Personally speaking, the Four Species is one of the most downright bizarre and mysterious mitzvos in our tradition. The underlying principle is not stated in the Torah, which concludes the instruction with the general theme of the Chag:

וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים – On the first day, [take the Four Species]; and you should celebrate and rejoice before Hashem for seven days. (23:40)

There is no obvious reason or ethic for doing this, and you won’t find many who can explain it. What significance can saving the Arba Minim have for us?

One of precious few explanations given is that it represents different kinds of Jews. The esrog has a pleasant taste and a pleasant scent, and represents Jews who have knowledge of Torah as well as performance of mitzvah performance. The palm branch, which produces tasty fruit and is itself a food, but has no scent, represents Jews who have knowledge of Torah but are lacking in mitzvah performance. The hadas, the myrtle leaf, has a strong scent but no taste, represents Jews who perform mitzvot but little Torah knowledge. The arava, the willow, has neither taste nor scent, represents Jews who have no knowledge of Torah or mitzvos. We bring all these together to remind us that every one of these four kinds of Jews is important and has their place. And such is life; real community is only found when all types of people can be together. The mitzvah, and society, fails when any part is excluded.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi notes there is a general principle of hidur mitva, which means that the attitude to any mitzvah should be such that the mitzvah is done in an elegant way. With the esrog, the prescription of the mitzvah is that the mitzvah must be elegant, beyond the general principle of hidur mitzvah. There are people who will spend days on end inspecting their esrog so that the shape and shine are perfect; and this is what the mitzvah actually requires!

Why is this the only mitzvah where we must go above and beyond to search for something perfect, just to fulfil the basic premise of the mitzvah?

Rabbi Farhi explains that the taste and scent allegory applies to ourselves too. There are parts of our practice that we love, understand and are good at, and parts that we don’t like, do, or understand; and everything in between. The part of Judaism that I love, understand, and am good at is something that is worth spending time on, and it should be the focal point. That is worth putting effort into, and being proud of. That is a real achievement. The search for the perfect esrog shows the value we should place on that part of ourselves.

The agricultural element cannot be forgotten either – Sukkos is the harvest festival. The Rambam notes that the Jews complained in the wilderness:

וְלָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּה לֹא | מְקוֹם זֶרַע וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן וּמַיִם אַיִן לִשְׁתּוֹת – Why have we been taken from Egypt to this awful place, with nowhere to plant, not figs, or grapevines, or pomegranates; nor water to drink! (20:5)

In contradistinction to their ingratitude, taking the Arba Minim, abundant in the fruitful and productive Land of Israel, is a symbolic refutation of their attitude to the care God took of them, and expresses our own gratitude at all we are fortunate to have. The Arba Minim are waved either axis of three dimensional space, vertical, horizontal, and lateral, to signify our awareness that this is the space in which God operates, in a way the desert generation did not appreciate. The plants we take, which require water, are waved at the beginning of the rainy season, as we call on Hashem “Hosha na”, to aid us.

The Rambam’s observation is critical to unlocking what the Arba Minim are. The mitzvah is a rejection of the attitude of the wilderness, and we embrace our reliance on Hashem for all things through it.

The mitzvah of Sukka requires that for 7 days, a large part of living, particularly eating, takes place in a somewhat flimsy hut, with some plant material as the roof. The primary reason is stated in the Torah:

בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – Every resident of Israel will sit in huts for 7 days; so that the generations will know that I had Israel live in huts when I took them out of Egypt. (23:42,43)

What specific import does this have to us, other than recalling an ancient memory?

Arguably, it is a natural progression from Yom Kippur. We profess multiple times on Yom Kippur that we did not act in private the way we did in public. Perhaps the Sukka brings the two into synthesis. The Sukka is closed, yet anyone outside can hear whatever happens within it’s walls; a Sukka is not private. Perhaps sitting in a Sukka is a commitment to acting in private more like we are in public.

The Rambam explains that the exposure to the elements reminds us of the miracles experienced in the wilderness, the stated reason in the Torah. At the beginning of nationhood, when our people’s history began, and before anything remarkable occurred, we were completely looked after – just like we are surrounded completely surrounded by the Sukka. God is good to us just because, without qualification. Sukka reminds us that we are each taken care of in our own, personal way.

The Chagim all have an agricultural element to them, which is somewhat anachronistic today – yet the themes remain relevant. Sukkos is the harvest festival, a time of celebration and plenty – a farmer would literally reap what he had sown, finally seeing the fruit of his labour. Rav Hirsch notes that in this time of achievement, we are to walk away, and remember that in a physically and spiritually barren wasteland, we were helpless, yet cared for nonetheless. We retreat from our comforts and securities to a greater or lesser degree. Sitting in a Sukka is a mitzvah of simplicity.

This was more obvious when everyone had to journey to Jerusalem as part of the mitzvah. They would have to leave wherever they were from, whatever their professions, and the roads would be packed with people doing the same thing. By getting there, away from their busy lives, sharing with people doing the same thing, there would be a strong and shared sense of common identity.

The simplicity of Sukka reminds us that we are each taken care of in our own, personal way, no matter the circumstance or whether we deserve it. This realisation ought to cause a deep sense of gratitude for all the goodness we experience, as well as feelings of modesty and humility. Thinking about all this may even get us to act more like it too!

The Greeks began by banning three mitzvos in their attempts to secularise Judaism; Rosh Chodesh, Shabbos, and circumcision. Each is central to Jewish identity. Existence consists of a fusion of time, space, and consciousness.

Rosh Chodesh addresses time, and a Jew’s obligation to master it. Shabbos testifies to Hashem’s mastery of the universe, and a Jew’s obedience to His will. Circumcision is targeted at the soul, and a Jew’s entire way of life.

Without these three, Jewish identity in existence was lost, and ultimately doomed. The resistance out an end to that.

And as the Sfas Emes and Maharal observe, Chanuka references all these three; Chanuka is eight days long, when the mitzva of Mila begins. There is always a Shabbos in the middle of Chanuka, and a Rosh Chodesh too!

On Chanukah, two main miracles happened. First, the uprising against the Greeks; and secondly, the reestablishment of the Beis HaMikdash service, particularly finding the oil for the Menora, surviving despite attempts to sabotage, which subsequently lasted a week longer than it was meant to.

For the duration of Chanukah, an additional paragraph is inserted into our prayers. It’s contents discuss the incredibly unlikely military victory the Jewish rebels had, defeating a vastly superior Greek army. Yet the way we celebrate Chanuka revolves entirely around the second miracle, finding the oil which lasted an extra week.

Is there a discrepancy? Probably not.

However, a comprehensive military victory is miraculous, and while not entirely impossible, still fairly unlikely. But unlikely victories happen enough throughout history to downgrade it’s importance. Is it not a miracle at all then? Again, probably not.

As an isolated event, the successful war was not quite miraculous. But coupled with the oil, it was transformed. The quest to find uncontaminated oil was noble, but seemingly misguided. There is a premise in Judaism called טומאה הותרה בציבור – Purity isn’t necessarily required for public service. So why were they adamant to have it?

The Maccabees were motivated by a pursuit of fundamentalism. They were literally the extremists resisting modern interference in their lives, and did not want to compromise. So they looked for an uncontaminated pitcher of oil, and found one. But this too is only unlikely, and not impossible.

But something incredible happened, the quintessential Chanuka miracle. It lasted for eight days, not one. This marked something incredible – Hashem approved of their campaign! They were totally vindicated, and their achievements were framed in a new light – they were miracles!

When introducing the story of Miriam, Rashi notes that it is juxtaposed with the story of the spies speaking ill of the land because the spies saw what had happened to Miriam, yet failed to learn a lesson about evil speech.

The association is bizarre, and very problematic as a source for the lesson of not speaking negatively. Miriam spoke out against a human being – and the greatest to walk this earth to boot. Why would they apply the lesson to insentient, inanimate land?

The Rambam teaches that the greater a person is, the greater exercise of humility required. The character appraisal the Torah gives of Moshe is emphatic:

והאיש משה עניו מאד מכל אדם אשר על פני האדמה – Moshe was more humble than any person on the face of the earth.

This may seem a little bit hyperbolic – but actually, indicates his level of humility – he made himself impervious to personal sensitivity – like the ground.

The lesson they could have taken on is suddenly not bizarre at all. They ought to have taken heed that Miriam spoke ill of someone who was totally detached, and genuinely did not care – not only did he completely forgive her, he immediately prayed for her recovery. This being the case, we are able to grasp the juxtaposition of the two events.

There is a phenomenally difficult, but very important lesson about sensitivity in speech here. In both cases, the error in speech was much more subtle than a straightforward, nasty piece of gossip. Yet Tisha B’Av and all tragedies in Jewish history have since ensued as a consequence.

That the level required here is beyond us may be a valid observation, but think of the reverse; what with how powerful our speech clearly is, what could be achieved with dedication and perseverance?

There is a concept called hidur mitzva, which means that we enhance mitzvos we do to make them beautiful. Examples of this principle include using beautiful esrogim on Succos, using larger tefillin and arranging for a megillah to be written by the best scribe.

The basic mitzvah of Chanukah is that the householder will light one candle each night on behalf for all the residents. The next stage is where another candle is progressively lit as the holiday progresses. The ideal method of performance is where each resident lights progressively

The Brisker Rav quotes the Rambam as codifying the act of lighting in the singular, indicating his view that there is no such step as the final one mentioned above, and that therefore the best mitzvah one can do is for the householder (but not each member of the house) to light progressively, which Sefardi Jews do.

This is at odds with the Rema, whom Ashkenazi Jews tend to follow, who maintains that each person lighting is ideal.

What is the disagreement over?

The Gemara in Shabbos discusses a Bris Milah, where the Mohel realises afterwards that he has left a small piece of skin. There are two possibilities with this surgical error; one that leaves the baby considered uncircumcised, and the other does not matter, meaning the mitzvah has been fulfilled. The Gemara concludes that there is no need for the Mohel to repeat the Bris if it is the type which does not matter.

Rashi explains that it is only when the circumcision takes place on Shabbos that the Mohel does not return, but that on weekdays he would. The Rambam disagrees, and says the Mohel would not perform the operation again even on a weekday.

The Brisker Rav sheds light on the issue: after the time of the mitzvah has past, the mitzvah cannot be improved. There is no doubt that this is the case on Shabbos, where there is universal agreement that one does not break it for the hidur of removing the leftover skin, but the Rambam says that once the Mohel has finished the Bris, he cannot make it any more beautiful than it was, as the mitzvah has been completed and therefore gone.

The Rema and Rashi disagree, and say that yes, you can! This is the same difference with regard to lighting menorahs. The Rambam says that once the householder has lit, there is no further possibility for the rest of the household to perform a hidur, as the basic mitzva was already completed when the householder had lit the first light, so the hidur stops once he has lit additional lights. Any further attempts at beautification by doing more, eg everyone else lighting, are after the mitzva has passed, so are redundant.

Ashkenazim follow the opinion the Rema and Rashi, that we can enhance something after the main mitzvah has been completed, which is why each of us lights our own menorah.

It’s a very basic question, and there are many approaches to take. The Ramban on Vayikra 1:9 discusses various approaches we will analyse, and is widely considered one of the fundamental parts of the Ramban’s commentary on the Chumash.

The Ramban quotes the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim as the first approach. The Rambam writes there that the idea of Jews using animal sacrifice was necessary for the people as they needed a physical method of worship, having been a part of the pagan culture in Egypt and other such places. To battle and rectify the idol worship in the world, the Jews would do the same action for a sacred purpose.

The Ramban disagrees strongly with this on many facets. If we base an entire method of service to Hashem on the actions of fools and sinners, why would Hashem gain anything from it at all? Vayikra 1:9 says that the korban creates אשה ריח ניחוח ליהוה – Hashem “enjoys” the fact that we bring korbanos. The implication of the Rambam is that the korbanos are more for man than Hashem, but  if the korbanos were for man, why would Hashem enjoy it? We must find a suitable explanation for bringing korbanos that also explains why Hashem instructs it of us, rather than why why we ought to do it.

The Ramban points out that if the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim is correct, that Jewish animal sacrifice only exists to battle idol worship, then we would not find instances of korbanos before an instance of idol worship. But this is not so – Adam was the first human – there were obviously no other people around to worship idols – yet he brought korbanos nonetheless, and so too with Noach; his family were the sole survivors of the Flood – so again, there could be no idol worshippers – and we find that nonetheless he did bring korbanos. How would the Rambam explain these instances where there was no idol worship to fight?

He further asks why the solution to idol worship would be to do the same thing in a different way – this seems to lend credibility to the idolatry the korbanos are trying to fight, chas v’shalom. It would seem that it would be better to just eat animals and not have sacrifices at all if we were indeed trying to fight the credibility of idol worship, as eating them shows we don’t consider them to be worthy of special attention.

R’ Yakov Minkus explains the solution to this issue. The Rambam in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Me’ila 8:8) writes explicitly that the yesod – the distilled, fundamental, reason to bring korbanos is a חוק – there is no reason to do it other than the fact we were told to. The Moreh Nevuchim explains the inverse of this – once the mitzva exists, there is a spillover effect that we can relate to more, but the underlying reasoning remains a חוק. With this knowledge at hand, of course Noach could bring a korban, and the question about the non-existence of idol-worship falls away. Battling idol worship isn’t why there are korbanos as a starting point, rather, it helps explain it after the fact.

With this knowledge of the Rambam’s true approach to korbanos, we can suggest an answer to the question of why the countering of idol worship would take a similar form, rather than denigrating it, by simply eating all animals regularly, without any sacrifices at all.

Korbanos have their blood sprinkled on the Mizbeach, by a kohen, in the Beis Hamikdash. The Korban Pesach had none of these key functions, so why is it called a korban at all? R’ Moshe Shapiro explains that the key to understanding this issue is that idol worship is not nothing. Paganism and idol worship have a כח הטומאה – they usurp and corrupt spirituality. Eating an animal doesn’t battle the the negative of idol worship, it just nullifies it. The nullification does not require the Beis Hamikdash, or sprinkling of blood by the kohen.  This is why the Pesach could be brought publicly in Egypt. The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim was saying that all korbanos have this nullifying the negative aspect to which we can relate, but we now see this isn’t the full spectrum of his opinion.

The Ramban then offers a second approach. There is an intrinsic good on man’s part in having korbanos. The idea of a korban is that a person should see the animal as being his substitute, and really, he ought to be sacrificed. The animal takes his place and atones for his sins, and this is the reason to have korbanos.

There is a mighty flaw with this approach too however. Most korbanos are donated, rather than obligated of people, so the Ramban’s approach doesn’t explain the existence of donated korbanos at all.

The Ramban offers a third solution, that is beyond the scope of this site to explain properly. The word קרבן, the root of which is the word קרב, means “closeness”. Offering a korban engenders closeness with Hashem. This is a difficult concept to explain, let alone understand, but to illustrate: we perform mitzvos to emulate Hashem’s ways, but we are not emulating Hashem by bringing korbanos – we are doing something else: we are interacting with Hashem. We are provoking a reaction in Hashem, as the pasuk says; “אשה ריח ניחוח ליהוה” – on which Rashi remarks “נחת רוח לפני, שאמרתי ונעשה רצוני”. This is difficult to illustrate, but there is a difference between doing Hashem’s will, and making it. When we bring a korban, we bring more of Hashem’s will into the world. One could suggest there is an element of creation here.

The Ramban brings a proof from Isaiah 60:7 that says: יַעֲלוּ עַל רָצוֹן מִזְבְּחִי וּבֵית תִּפְאַרְתִּי אֲפָאֵר – the Mizbeach is the expression of Hashem’s will.

So in bringing a korban, a person intentions are going to correlate to how they have extended G-d’s will in the world. This is why there is a concept of pigul, (a lengthy concept regarding what happens in the event that all the actions of a korban were carried out correctly, but someone in the porcess was thinking about something mundane, like the weather. Around 40 pages of Meseches Zevachim are devoted to this) – because the physical animal isn’t what matters – there is a transfer of spirituality here, from potential/theoretical to physical in this world. It’s a very big deal. The improper thoughts mean one can’t interact with what he’s trying to, and the korban has served it’s purpose, as the whole idea is not the physical at all.

So in answer to why we bring korbanos: there is the simple Moreh Nevuchim approach that we are counteracting paganism, the Ramban’s simple approach that we can atone our sins, and the Ramban’s esoteric Kabbalistic approach. We can suggest though, that perhaps the חוק aspect that the Rambam referred to was this third approach, and perhaps all the opinions harmonise together. Admittedly, this doesn’t answer why we bring korbanos, but it does explain what the function of the korban is.

After experiencing the incredible miracle that was the Red Sea splitting, the people collectively sang Az Yashir:

זה קלי ואנוהו אלקי אבי וארוממנו – This is my God, and I will glorify Him – the God of my father – and I will exalt Him. (15:2)

The Mechilta observes how any maidservants at the sea saw things that even Yechezkel ben Buzi, who had the most vivid prophecies, did not.

Who were these maidservants? How were there any servants among the Jews, a newly liberated people?

The commentaries wonder how Chazal derived their statement. The Vilna Gaon, the Maharil Diskin and the Maskil L’David accept essentially the same view. Rashi writes that there are two parts to the passuk. The second half, that of “אלקי אבי וארוממנו”, is a reference to Hashem being the God of their fathers, illustrating a relationship begun earlier than those saved at the Sea. The above commentaries explain that the word “זה” refers to both clauses; once for “זה קלי ואנוהו” and then for “זה אלקי אבי וארוממנו”. However, the Jews did not leave Egypt alone. Non-Jewish servants and maidservants, a.k.a. the Eirev Rav, came along in order to convert. Unable to refer to their relationship with Hashem as beginning with their forefathers, substituted “זה קלי ואנוהו” instead. Did the Jews say both statements? Maskil L’David says they did, whereas the Eirev Rav said only “זה קלי ואנוהו”. The Vilna Gaon and Maharil Diskin teach that this passuk was truly split; with the Jews saying”זה אלקי אבי וארוממנו” , and the non-Jewish servants and maidservants saying “זה קלי ואנוהו”.

The commentaries explain how Chazal understood that the maidservant saw “more” than Yechezkel. The word “זה” – “this here” – was used at the Sea to connote something concrete and direct, as opposed to the general “ואראה” – “I was shown” – used in the later prophesies. Chazal saw from this that even this maidservant, essentially any non-Jew who was there, was able to point and say “זה קלי ואנוהו”; and truly saw a greater revelation than even the greatest of the prophets; the Presence of Hashem was manifest in such a great way that one could simply point and say, “This is my G-d”.

Interestingly, there is discussion amongst the Rishonim regarding the nature of Hashem’s “revelation” at the Sea. Rabbeinu Bachayei writes that Chazal do not mean to say that the maaidservant had greater ability to grasp such things, nor were they wiser than Yechezkel. Hashem simply “showed” Himself more at the Sea than He ever did to Yechezkel. The Rambam disagrees; in describing the lofty levels reached by the Jews in the generation of the Exodus and the Desert travels, he writes: “The lowest of them was like Yechezkel, as Chazal say. This seems to be a reference to the statement of Chazal under discussion. Apparently Rambam understood this statement to be descriptive of the nation’s spiritual heights, which enabled them to have as remarkable a revelation as they did.

According to the Rambam, two insights would appear. Firstly, that even the “lowest” Jew at that time was indeed greater than Yechezkel. Secondly, it appears that we need not understand that the maidservant was at least originally non-Jewish. In context, the Rambam is discussing the great level of the Jewish nation at the time, and yet he uses this statement of Chazal as a proof. This leads one to surmise that the Rambam understood that the maidservant in question was Jewish. If this is the case, our original question returns; why is there a “maidservant” in this newly liberated nation?

The Gemara in Sota 11b tells the story of how the pregnant Jewish women in Egypt would go out to the fields to give birth, and would leave their newborns there. To take them home would mean their being captured and tossed into the Nile. Hashem took care of these newborns, sending angels to clean, feed and care for them. When the Egyptians found out about these children living in the fields, they came to kill them. A miracle occurred; the earth would swallow these children deep enough to protect them from Egyptian plows. After the Egyptians left, the children sprouted out of the ground like plants. When they grew up, herds of them would return to their homes. And when Hashem revealed Himself at the Sea, these children “recognized” Him first having been raised in His presence and said: “זה קלי ואנוהו”. Clearly this Gemara understands that the Jews too said “זה קלי ואנוהו”. Now according to the Maskil L’David, that “זה קלי ואנוהו” was also said by the Jews, this Gemara can be congruent with the Mechilta. However, according to the Vilna Gaon and the others, this Gemara too needs reconciliation with the word usage of the Mechilta: “maidservant,”, and we are left with our question.

Food for thought.