Rabbi Simon would instruct those making the calculations (to set the calendar): “Bear in mind not to allow the blowing [of the shofar] to fall on Shabbat, nor aravah to fall on Shabbat. If you cannot manage this, allow the blowing to fall on Shabbat, but not aravah.”

Jerusalem Talmud,
Sukkah 4:1

The simplicity of the simple Jew is of a piece with the utterly simple essence of G‑d.

Rabbi Israel
Baal Shem Tov

The term “simple” (pashut, in Hebrew) is used in various connotations. When applied to human beings or physical objects, it usually implies a lack or absence of something. A simple man is one who has not been blessed with much intelligence, depth of feeling or talent; a simple home or car is one that comes without the accouterments of ornament and luxury. There might be a hint of admiration and longing in our voice when we speak of the simple soul or the simple life, but more than a hint of condescension as well. We are acknowledging that wisdom, sensitivity, talent, beauty and wealth are not without their drawbacks, but neither are we really considering relinquishing, for the sake of a simpler existence, whatever of the above we are fortunate enough to possess.

There is, however, another application of the word “simple”—simple as the antonym of composite. In this sense, a simple thing is something that is pure and singular, as opposed to something that consists of various parts and elements. Thus, G‑d is described as the ultimate simplicity (pashut betachlit hapeshitut); for, as Maimonides writes, “G‑d . . . is one, and His unity is unlike any other unity in existence. He is not one as in one species which includes many individuals. Nor is He one as in one body which includes various parts and dimensions. Rather, [His is] a unity the likes of which there is no other unity in the world.”

In our world, we have no model for such a unity, for even the most homogeneous body or entity is a composite of various parts, qualities and aspects. A physical body possesses, at the very least, both substance and form, and both a beginning and an end (in the spatial as well as durational sense); a metaphysical entity (an idea, a feeling, a soul) possesses the various characteristics that distinguish it from other metaphysical entities. So while a thing might be one in the sense that it is a distinct and individual unit, it is a unit comprised of parts. G‑d, however, is utterly and absolutely one—a simple unity (achdut hapeshutah) rather than a composite unity.

G‑d’s simplicity does not mean that He is devoid of the qualities that make us complex. He is the source of all, and certainly does not lack for anything He imparts to His creations; in the words of the Psalmist, “He who implanted the ear certainly hears; He who formed the eye certainly sees.” Rather, it means that unlike every created thing, whose being is the sum of its diverse qualities, G‑d’s diverse qualities are but expressions of His simple perfection. A human being’s wisdom is a component of his composite being; G‑d’s wisdom is but our way of saying that His infinite and singular being is utterly perfect and does not lack for whatever it is that makes “wise” a higher state of being than “unwise.” Simplicity, as applied to G‑d, is not a dearth of qualities, but a perfection so complete that it is featureless, since every conceivable quality is but a finite and imperfect formulation of the divine perfection.

And yet, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov draws a parallel between human simplicity, defined by a lack of learning and spiritual sophistication, and the divine simplicity. One of the fundamental teachings of the Baal Shem Tov is that the simplicity of the simple Jew is of a piece with the utterly simple essence of G‑d.

When Less Is More

G‑d is the source of all. Furthermore, since, as the Torah declares, there is none else besides Him, we are all nothing more than extensions of His being. In other words, G‑d is the essence of reality, and all existences and creations are but expressions and manifestations of the divine essence.

We do not expect a blue star to emit red light, or for musical genius to express itself in business management. And yet, the utterly simple essence of G‑d is manifested via the composite forms that make up creation. The explanation for this lies in the meaning of G‑d’s simplicity. As we said, the divine simplicity is not an absence of qualities and characteristics, but on the contrary, their liquefaction within a being that includes them all and that transcends all that defines them and distinguishes them from each other (as the number infinity—to use a most inadequate analogy—includes all finite numbers). Creation is the process in which G‑d screens His infinite simplicity, isolating finite areas within its infinite expanse that solidify as entities with a distinct existence and character.

So the multifarious and fractional world we encounter conceals an underlying unity and simplicity—the divine essence that it embodies. The more complex a thing is, the greater the concealment, for the greater its departure from its original simplicity.

Thus we can understand the Baal Shem Tov’s statement that the simplicity of the simple Jew is of a piece with the utterly simple essence of G‑d. In truth, all souls (as, ultimately, all existences) are of a piece with the divine essence; but their external complexity conceals this truth. The concealing elements might, in themselves, be positive and constructive forces; they might even bring one closer to G‑d, as does an intelligence that explores the divine wisdom, an emotional self that is attuned to one’s relationship with G‑d, a talent that is utilized to a G‑dly end, and so on. At the same time, however, their complexity obscures the soul’s original and quintessential existence as an integral part of the simple essence of G‑d.

The simple soul, however, lacks these qualities. By all standards—and here we include the standards set by Torah as to how a soul might realize its relationship with G‑d—this is indeed a deficiency. But this deficiency means that its simple essence is less obscured by the complexities of mind, heart and accomplishment.

The simple Jew has a simple faith in G‑d and an unequivocal commitment to Him not observed in his more sophisticated fellows. This is not because scholars and mystics do not possess this faith and commitment, which is intrinsic to every Jewish soul; but because in them, its simplicity is blurred—at times, even contorted—by the sophistication of their understanding and experience of it.

The Four Kinds

“You shall take for yourselves on the first day [of Sukkot],” instructs the Torah, “the splendid fruit of a tree, fronds of dates, the branch of the thickly leafed tree, and aravot of the brook.” This is the mitzvah of arba minim, the Four Kinds—the etrog (citron), lulav (date frond), hadas (myrtle twig) and aravah (willow twig)—that the Jew takes in hand each day of the festival of Sukkot.

The Four Kinds represent the various types within the Jewish people. In the words of the Midrash: “Just as the etrog has a taste and an aroma, so too does Israel include individuals who have Torah [learning] and good deeds. . . . The date (the fruit of the lulav) has a taste but does not have an aroma . . . [representing those] who have Torah but do not have good deeds. . . . The hadas has an aroma but not a taste . . . [representing those] who have good deeds but do not have Torah. . . . The aravah has no taste and no aroma . . . [representing those] who do not have Torah and do not have good deeds. . . . Says G‑d: Let them all bond together in one bundle and atone for each other.”

On the most basic level, the Midrash is referring to the various levels of Torah knowledge and actual observance of the mitzvot among Jews. On a deeper level, the Four Kinds also describe four categories in a person’s experience of Torah and mitzvot, as defined by one’s intellectual and emotional capacities. On this level, the etrog is one who has been blessed with a taste, or intellectual appreciation, for Torah, as well as the emotional capacity (aroma) to experience a love and awe of G‑d in his fulfillment of the mitzvot; the lulav is one who masters Torah but whose observance of mitzvot is dry and technical; the hadas is the fervent and active but unlearned Jew; and the aravah is the simple Jew, who possesses a simple faith in and commitment to G‑d, but has not been blessed with the depth of understanding and sophistication of feeling that enriches the Torah and mitzvot of the other three types.

Seen in this light, the concluding words of the Midrash assume a deeper significance. On the face of it, it would seem that it is only the etrog, who possesses both taste and smell, who does the atoning, fulfilling the deficiencies of the other three. But the Midrash describes G‑d as saying, “Let them all . . . atone for one another.” In other words, every one of the Four Kinds possesses something that the other three do not. Each has a uniqueness and specialty which it introduces to the union of Israel, atoning and compensating for its absence in the other three.

The specialty of the etrog is obvious: a harmony of thought and deed, and of mind and heart, which it contributes to the other three. But there is a special value in the lulav’s utter devotion to Torah-study even at the expense of the emotional-experiential content of his mitzvah observance—a specialty lacking in the other three, including the etrog. The same is true of the hadas, who devotes all his energies to the service of the heart and good deeds.

The specialty of the aravah is its simplicity. The very virtues of the other three kinds—the understanding of the lulav, the feeling of the hadas, the across-the-board perfection of the etrog—spell their deficiency: a complex life that obscures the divine simplicity. The inclusion of the aravah in the group enables all its members to appreciate, and perhaps even stimulate, the quintessential simplicity of their own souls.

A Complicating Association

In addition to the aravah that is taken together with the lulav, hadas and etrog as the Four Kinds, there is another Sukkot observance that involves the willow branch. This is the mitzvah of aravah, observed in the Holy Temple by surrounding the altar with willow branches on Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, and which we today commemorate with a special procession in the synagogue with willow twigs on that day.

The two observances are two distinct mitzvot, each with its own laws and guidelines. Thus, one cannot fulfill the obligation of aravah with the aravah of the lulav. Even the physical requirements of the willow branch(es) are different: for the Four Kinds, two willow twigs are required, each with at least three fresh leaves; the mitzvah of aravah, however, can be fulfilled with one twig with one leaf.

Another difference concerns the possibility of these mitzvot being deferred because of Shabbat. Mitzvot that require the handling of a physical object and special expertise may not be observed on Shabbat, lest a person forget and violate the Shabbat by carrying them out from a private to a public domain (except in the Holy Temple, where these mitzvot were performed also on Shabbat). Thus, when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, the shofar is not sounded, and on the day of Sukkot that coincides with Shabbat, the Four Kinds are not taken—even if it is the first day of Sukkot, which is the only day that the Torah explicitly commands us to do so.

The same would apply to the aravah of Hoshana Rabbah—if it were possible for the seventh day of Sukkot to fall on Shabbat. This, however, never happens. When the calendar used to be set on a monthly basis by the beit din (court of Torah law), the judges made sure that Hoshana Rabbah should never fall on Shabbat. Today, we follow a fixed calendar on which Rosh Hashanah (1 Tishrei) and the first day of Sukkot (15 Tishrei), two dates that always fall on the same day of the week, occasionally coincide with Shabbat, while Hoshana Rabbah never does. This is a halachic curiosity in light of the fact that today, in the absence of a Holy Temple, the aravah procession on Hoshana Rabbah is merely a commemorative custom (minhag), while sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and taking the Four Kinds on the first day of Sukkot are biblical commandments!

As we explained above, the aravah’s inclusion in the Four Kinds atones for the sophistication of the other three by imparting its simplicity to them. The reverse is also true: through its bond with the etrog, lulav and hadas, the aravah is enriched by their special qualities.

Therein lies the difference between the aravah of the Four Kinds and the aravah of Hoshana Rabbah. While the enrichment of the aravah is certainly a positive thing—the aravah is now more knowing and feeling in its relationship with G‑d—this inevitably affects its simplicity. The aravah becomes less simple, less transparent a window into the divine essence.

Thus we have two aravot: the aravah of the Four Kinds, which enriches and is enriched by the great minds and hearts of Israel; and the aravah of Hoshana Rabbah, whose crystalline simplicity we zealously preserve, lest it be clouded in the slightest degree, if only by association with its sophisticated brethren.

This explains the differences between the two aravah-related mitzvot of Sukkot. The aravah of the Four Kinds has entered and has been affected by the world of numbers, as evidenced by the plurality of its halachic requirements (two twigs, three leaves on each). Not so the aravah of Hoshana Rabbah, whose unadulterated singularity finds expression in its halachic criterion of one twig and one leaf.

The aravah of the Four Kinds has entered and has been affected by a world of diverse times and conditions. So there are days on which it is taken, and certain calendar configurations on which it is set aside. The aravah of Hoshana Rabbah, however, must be kept aloof from the changes and vacillations of this world. If the cycles of time threaten its consistency, we must divert these cycles, manipulating the calendar if necessary, to ensure that the simplicity of the aravah should always assert itself on the seventh day of Sukkot.