Sunday, September 23, 2018

Hadasim / Myrtles: the branches that bind

See my other essays on the remaining plants of the Arba Minim (4 Species): 
Lulav: https://rabbischeinberg.blogspot.com/2017/10/the-lulav-growth-frozen-in-time.html
Etrog: https://rabbischeinberg.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-fruit-that-remembers-what-botanists.html
Willows: https://rabbischeinberg.blogspot.com/2017/10/keeping-willows-alive.html


Among the Four Species used on Sukkot, the myrtle branches (Hadasim) seemed to me to be the most innocuously pleasant.  The Etrog is fragile; the Lulav is dangerous with its sharp leaves; the willows quickly dry out. The myrtle branches are, in my experience,most likely to survive Sukkot intact without harming itself or others.  And the myrtle leaves have a fresh, vaguely Mediterranean scent  - best unleashed by crumpling up the leaves, or by scratching the myrtle branch itself.  In fact, unlike all the other parts of the Four Species, it is not particularly difficult to keep the myrtles fresh and fragrant for weeks and even months after Sukkot is over - just put them in a little bit of water.

The myrtle tree gives its name to Hadasah, the hero of the Purim story (better known by her Persian name, Esther).  That Jewish tradition describes a queen named after the myrtle should not be surprising; pliable twigs of the myrtle, together with the fresh scent of the leaves, make it especially appropriate for weaving into wreaths and victory crowns.  Maybe for a similar reason, the Talmud (https://www.sefaria.org/Shabbat.33b.8?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en) includes a small cameo role for myrtle branches, at the conclusion of the story of Shimon bar Yochai and his son, who spent several years studying torah in a cave to escape persecution by the Romans. When they emerge from the cave after twelve years, they are clearly unprepared to return to the regular world after such a period of ethereal seclusion. They return to the cave for one more year.  When they exit again, they see a person who is racing home, holding two myrtle branches.  When they inquire about why he has these branches, he informs them that they are special for Shabbat, and he has two of them to correspond to the two versions of the Shabbat commandment in the Ten Commandments.   Shimon bar Yochai and his son are cheered to see that the people of Israel are taking such pleasure in observance of the commandments (maybe they had feared the worst during their seclusion), and they consent to leave the cave permanently.  Maybe the myrtle branches reminded them of the simple sweetness that exists in the world - and maybe the branches help to bind them to the rest of the community.

A cryptic verse in the Hallel Psalms (https://www.sefaria.org/Psalms.118.27?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en) may also make reference to the pliability of the myrtle branches.  In what appears to be a “stage direction” in the midst of words of praise, we are told Isru chag ba-avotim ad karnot ha-mizbeach - - “Bind the festal offering to the altar with cords.”  The word translated as “cords” here, “avotim,” is the same word used to describe the myrtle branches in the book of Leviticus.  This could refer to the myrtle branches being used as a kind of strong twine in the time of the Temple.

Looking at the myrtle branches, smelling their scent, and thinking about how they have been used historically for tying and binding, I ask myself: how do I feel bound to the most ancient parts of my tradition?  How do I plan to keep the sweet scent of the myrtles alive well into the coming year?


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