Today’s section consists only of the opening mishnah of the third chapter. Most of the commentary below is from my Mishnah Yomit commentary.
The third chapter of Sukkah deals with the four species, which are together called the “Lulav.” These four species are described in Leviticus 23:40, “On the first day you shall take the product of ‘hadar’ trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” The four species are identified by the rabbis as 1) the etrog or citron; 2) the lulav or palm-branch; 3) the hadas or myrtle; 4) the arava or willow. I will refer to them by their Hebrew names.
The Torah does not say exactly what one is to do with these four species and this led to different interpretations among ancient groups of Jews. In Nehemiah 8:14-18 we see Israelites using them, or more precisely, something similar to them, to build their sukkot. Other groups of ancient Jews used them strictly in the Temple to walk around the altar. For the rabbis the mitvah of the lulav was incumbent upon every Jew, whether at the Temple or outside of it. The rabbis explain that each Jew must simply pick these four species up once a day on Sukkot and wave them in each direction. This remains our custom to this day.
The first seven mishnayot deal with the physical attributes of the four species. To this day, observant Jews are extremely cautious to make sure that the four species look like they are supposed to look, or in Hebrew are “mehudar”, adorned.
You can find many interesting pictures and information about the four species by googling them and looking at the images.
Section one: There are two potential reasons why a stolen lulav is invalid. First of all, the Torah states, “And you shall take for yourselves (lachem) on the first day…” The extra word “lachem (for yourselves)” is understood to mean that a person’s lulav must be their own and not one that was stolen or even borrowed. Secondly, performing a mitzvah with a stolen item is considered a “commandment that derives from a transgression” and such an act is invalid.
A dried up lulav is invalid because it is not “adorned”, meaning it does not look good.
Section two: An asherah is a tree used for idol worship. Since it is forbidden to use anything from this kind of tree, its palm-branch cannot be used to fulfill the mitvah of lulav.
A “condemned city” refers to an idolatrous city which must be utterly destroyed, according to Deuteronomy 13:13-18. Everything in the idolatrous city must be burned. Hence it is impossible to use a lulav that comes from such a city.
Section three: The lulav must not be broken off at its top and its leaves must still be attached to the spine, the middle leaf that goes through all lulavim.
Section four: If the leaves are still attached but they are spread apart, the lulav is still valid. Rabbi Judah says that if the leaves are still attached one should tie the lulav (just the palm-branch) together at the top. We shall learn more about tying all four species together later in the chapter.
Section five: The “iron mountains” are identified in Josephus, Wars of the Jews 4, 8, 2 as being mountains north of Moab, on the other side of the Jordan river. From our mishnah we see that the palm trees that grew there seem to have been a slightly different type of palm. Their leaves are shorter and do not grow on the whole length of the spine. Nevertheless, they are valid for the mitzvah of lulav.
Section six: The lulav must be three handbreadths, long enough so that one can wave it. The Talmud explains that the lulav must actually be three handbreadths long, like the hadas and aravah, and then an additional handbreadth so that it can be waved. We will learn more about waving the lulav and other four species later in the chapter.
The Talmud begins by trying to explain why a stolen or dried up lulav cannot be used on Sukkot.
The mishnah does not distinguish between the first day of the festival and subsequent days (second day and onwards)—one cannot use a dried up or stolen lulav on any day. This makes sense with regard to a withered up lulav. Leviticus 23:40 uses the word “goodly (הדר)” in the context of the etrog, but the rabbis apply it to all four species. All must be goodly and not withered or dried up. This rule applies every day of the festival.
With regard to a stolen lulav, there is a midrash which disqualifies the use of a lulav on the first day of the festival. The same verse from above says, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.” From the words “for yourselves” the rabbis derive the halakhah that on the first day of the festival one may use only one’s own lulav, as if the verse said, “from your own stuff.” A stolen lulav or even a borrowed lulav is not allowed. But the verse applies only to the first day of the festival.
But why is a stolen lulav not to be used on the second day (meaning any day but the first day)? The midrash that one must own one’s lulav refers only to the first day. So why not use a stolen lulav on the second day. This is the question that occupies the rest of this talmudic passage. The answer comes from a statement made by R. Yohanan in the name of R. Shimon b. Yohai. Using a stolen lulav to fulfill a mitzvah would be performing a transgression (stealing) in order to fulfill a mitzvah. Not only is this prohibited, but one cannot even use such a lulav to fulfill one’s commandment. R. Yohanan’s midrash compares a stolen animal to a lame animal—even after one takes legal possession of the stolen animal (we shall see how below) the animal cannot be used as a sacrifice. Just as a lame animal cannot be fixed, so too an animal that has been stolen can never be used as a sacrifice.