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Sukkot 5780 - Go the Extra Mile

10/16/2019 03:41:49 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

So, let’s be real, why are we waving a Lulav and Etrog in the air?  

Truthfully, I have always loved the ritual of arbah minim and I look forward to it with great excitement every year.  It has never bothered me at all or felt strange, but I know that not everyone feels the same way.  Some people in this room have told me that it strikes them as weird and makes them slightly uncomfortable to pick up fruits and branches and start waving them around while chanting.  So I would like to talk about it with you, explain the source of the practice, the reason we wave, and how the way we approach this mitzvah cuts to the core of our faith and the way we approach life in general.

The Torah commands to take a Lulav, Etrog, Hadassim, and Aravaot on the holiday of sukkot.  It says, “Ulekachtem lachem peri etz hadar, kapot temarim, veanaf etz avot, vearvei nachal, and you shall take for yourself a beautiful fruit, a branch of a palm tree, a branch of a plaited tree, and willows of the brook” (Vayikra, 23:40).  But that’s all it says.  It never says to wave them in the air in all different directions.  

The Sefer Hachinuch explains that the reason we take the arbah minim is because we have so much joy in our hearts as a result of the harvest season.  Our joy is overflowing and Hashem encourages us to channel our joy by holding the arbah minim while singing words of praise.

But still, why do we wave our arbah minim?

The Mishnah tells us, “Veheichan hayu menanin? When did they wave?  According to Beit Hillel, when one comes to the verse in Psalms 118, ‘Give Praise to Hashem for He is good’ and also at the verse, annah Hashem hoshia na.  Beit Shammai adds, also at the verse, anna Hashem hatzlicha nah (Sukkah, 37b).

The Talmud reacts to this discussion by throwing up its hands and saying, “nanunah, man dechar shemeih”, which basically means, who said anything about waving in the first place.

The Talmud then emends the Mishnah to read as follows:

“Any lulav that is not at least three handbreadths (tefachim) tall, which is the minimum height necessary to wave, is not kosher.”

The Talmud then suggests that the biblical source for waving the arbah minim is a tangential source.  True there is no direct source to wave the arbah minim, but the practice derives from the fact that there is another ritual in which the Torah does require us to wave: the ritual of waving the two loaves of bread with two sheep, which we do on Shavuot.  In the Beit Hamikdash the two loaves were placed on top of the two sheep.  Then the kohen would place his hand underneath the sheep and wave the four items together.  Molikh umeivi, maaleh umorid.  He would bring it back and forth, and up and down.

The Talmud understands that since we wave ritual items on other occasions in the Beit Hamikdash, for this reason we assume that waving is a powerful spiritual activity and therefore we should also wave our Lulav and Etrog.

The Talmud then explains the purpose of the waving.

Rabbi Yochanan suggests that we bring it back and forth, “for the one to whom all the four directions belong.”  And we bring it up and down, “for the one to whom heaven and earth belong.”

Rabbi Yosi bar Rabbi Chaninah suggests similarly: “We bring it back and forth in order to stop the bad winds (ruchot raot) bad winds.  We bring it up and down in order to stop the bad dew (tallalim raim).

A third rabbi, Rabbi Acha bar Yaakov used to wave it back and forth and when he would do so he would exclaim, “Dein geirah be-einah desitnah, let this be an arrow in the eye of Satan.”

Just to be clear, the Talmud does not endorse actually saying this formulation.  Not because it is inaccurate but, on the contrary, because it might wake up Satan.  

We see that these three approaches all understand that the reason we wave the arbah minim is not biblical law or even strongly sourced in a logical rabbinic law.  It arises out of a feeling that the ritual is powerful and that if we do it may help us channel our prayers in a productive way.

The Talmud draws from this whole discussion of waving a powerful educational lesson.  Says the Talmud:

Sheyarei mitzvah me’akvin et hapuraniyot (Sukkah, 38a).  Sheyarei means something that is not essential.  The Talmud is saying that even a non-essential part of a mitzvah can be so powerful that it can prevent a bad thing from happening.

This is how Rashi understands it.  He writes: A mitzvah that is shirayim and is not the main aspect necessary to achieve atonement nevertheless is so powerful and can prevent bad events. 

But sheyarei mitzvah doesn’t only mean a non-essential part of the mitzvah.  It is more than that.  It can also refer to a part of the mitzvah that we often take for granted, or ignore, or don’t view as important.  

Rav Amram Gaon (d. 875) tells us about the following custom.  After one makes kiddush and drinks the wine there are often drops of wine still left in the cup.  Rav Amram Gaon says one should then take water and pour it into the cup in order to draw out those remaining drops of wine and then drink that whole mixture.  In this way one is saving the sheyarei mitzvah (cited in Tur, Orach Chaim, 299).
This teaching of Rav Amram Gaon is a romantic approach to mitzvot.  We should look at every aspect of the mitzvah as though it is alive and has feelings.  We can look at those drops and just wash them out with soap or we can an imagine that even those drops have holiness and we should treat them with love and respect.

So too, we can take a similar approach with respect to the waving of our Lulav.  We can cynically say that this doesn’t even appear in the written text of the Torah, it is just superstition, and in any event is not the main part of the mitzvah.  Or we can imagine that the arbah minim are an extension of our body and we are moving our entire bodies in service to Hashem.

Sometimes the way we look at the shiyarei mitzvah reveals how we feel about the entire mitzvah.  

If we embrace even the most tertiary aspect of the mitzvah and pour our heart into it then it is a reflection of our love for the mitzvah as a whole.  But if we ignore that part then, Gd forbid, it could be a reflection of how we feel about the whole mitzvah.

Let’s say we want to give a gift to someone who we love.  We could just give them the gift without taking the time to wrap it or write a card to accompany it.  But we all know how much more meaningful the gift is if we wrap it and write a note.  The gift is the same, but the wrapping demonstrates the greatness of our love.

That should be the way we approach every mitzvah.  We shouldn’t just look at the bare minimum necessary to do a mitzvah.  The way we distinguish ourselves in service of Hashem is not through the mitzvah itself, but through the margins.  

It boils down to a basic question: Are we all in?

If we are all in, then we will love the sheyarei mitzvah as it is a further opportunity to express our love for Hashem.

There is another place where the word sheyarei appears in our sacred texts.

In pirkei avot it states, “Shimon hatzaddik hayah mishiyarei kenesset hagedolah, Shimon the Tzaddik was from the last of the people who made up the Great Assembly” (1:2).  He taught that the entire world rests on three things (al sheloshe devarim haolam omed): Torah, Avodah (prayer), and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of kindness).

Why was it necessary for the Mishnah to use this phrase and say that Shimon Hatzaddik was from the sheyarei?

The Mishnah is perhaps hinting to this idea that really the whole world rests on how we approach the shiyarei aspects of life.

Are we all in as parents?  Are we all in as friends?  Are we all in with respect to the way we daven?  The way study Torah?  The way we do acts of kindness?  Or do we do it in half a way?  Are we all in as Jews?

If we are all in, then it shows just how much we love this aspect of our lives.

Of all the holidays, Sukkot is the one that is most a reminder for us to be all in.  It is the only mitzvah we do with our entire body when we sit in a sukkah.  

This is even a halakha.  We are not supposed to eat while only sitting partially in a sukkah while the rest of our body is outside the sukkah.

Sukkah is by definition all in.

That’s why we wave the arbah minim proudly.  We are not just holding the arbah minim.  We are dancing with them.  Because on Sukkot we are proudly declaring to ourselves that we love our faith so much that we are all in.  And we know that just like we are all in, so too Hashem is all in on us.

Mon, February 24 2020 29 Shevat 5780