻפִּים, וּבִמְנַעַנְעִים וּבְצֶלְצֱלִים

And David and all the house of Israel played before YHWH with all manner of cypress-wood, and with harps, and with psalteries, and with timbrels, and with sistra, and with cymbals.’

(The English sometimes has this verse wrong, so don’t be surprised if you have a different version)

We find here that there was a form of rejoicing with plants.  The cypress-wood is mentioned as being in the celebration and probably was used for waving (not for the type of wood the instruments were made from as some argue[4]).  The fact that waving around plants was used in rejoicing, and the fact that this rejoicing can be found in a cultic setting, lends us insight into ancient practices in Israel.  Using palm branches in celebration is not something which was invented in the second temple era, but rather a practice dating back to the first temple.

It is noteworthy that it has been suggested that there was an interpretation at the time that one should build the sukkah from the four species, and we even find this as the opinion of R. Yehudah in the Sifrah [5] .  Some say that this interpretation was rejected by later generations before the rabbis even came to existence.  The argument is that they realised that a mistake was made in the times of Nehemiah[6].  This is not so far fetched because at the time they were relearning the Torah and many were largely ignorant of what the Torah expected.

Is it a fertility ritual?

It has been argued by some that the waving was done a s fertility ritual, and hence this was forbidden according to Torah which avoids giving credence to such practices.  However, as demonstrated, the waving is connected to rejoicing, and has nothing to do with fertility.  It is however clear that later on in time the practice of waving took a very ritualistic element in the rabbinic interpretation of a very straight forward practice.  This is not a surprising development with second temple, and mostly post second temple Judaism.  It has been demonstrated by Rozen-Tzvi that Talmudic descriptions of second temple rituals are not describing the original practice, and these are mostly idilic interpretations of practices which were not understood correctly [7].  One very interesting point is how the Babylonian Talmud describes an elaborate waving idea which has magical elements to it, while the Jerusalem Talmud gives a very simple minimal waving [8].  However, this observation by Rozen-Tzvi does not mean that the practice did not exist during the second temple.  This is due to the fact that the book of Maccabees (2 Maccabees 10:6-7), Jubilees (16:29-31) and Josephus (Antiquities 3:14) describe it as a common practice.

What is Nehemiah Really About

As an overall idea, the book of Nehemiah focuses on the re-establishment of public practices and the return to Torah.  Nehemiah is not focusing on the temple rituals such as rejoicing before YHWH, and hence is not interested in depicting the celebrations done in the temple with the four species.  The focus on the Sukkah comes out of the will to emphasize the public celebration done on the streets.  This is also why none of the sacrifices or even Yom Hakippurim are mentioned in the text [9], nor do we hear about the sounding of the Teruah on the first day of the month.  Hence it is a mistake to use Nehemiah 8 as a source of interpretation for Leviticus 23.


It seems that there are too many issues with interpreting Leviticus in conjunction with Nehemiah.  As suggested above, we might be looking at a command to rejoice before YHWH with branches, a custom found in the ancient near east and Israel.
There are significant divergences between the Leviticus and Nehemiah texts that prevent me from accepting that Nehemiah’s generation used the four species as building materials, but it’s not too far fetched to say that they incorporated some of the items in building their Sukkot.  I think that the focus of Nehemiah was the Sukkah, and like many things the four species were selectively ignored the same way Yom HaKippurim is not mentioned in the text.  In time the waving ritual lost some of its meaning, and some started interpreting the actions as having mystical meaning, which probably raised the objection to it, and the interpretation that the four species are to be used only in the Sukkah itself.


[1] קדרי מנחם, מילון העברית המקראית, בר-אילן 2007, עמ׳ 754. Also see J.Milgrom, Anchor Leviticus, Yale 2001, pp.2048-2050
[2] It is important to note that the Etrog/Citron is not native to Israel, and was an import from Persia.  The Talmud in Sukkah 14:b deals with people who bring other fruit such as Pomegranates.  Dr. Zohar Amar of the Bar Illan University has done extensive work on this topic.
[3] As demonstrated by Sarah Yeffet in many of her works on the book of Chronicles.
[4] Rashi, Radaq and other various Jewish commentators.  However, modern commentators reject this idea and explain that the Vav connected to the instruments is a conjunctive Vav, and not a detailing Vav of clarification.
[5] Sifrah on Emor chapter 17:10 ישבו בסוכות”– בסוכות של כל דבר. שהיה ר’ יהודה אומר, והדין נותן שלא תהא סוכה אלא מארבעת המינים- “They shall sit in Sukkot”- IN Sukkot (made) of anything.  Because R. Yehudah says, the law seems that the Sukkah should not be built but (only) from the four species.
[6] This idea was suggested to me by a friend who did work on this topic.  He based it on the fact that we find in the Elephantine papyri that the High Priest allows putting leaven in a locked room for Chag HaMatsot.  Later we find that it is to be destroyed.  This might be an indicator of a dynamic approach to biblical law.  He cited several sources, but this was a long time ago and I do not remember his sources.
[7] רוזן-צבי, ישי, מבוא למשנה, בתוך ספרות חז״ל הארץ ישראלית, ירושלים 2018, עמ׳ 16
[8]תלמוד ירושלמי, סוכה פ״ג ה״ח
[9] Kochman M., Olam Hatankh-Nehemiah, pp.264-266
Originally Published:  15 October 2016


Rod Koozmin

October 5, 2017 at 4:28 am

Thank you. I have thought of these things and appreciate your comments!

Elvira White

October 1, 2018 at 2:04 am

As I was reading your explanation of booths, I wondered if it was possible to do both things? Namely, both build the Sukkah out of the plants described in Leviticus, as well as to break some portions of the Sukkah on the first day while it was fresh to use for waving and rejoicing?

    Yoel Halevi

    October 4, 2018 at 2:27 pm

    I addressed this matter in the following section:
    “It is noteworthy that it has been suggested that there was an interpretation at the time that one should build the sukkah from the four species, and we even find this as the opinion of R. Yehudah in the Sifrah [5] . Some say that this interpretation was rejected by later generations before the rabbis even came to existence. The argument is that they realised that a mistake was made in the times of Nehemiah[6]. This is not so far fetched because at the time they were relearning the Torah and many were largely ignorant of what the Torah expected.”

Neville Newman

August 25, 2020 at 4:45 pm

Re. your notes on tent vs sukkah , what value, if any, do you find in:
Hosea 12:9 (English)
Hosea 12:10 (Hebrew)
The latter half of the verse reads
“I will make you live ‘in tents’ [ba’ohalim, בָאֳהָלִ֖ים ] again, as in the days of the appointed festival.”

    Yoel Halevi

    September 30, 2020 at 1:04 pm

    Though this is a very interesting verse, it can apply to the other feasts. There is a school of thought in research that argues that the Sukkah was one possibility of dwelling and that it started as a practical way of making shelter. This method argues that the Sukkah started as just a form of shelter and became a common practice solidified in law. If this opinion is correct, the verse you have given can be used to argue that a tent is also good. However, when it comes to the text of Lev. 23 it does not seem to be the case.

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