top of page

Thoughts on the Lulav and the Etrog

Somewhere tucked away, ready to pop out when I least expect it, I have a campaign-style button with a picture of a milkshake on it.  This is an unusual shake.  At first glance it looks like a mixed drink with a stalk of celery sticking out of it.  On closer examination, one realizes that it is a palm branch with other branches (willows and myrtles) alongside it and, floating in the shake, is an etrog, a citron.  Emblazoned on the button is the message, “Make a Lulav Shake.”  This button along with posters and other materials was part of a campaign over several years by the Conservative Movement to encourage people to acquire a set of the Arbaah Minim, the Four Species, to use on the festival of Sukkot.


This mitzvah is found in a passage regarding the festivals that we will read from Leviticus (24:40) on both the first and second days of Sukkot this weekend. We are instructed, “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 seven days.”  Our sages determined that the fruit of the hadar trees spoken of here refer to the etrog, the citron, while the leafy trees refer to myrtle branches. These two, along with a palm branch and some willows make up the four species to be used in our celebration of the holiday. While the Talmud has discussions on the determination of the species as well as how many branches of each one needs to take, the custom is to have one lulav, a branch from a date-palm at least16” long (4 handbreadths), three myrtle twigs and two willow branches, each of these at least 12” long, along with an etrog.  Because the etrog is referred to as the fruit of the hadar tree, we are urged to find an etrog which is hadar, beautiful, splendid.  Thus in places where the etrogim are sold in quantity, you may see prospective buyers inspecting the etrog as well as the other species with magnifying glasses to be certain that they are as close to perfection as possible.  Of course, the better the quality of the etrog, i.e. the more it conforms to the dictates of the rabbis about kosher etrogim, the higher the price. If this applies to the fruit of the etrog tree, our sages tell us, it must also apply to other mitzvot and one should always seek to fulfill a mitzvah in the most beautiful and splendid fashion within one’s means.


This year, since the first day of Sukkot is on Shabbat, the mitzvah of the lulav is postponed to the second day.  In order toemphasize the sanctity of Shabbat, the rabbis took three very popular mitzvot and decreed that one may not perform them on the Sabbath day: the sounding of the shofar, the waving of the lulav, and the reading of the megillah, the scroll of Esther.  As the calendar has developed, Purim never falls on Shabbat, so the megillah is not an issue, but as we saw on Rosh Hashanah, the shofar was not sounded until Sunday and the same holds for the lulav this weekend of Sukkot. Ostensibly the reasons given are to avoid the violation of the prohibition of carrying objects in the public domain on Shabbat.  Even though one could bring them to the synagogue beforehand, just as a mohel may bring his knife and other equipment to the place of a brith milah before shabbat and perform that mitzvah then, that was not deemed sufficient here.  The rabbis are concerned lest one carry the shofar or the lulav to some expert for instruction in their use on the Sabbath. Carrying represents the transfer of property from one person or place to another and is a major component in business dealings, hence the rabbis wanted to underline and emphasize that prohibition.


Various well-known and oft-repeated midrashim describe the symbolism of these four plants.  Since the rainy season in Israel is about to begin, they are all seen as advocates on behalf of the farmers and the people of Israel, calling on God to provide sufficient rain for the crops in the year ahead.  Taking them up altogether with the willows and myrtles inserted in a holder made of palm leaves or simply tied onto the lulav and holding the etrog next to them, they are seen as one bundle, agudah achat, an expression found again and again in the High Holiday liturgy where we ask God ‘may all you have created bow before you and be made into one bundle to do your will wholeheartedly.”  Thus we see the people of Israel, Jews of all kinds, bound together in a single bundle to serve the Almighty.


Each of the species, then, represents one group brought into that bundle.  The etrog which has a lovely fragrance and has a pleasant, though sour, taste, represents those who have great learning within, and spread that learning through good deeds in the community  The lulav, a date palm, has fruit with a sweet taste, but little fragrance, representing those with great knowledge who are not known for their deeds.  The myrtle has a nice fragrance, some use it for the besamim, the Havdalah spices, but no taste.  It represents folks whose knowledge may be limited, but who work to do good in the world nonetheless.  The willow, without taste or smell, stands for those who are not distinguished particularly in either area, but all four types of people make up our community and come together as an agudah achat, one bundle to serve God wholeheartedly.  If any one of these is lacking, we cannot properly fulfill the mitzvah.


In Temple days, the lulav was used each day of Sukkot in the Temple itself.  Outside, it was used only on the first day of Sukkot.  Since the destruction of the Temple, our practice is to use the lulav throughout the week in memory of the Temple, zecher l’mikdash. Because of this distinction between the requirements of the Torah and rabbinic law, there is room for leniency in the mitzvah after the first day. Thus, some things which might not be acceptable in the appearance of the four species on the first day are permissible on subsequent days.


Though different groups have some variation in practice, the general custom among Ashkenazic Jews is to take up the lulav just prior to the recitation of the Hallel psalms.  Some however, prefer to take their lulav out into the sukkah the first thing in the morning and make the blessing there.  Either way, the spine of the palm should be facing you, and the three myrtle branches are placed in the basket to the right and the two willows to the left.  The myrtles should extend a bit higher than the willows, and the lulav should be about four inches taller than any of the otherbranches.  We take the lulav in our stronger hand (though in some traditions, regardless of handedness, one takes it in one’sright  hand, the hand that represents God’s love and kindness) and, at first, picks up the etrog, upside down, with the stem up and the pitam, the remains of the flower, down, so as to allow one to say the blessing prior to actually fulfilling the mitzvah properly.  We hold the etrog next to the lulav bundle and recite the blessing for the mitzvah of the lulav:  Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat lulav.  Praised are You, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who has sanctified us through His mitzvot and commanded us to take up the lulav.  At this point, the etrog is flipped over to its proper position (all the four items should be in the direction in which they grow) and the first time one uses the four species this year one adds the shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and allowing us to reach this season once more. Though technically, as a positive commandment governed by time, women are exempt from performing this mitzvah, customarily women have taken up the lulav nonetheless and thus get full credit for fulfilling the mitzvah.


If one is able, one should stand to perform this mitzvah, but if one is unable to do so, one may perform the mitzvah seated.  What follows is the waving of the bundle of all four species, “making the lulav shake.” While some rabbis ruled that one should wait until the waving during the Hallel prayers, our practice is to wave the lulav in six directions right after the blessings are recited.  These species serve to offer two kinds of prayer, prayers of thanksgiving for past blessings and alsopetitions for future blessing.  Thus, another midrash sees the four species as reminders of four parts of the body that come together to serve God.  The etrog represents the heart, seen as the source of knowledge, the lulav is the spine which allows us to stand before God, the myrtle leaves are the shape of eyes with which we read the words of prayer, and the willows are shaped like lips, to pronounce the words.


The waving of the lulav is referred to as na-anuim, the Hebrew word for shaking.  Some associate this waving with the waving of certain sacrifices prior to offering them. By waving the lulav we are acknowledging God’s rule over heaven and earth and over the winds from all four directions.  Some add that we pray to be protected from destructive winds.  Again, customs vary, but the Ashkenazic practice calls for the shaker to face toward the east and remain facing in that direction throughout the procedure.  We extend the lulav forward, to the east and draw it back, three times, letting the leaves of the lulav rustle.  We follow the same procedure to the right (south), behind us, over our right shoulder (west), then to the left (north).  Finally, we bring the lulav back in front of us and thrust it three times upward, and then bending forward and not actually turning the lulav upside down, we thrust it in a downward direction three times also.


The great mystical teacher of 16th century Tzfat (Safed), known as the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, followed a different order and this is the procedure followed by Hasidim which you will find on the Chabad website.  The Ari associated each of the six directions with six lower sefirot in the Kabbalistic system, and one is required to bring the lulav into one’s chest where one’s heart isand that represents the last of the seven lower sefirot, Malchut.  Thus they wave the lulav first toward the south, toward your right as you face east, this is the side of chesed, which stands for kindness.  We then wave to the left, the side of gevurah, discipline (quoting the website).  Then forward for Tiferet, the mediating sefirah, representing harmony.  Next we shake upward, for netzach, perseverance, down for hod, submission, and then behind us toward the west, for yesod, connection, always bringing them toward the heart for malchut, which stands for communication. There is also an association of the various parts of the four species with the seven lower sefirot as well, since we have six branches (one palm, three myrtles, and two willows), and one etrog, each of these is associated with one of the seven sefirot.​`


The lulav and etrog are used in two different places in our service.  First, if one has a set to use, one picks it up before the recitation of the Hallel Psalms and holds it in one’s stronger hand with the etrog next to it throughout that section of the service.  At the verses of Hodu ladonay, give thanks to the Lord for He is good, the reader chants a special melody and waves the lulav once again as described, in the six directions.  The congregation repeats that verse of Hodu and also waves the lulav in the six directions as well.  At the name of God, we pause and do not wave it, but do so on each of the other six words of the verse.  The same procedure is followed by the leader for the next verse, “Yomar na Yisrael.”  The congregation repeats the verse of Hodu and waves the lulav again.  For the third and fourthverses of Yomru na, the leader chants them, but does not wave the lulav.  However, the congregation is supposed to repeat the Hodu verse after each line and as they do so, wave the lulav again.


A little later in the Hallel, the reader again, breaking the wordsinto syllables, waves the lulav twice on each word as he chants, “A-na (Adonay) ho-shia na- a, stretching out the na into two syllables,” Please, O Lord, save us, we pray.  Again the congregation follows his lead for both recitations of Ana Adonay.  We do not wave the lulav for the next two phrases, following the practice of the School of Hillel as opposed to that of Shammai.  A little later, the Hodu verse reappears, it is recited twice and the reader and the congregation wave their lulavim once more each time for that verse.  Waving the lulav for Hodu and for Ana Adonay hoshia na is derived by the sages from verses in First Chronicles (16:33-35), “Then shall all the trees of the forest shout for joy at the presence of the Lord, for He is coming to rule the earth. Praise the Lord for He is good; His steadfast love is eternal (Hodu ladonay ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo.) Deliver us, O God, our deliverer (hoshieinu Elohei yisheinu).”


In some congregations, at this point, the Hoshanah prayers are said while people already have the lulav in hand.  Many other congregations do not recite the Hoshanah prayers until later in the service, after the musaf amidah is completed. I have written about the Hoshanah prayers elsewhere in this series of blog posts.  A Torah scroll is removed from the ark and held on the bimah and the congregation follows the leader around the Torah and around the sanctuary, carrying the lulav and etrog as we recite these special prayers each day, seeking God’s blessings.  On the seventh day, Hoshanah Rabbah, we circle the congregation seven times and then continue the ritual with a bundle of willow branches.


The Talmud speaks of the devotion the ancients had for this mitzvah: “This was the practice of the men of Jerusalem.  A man would leave his house with the lulav in his hand, enter the synagogue with the lulav in his hand, read the Sh’ma with the lulav in his hand, visit the sick and comfort the mourners with the lulav in his hand, offer the prayer (the Amidah) with the lulav in his hand, when he read the Torah or offered the priestly blessing, he’d set in on the ground, and when he entered the bet midrash, the study hall, he’d send it home with his son or his servant or a messenger.”


While all three of the pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, have both connections to our sacred history and to nature, the agricultural cycle, Sukkot seems to emphasize the latter.  For those who may feel disconnected from the natural world, Sukkot thrust us outside into the Sukkah to experience nature in its varied forms.  The mitzvah of the lulav and etrog follow that path and call on us to reach out to the heavens and down to the earth below, to reach out to the four directions of the compass, to experience the wind and the rain.  Our hoshanah prayers remind us to be thankful for the many gifts and blessingswith which we have been showered, but they also remind us of the uncertainty of days ahead and our need to seek divine support to face whatever the new year may offer. As with any ritual, while it has its intricate details, it is important for us to look beyond the ritual to the values to which it points, to connect with the world around us, with nature, with the heavens and the earth.  May this holiday, the feast of ingathering, allow us to gather in the experience and the atmosphere of our natural world even as we link the celebration to the wanderings of our ancestors through the wilderness and through life.


5 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Thoughts on Yom HaShoah

How can one best memorialize those who died during the Shoah during the Second World War?  As in most areas of Jewish life, so too here there have been a wide variety of responses to the Nazi genocide


bottom of page