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An Ancient ‘Obsession’ with Sukkot Iconography

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In some ways, Sukkot is the most contemporary of holidays. Many pay good money and invest a lot of time and effort to obtain a beautiful etrog-indeed its biblical name is “fruit of the beautiful tree”-and the most visually appealing lulav, hadasim and aravot. There are various schools of thought on whether to refrigerate or not to refrigerate, to wrap in aluminum foil or wet paper towel, all with the goal of preventing the four species from spoiling and jeopardizing their smell and visual appearance. There is no specific requirement that the schach covering the sukkah be alive-indeed it cannot be made of something still attached to the ground-but the entire atmosphere of Sukkot is one of growth, natural living, and disengaging from our comfort zone. Indeed, it is on the extended Sukkot holiday that a prayer is offered for rain, the source of life.


But although Sukkot emphasizes the present-and a recently created annual design competition called Sukkah City has lent the ritual a postmodern thrust-there is something primordial about its symbols. The lulav and etrog, whether alongside each other or appearing separately, are some of the most prominent symbols in early Jewish art.



Byzantine mosaic at Huldah. Sixth century



A second century silver coin (image one), in the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, shows a lulav and etrog (though it might look more like a flower vase or a lamp to modern eyes), while another silver coin of the Bar Kokhba revolt at the Israel Museum, also minted in 134-135 CE, depicts a bunch of grapes (with the paleo-Hebrew inscription “Simeon”) on one side, and a lulav (with the paleo-Hebrew phrase “For the freedom of Jerusalem”) on the other side.


Other Sukkot-related ancient pieces in the Israel Museum’s collection include fourth century glass and gold leaf beads discovered in Roman catacombs, and a fifth century Jewish tombstone, which was laid for a Hannah, who died on the eve of Pesach in 438 CE. The stone comes from the cemetery at Zoar, on the Dead Sea shores. On the stone, painted in red, are a menorah, a shofar, the Temple façade and a lulav.



Tetradrachma (Greek silver coin) with lulav and etrog. Minted 134 CE. Israel Museum



The beads, according to the Israel Museum website, were the bases of bowls or cups, which were made by affixing the gold to a glass disk and then creating another layer of glass on top of the gold leaf. “Of the hundreds of known bases, many bear Christian motifs, while some are decorated with biblical or general scenes,” according to an entry on the museum site by Yael Israeli. “Only about a dozen have Jewish features, incorporating most of the characteristic motifs of Jewish art in the late Roman and Byzantine periods, commemorating the Temple, its ritual appurtenances, and its ceremonies.” The beads depict an ark, Torah scrolls, menorahs, a shofar, and a lulav and etrog, among other symbols.


A fourth century Roman or Byzantine bowl fragment (image two) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which resembles the Israel Museum beads, shows two menorahs, a shofar, and an ark. According to the Met website, the circular object alongside the menorah could be matzah (one wonders whether that’s really a justified call to make), while an etrog flanks the other side of the shofar. The unlikely Met explanation, which more closely resembles an interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphs, is that “this fragment of gold glass may have been the base of a drinking vessel used during the Passover festival and buried with its owner to bless him in the afterlife.”


Detail of floor mosaic at synagogue at Hamat, near Tiberias. Fourth century



The lulav and etrog, along with a shofar, a menorah, and an incense shovel, also appear in a Byzantine mosaic at Huldah (image three). The mosaic, which bears the Greek inscription “Praise to the people,” depicts the etrog with a pair of leaves attached to the stem (pittom). The etrog in the fourth century mosaic on the floor of the synagogue at Hamat, near Teverya, does not include leaves growing on the etrog stem, which seems to emanate from a lulav. A shofar, incense shovel, and menorah also appear in the mosaic.


The lulav motif also appears in a fourth century Egyptian bronze lamp (with a menorah-handle, a shofar and an etrog), in second-fourth century Jewish medallions (in the collection of the Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum of Archaeology, University of Haifa), and in a 500-629 hexagonal Byzantine glass bottle at the Metropolitan Museum.



Roman or Byzantine bowl fragments with Menorah, Shofar, and Torah Ark. Fourth century. Glass, gold leaf. Metropolitan Museum of Art



So why were Jewish artists and patrons so obsessed with the lulav and etrog? While the prospect that they might have simply fallen in love with the ritual of Sukkot is a tempting one to pursue, art history-and particularly religious art history-rarely works that way.


As Steven Fine explains in his book, Art & Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology, the lulav form might have evolved from the symbol of the victory palm, which first appeared on coins between 480 and 445 B.C.E. “The date palm would have been an expedient choice for the Roman minters in designing coins to be used by Palestinian Jews,” Fine writes. “Jews might raise no objection to the date palm as a ‘graven image’ in violation of their tradition of ‘anti-idolism.’ Jews used date palms in their own artistic and literary creations, where it often held an important position.”


Fine cites Psalm 92:13 and its reference, “the righteous will flourish like a date palm ” as sources for Jewish fascination with the palm, which later “metamorphosed” from the victory palm into the lulav in Jewish coins during the first revolt against Rome. “The lulav represents the festival of Sukkot,” Fine writes, “and often was thought to represent victory in early literature.”


Although many readers might prefer a more “Jewish” explanation of the phenomenon, the lulav form does seem to have proliferated-at least in ancient times-with no small help from pagan symbolism. But what might have started as a pagan motif quickly became assimilated into a Jewish context and started to evolve its own identity. Ancient food for thought, perhaps, as we navigate the most contemporary of holidays.


Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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