Unravelling the mystery of the Ma'aravit

An explanation of the words of one of the most beautiful piyutim (liturgical poems) said on Sukkot.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer, | updated: 16:26

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

The Ma’aravit (piyut/hymn recited at Ma’ariv) for the first night of Sukkot, composed by Rabbi Yosef Tuv-Elem, the eminent sage of medieval France, commences:

“Those who hold the Arba’ah Minim (Four Species) in their hands come to praise You with the flute and various instruments.”

This reference to praising God with multiple instruments seems to be an allusion to the Simchat Beit Ha-Sho’eivah celebration in the Beit Ha-Mikdash (Holy Temple) during  Sukkot, in which a massive array of instruments was played by the Levites to accompany jubilant songs of praise to God, as part of the ecstatic and sacred occasion. (V. Gemara Sukkah 51a-b.)

The next paragraph of the Ma’aravit starts:

“Those who study the Torah, which was chosen from the beginning, and come to dwell in the sukkah for seven days – provide them with merit and shelter them…”

What does Torah learning have to do with the sukkah, such that the Ma’aravit implies that Torah study leads to dwelling in the sukkah? And in the first section of the Ma’aravit, what is the relationship between holding the Arba’ah Minim and Simchat Beit Ha-Sho’eivah, the latter of which was an evening and overnight event, at which time the Arba’ah Minim were not held?   

The Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot M.A. 169, Koteret of Hil. Lulav, Hil. Lulav 7:13) indicates that the primary mitzvah of Arba’ah Minim is that of taking the Four Species in the Mikdash all seven days of Sukkot, invoking the verse (Vayikra 23:40): “And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days”.

The Biblical command to take the Arba’ah Minim only on the first day of Sukkot everywhere else (the mitzvah of Arba’ah Minim outside of the Mikdash for days two through seven is Rabbinic) appears from the words of the Rambam to be a limited extension of the full-blown seven-day mitzvah of Arba’ah Minim in the Mikdash.

Regarding Simchat Beit Ha-Sho’eivah, the Rambam writes (Hil. Lulav 8:12): “On the holiday of Sukkot, there occurred in the Mikdash an extraordinary simcha, as it is written, ‘And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.’” The Rambam here quotes the same exact verse which mandates taking the Arba’ah Minim. Why is this?

The answer appears to be that taking the Arba’ah Minim is a manifestation of simcha by being in the Presence of God, and that same experience is engendered by the Simchat Beit Ha-Sho’eivah. Both Arba’ah Minim and Simchat Beit Ha-Sho’eivah bring one joyfully before the Shechinah, in the Mikdash.

Thus, even one who is far from the Mikdash and who is Biblically bound to take the Arba’ah Minim only for one day is included in the awesome experience of being in a state of simcha in the Mikdash before God, for his mitzvah is an extension of the primary mitzvah of Arba’ah Minim which is denoted by “and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.”        

This is the meaning of the initial segment of the Ma’aravit: “Those who hold the Arba’ah Minim (Four Species) in their hands” – including performance of the brief, simple one-day Biblical mitzvah, far from the Mikdash – “come to praise You with the flute and various instruments” – they are transported to stand before You in simcha, encountering Your Presence in the Mikdash, even from thousands of miles away.

A similar concept explains the second section of the Ma’aravit: “Those who study the Torah, which was chosen from the beginning, and come to dwell in the sukkah for seven days…” The Sages tell us in many places that the Shechinah(Divine Presence) is with one who learns Torah. The sukkah, which in our liturgy is compared with the Beit Ha-Mikdash (e.g. “Sukkat David”), is likewise a locus of Hashra’at Ha-Shechinah, the manifestation of Hashem’s Presence. The Ma’aravit hence describes the exceptional power of Torah learning, such that it brings one to dwell in the veil of the Shechinah, as embodied by the sukkah.

After the purification of Yom Kippur, we merit to enter and remain in the abode of Hashem, seeing things from the inside, as it were. Technical actions such as taking the Arba’ah Minim and studying Torah are revealed to be means by which we commune intimately with Hashem, based on our glimpse from the inside.

Good Yom Tov to all.                 




 





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