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The Four Species in Ancient Jewish Art

While some believe that ancient Jewish culture was primarily textual, based on written and oral traditions, studies of Jewish art have revealed another cultural dimension of ancient Jewry: the visual dimension. Jews expressed their belief and opinions using not only the vehicles of Bible, Midrash and Halakha, but of art as well. Examples of creative artwork are found in the context of daily life, such as homes and tombs, and, following the destruction of the Temple, in the religious and ritual context of the synagogue. Ancient Jewish art is often of a symbolic character, in which a single symbol might express a whole set of meanings and associations for the observer. For us, viewing this art from a span of 1500 or more years, decoding these symbols can be a complicated task. As we approach the festival of Sukkot, let us examine the symbol of the Four Species, seeing how its conceptual and symbolic aspects are expressed in various works of art.

In 69 C.E., the fourth year of the great revolt of the Jews against Rome, a new coin was minted by the rebels, upon which was depicted the Four Species. This depiction became a prominent motif on coins minted that year and appeared in several variations, for example, an etrog between two bound lulavim, a lulav between two etrogim, and more. Less than seventy years later, another revolt of the Jews against Rome erupted, known as the Bar Kochba rebellion, and the Four Species feature on coins issued during that period also.  What is the particular significance of this symbol and why was it a central motif in the struggle for freedom from Roman tyranny?

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals, and the most important in the Second Temple period. The greatest number of people journeyed to Jerusalem on Sukkot, when farmers were able to leave their homesteads, unlike at Pesach and Shavuot when the harvest demanded their presence in the fields and the vineyards. Aside from the rituals that accompanied every festival, on Sukkot a nightly celebration with music, singing and dancing was held forSimchat Bet Hashoeva (water drawing ceremony), during the entire week of the festival.  This was apparently the yearly celebration of the Temple; thus Sukkot, more than any other festival, expressed the centrality of theTemple in the life of the Jewish People.  The rebels in 69 C.E. sought to present themselves as the legitimate defenders of the Jewish nation in the war against Rome, and therefore chose to use an icon of the Temple to reinforce the religious and national message of the revolt. The coin shown below portrays the Temple by depicting the symbol of the most important holiday celebrated there.

Shimon Bar Kosba, known as Bar Kochba, could no longer portray himself as defender of the national holy treasures against the foreign ruler. The Temple had already been destroyed in 70 C.E; the goal of the rebels was thus no longer to preserve, but to rebuild and restore. The visual expression of this approach is found on coins minted throughout the period of the revolt (132-135 C.E.).

On the front side of the coin shown in in the figure to the left (courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority) appears the Temple as a Roman architectural facade, with two pairs of pillars connected by a cornice. Between the two sets of pillars is an outline of an edifice or object that is round at the top, identifiable as the Ark of the Covenant (although there was no Ark in the Second Temple), or as the Table of Shewbread.

On the back side of the coin, shown here, (courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority) are the Four Species: a lulavin between the hadas (myrtle) and thearava (willow), and an etrog to the side. Portrayal of theTemple and the Four Species on one coin indicates with certainty that the significance of the latter went beyond the particular mitzva associated with Sukkot; the Four Species were a symbol of the entire festival and its special status in the Jewish ritual of the Second Temple. Alongside the desire to revive the memory of the destroyed Temple was an activist approach towards rebuilding it.

This may also provide an explanation for the immense effort exerted by Bar Kochba in fulfilling the mitzva of the Four Species. In a letter to his people discovered in the Cave of Letters in the Judean Desert, he wrote (in Aramaic):

“From Shimon to Yehuda bar Menashe in Qiryath ‘Arabaya. I have sent to you two donkeys, and you must send with them two men to Yehonathan, son of Be’ayan and to Masabala, in order that they shall pack and send to the camp, towards you, palm branches and citrons. And you, from your place, send others who will bring you myrtles and willows. See that they are tithed and sent them to the camp. The request is made because the army is big. Be well.”

The quest to rebuild the Temple was abandoned after the failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt, but the Four Species retained their place in Jewish art. From the end of the third century onwards, there was a surge in synagogue construction, many of which were outstanding in their beauty and ornamentation. The Four Species appear frequently in synagogue decorations, not as an independent motif as we see in the coins from the Revolt but as part of a complex iconographic system within which a number of symbols are integrated. An example of this is the mosaic floor (below) from the synagogue at Susiya, located in the southern foothills of Mount Hevron. (Courtesy of Susiya, Ancient Jewish Village)

This mosaic was affixed to the secondary bimah in the synagogue, and depicts an edifice with a gabled roof and two sets of pillars. In the center is a pictorial representation of a decorated Ark with two doors, and two large menorahs stand between the two pillars. On one side of the menorah on the right is a shofar, and on the other side are the Four Species (see below, Courtesy of Susiya, Ancient Jewish Village).

A similar picture (below) is engraved upon a basalt pillar found in a synagogue in Umm el-Qanatir in the Golan Heights. Here too, a large menorah stands at the center of the composition, flanked by the Four Species and a firepan. (Courtesy of Restoration of Ancient Technology, Umm el-Qanatir Project)

The art found in ancient synagogues contains an array of symbolic motifs that recall the Temple.  Chief among these symbols is the Menorah, and here additional elements represent the Temple ritual and ceremonies: the firepan, the shofar and the Four Species. The ornamental picture speaks to us not in words but in a visual language, yet conveys a clear message from the Land of Israel in late antiquity: the Jewish prayer to build the Temple and renew its rituals.

It is apparent that the spirit of the revolt that characterized the first and second centuries C.E. was transformed over the course of history, assuming the more passive expression of remembrance and prayer.

English Translation: Penina Goldschmidt

Dr. Noa Yuval-Hacham lectures in Land of Israel Studies and Judaism and the Arts and is academic advisor to these programs at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Noa Yuval-Hacham is the Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and a lecturer and academic advisor in the Land of Israel Studies and Judaism and the Arts tracks.  She earned her PhD in 2011 from Hebrew University. Dr. Yuval-Hacham’s research deals with ancient art in the Land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, with a special emphasis on Jewish art and its relationship with neighboring cultures in late antiquity. She lives in Efrat with her husband and five children.

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