A palm frond
A palm frond

The palm frond is the tallest and most visible of the four species that we waive during the festival of Sukkot. So much does the Palm frond stand out that it is perceived as the signature piece of the four species. When referring to the four species, one often describes them as the lulav–the palm frond. In fact, the blessing over the four species mentions only the palm frond and none of the others.

This seems problematic on the surface. Our sages taught that the four species represent four kinds of Jews. There are Jews who don’t study Torah but observe the traditions. There are Jews who study Torah, but don’t observe the traditions. There are Jews who do both, and Jews who do neither.

Flavor is emblematic of Torah because concepts of Torah are digested, internalized, and enjoyed like a culinary delight. Fragrance is emblematic of the traditions because they form an aura that generates a holy atmosphere similar to a delightful fragrance. The four species thus include a citron, which has both flavor and fragrance, a palm frond, which has flavor (the dates on the palm tree) but no fragrance, a myrtle leaf which has fragrance, but no flavor, and a willow which has neither.

The citron thus represents those who balance Torah study with observance. The palm frond represents those who excel in Torah study but lack in observance. Why then does the palm deserve to be first?

Though the balanced Jew, who excels in study and observance, incorporates all the Jewish qualities, there is something to be said for exclusive dedication. When we strive to accomplish many things, we often drop some balls in the shuffle. When we are given a single task, we can focus and see it through.

An example may be found in the field of medicine. There are general practitioners, whose practice spans the entire field of medicine; they know a little about all aspects of medicine, but don’t specialize in any field. Then there are specialists who know very little about most fields of medicine but know all there is to know about their specific field.

General practitioners know enough to refer to a specialist but cannot become specialists. They need to divide their time among all fields of medicine and don’t have the time or headspace to focus on any one field. Specialists, on the other hand, know all there is to know about their chosen field. And though they know almost nothing about most fields of medicine, they are leaders in their chosen field.

This is the benefit of exclusive dedication, and here we return to the four species. Most Jews are general practitioners. They are involved in all aspects of Jewish life, and though they study Torah daily, they don’t have the time to become specialists; leaders in the field of Torah study. Then there are scholars who spend their entire day studying Torah. They observe the traditions, but minimally; they discharge their obligations and leave it at that. Most of their energies are devoted to Torah study. They sit in the study halls and become Torah giants, leading scholars in their field.

The citron represents the average Jew, the palm frond represents the sage in the ivory tower. Although the citron is the most beautiful of the fruits because the golden mean is the most appropriate path, the leaders of Judaism are represented by the palm frond. That is why they stand out.

Frond not Fruit
This leaves us with another question. Why do we waive the palm frond instead of the date, the fruit of the palm tree? This question is especially poignant when you consider that the entire point of the palm frond is in the flavor of the fruit, and yet the fruit is not even visible in the four species.

To answer this question, we must first explain the symbolisms of the branch and the fruit. In Torah study, ideas need to be debated and discussed until the truth is clarified. This means that early versions of our understanding are often inaccurate. Yet, as we consider the question again and again, our ideas begin to crystalize.

The initial arguments raised in debate before the conclusion is crystalized, are symbolized by the branches. The ultimate answer, reached after days of debate, is symbolized by the fruit. The role of the branches and leaves is to protect the fruit. Should someone question the veracity of the fruit–the conclusion, the arguments–the branches–protect the fruit; they prove the truth of our conclusions.

Now that we understand the symbolic distinction between the fruit and the palm frond, we can understand why the palm frond rather than the date is waived during the festival of Sukkot.

Returning to our medical analogy, specialists who purport to know everything about their field, must always be willing to question their conclusions. They must remain internally uncertain and double and triple check their work. Pride goeth before the fall–haughtiness on the part of specialists can lead them to disastrous mistakes. The more recognized the specialists, the more important it is for them to be humble. If recognized specialists make a mistake, the entire medical community can be led astray.

The same applies to Torah scholars. Although we expect each sage to reach original conclusions and enjoy the “fruit” of their labor, we nevertheless keep the fruit–the date–out of sight. On the surface, we only show the palm frond–the initial efforts and the “failed” attempts.

The message is that although we have arrived at brilliant conclusions, we cannot take credit for ourselves. We recognize that no matter how well we understand our conclusions, we are still infinitesimal compared to G-d. G-d’s wisdom is infinite and though we have plumbed the depths available to the human mind, there are infinite levels of wisdom one above the other.

By framing our knowledge this way, we achieve modesty and humility. Even those who appear on the surface to have uncovered stunning insights, have a long way to go. Their work at these late stages is as incomplete as it was in the initial stages.  By presenting the date fruit as a branch, we make this declaration loud and clear.

The lesson to us as we waive the palm frond and the other species is twofold. A, Torah must be studied with no reservation. We cannot multitask when we study or teach Torah. Our minds must be exclusively focused on the Torah that we study and teach. B, our studies can never be allowed to make us haughty.