Monday, May 04, 2020

Four Species and Metonymic Symbolism

Brown Judaic Studies is putting up open access versions of its monographs. They are on all sorts of different topics. I can highly, highly recommend Jeffrey L. Rubinstein's A History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods; if the Feast of Tabernacles is a topic that interests you, this is definitely a book to read.

I did have a thought about one thing he says. In Chapter 7 (Sukkot in the Amoraic Midrashim), starting on p. 305, Rubinstein has a discussion of the Four Species (arba'at ha-minim), which are used in Sukkot celebrations. The Four Species come from a rabbinical interpretation of Leviticus 23:40, which says that should take something from four things:

es hadar, goodly trees, which rabbis usually interpret as the etrog
temarim, palm trees, usually interpreted as the date palm
es abot, leafy trees, usually interpreted as the myrtle
arbe nahal, willows of the brook

Rubinstein considers a brief discussion by Rabbi Akiba of these:

Rabbi Akiba says:

[A1] Fruit of goodly (hadar) trees (Lev. 23:40). This is the Holy One blessed be He, since it says about Him, You are clothed in glory and majesty (hadar) (Ps. 104:1).

[A2] Palm branches. This is the Holy One blessed be He, since it says about Him, The righteous bloom like a palm (Ps. 92:12).

[A3] Branches of leafy trees. This is the Holy One blessed be He, And He stood among the myrtles (Zech. 1:8).

[A4] Willows ('arvei) of the brook. This is the Holy One blessed be He, since it says about Him, Extol Him who rides the clouds ('aravot) (Ps. 68:4).

Rubinstein summarizes this, reasonably, as "R. Akiba proposes the mystical notion that each of the four species symbolizes God" (p. 306). Given things that he says elsewhere, though, it seems that he takes this to mean that R. Akiba literally thinks that each of the Four Species stands for God in some way. But, thinking through the actual verses to which Rabbi Akiba appeals, I don't think this can be quite right. It seems much more likely that R. Akiba is taking the link to be more indirect than this suggests. What the Four Species represent are four things that are closely associated with God, what we might call His appurtenances, rather than (directly) God Himself; they symbolize God not by direct symbolism but by symbolic metonymy.

Psalm 104, for instance, talks about God by associating Him with several things -- light, heavens, wind, fire, earth -- and thus is taking an indirect approach to description of God. What the hadar trees, the trees of splendor, directly symbolize is the hadar, splendor, that God wears as a vestment. Your vestments or clothes are things very closely associated with you that are nonetheless not you; splendor is not the divine being but something very closely associated with it. Likewise, Psalm 92:12-13 does not directly talk about God but about how the righteous are palm trees in the divine court. Looking at Zechariah 1, the one standing among the myrtles of the ravine is literally the Angel of the Lord -- again, closely associated with God as His messenger, but distinct. Psalm 68 does talk directly about God, but 'willows' only comes in because the word for 'willow' and the word for 'cloud' is the same word. And the clouds here are the divine chariot. So in each case what is directly symbolized is not God but something closely associated with God: the divine vestment, the divine court, the divine messenger, the divine chariot. However, because of this close association these things can in turn be used as a metonymic description for "the Holy One blessed be He" and thus can symbolize God indirectly.

This fits, of course, with a common pattern in how the rabbis tended to talk about God. We could indeed say, allowing for the fact that there are obviously many exceptions, that Christian discourse about God tends to diverge from Jewish discourse about God because Christians usually have preferred to talk about God by metaphor whereas Jews usually have preferre to talk about God by metonymy. One can think of the difference between, say, Philo of Alexandria and Dionysus. But in any case, it's worth keeping in mind that metaphoric symbolism and metonymic symbolism are distinct, and can sometimes operate in very different ways.

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