Hot on the heels of Yom Kippur, falls the next in a series of autumn Jewish holidays, Sukkot. After an entire month or more of soul searching, introspection, fasting, begging forgiveness, it’s time to party!
Lulav: The Four Species (Arba Minim): If you are in a synagogue over Sukkot, you will witness (or participate) a central ritual for the holiday—shaking of the lulav. To the inexperienced, lulav shaking seems bizarre, and a very quaint ritual practice. But the practice is rooted in deep symbolism, reminders of God’s Divine presence, and also of community.
The lulav is actually four separate pieces bound together (except for the etrog), each deep with symbolism connected to the body and community at large; there are four types of people needed to make a community or the world. Each part—each species—is crucial to make a person (or a community) whole:
- Palm frond (Lulav)—the tall, pointy palm branch is the backbone of the entire lulav. It is like the spine, giving structure and shape. Everything else in the lulav is bound together with palm leaves to make a single unit. The palm branch is a species with taste but no scent. Those who study Torah, yet do not do good deeds based upon what they’ve learned.
- Myrtle branch (Hadas)—the fragrant myrtle adds a sweet aroma to the lulav, having scent but no taste, hadas represents those who accomplish good deeds, yet have not studied Torah. The almond shape of the myrtle leaves suggests the eyes.
- Willow branch (Aravot)—willow has neither taste nor scent, representing the those with neither learning nor good deeds. Its elongated shape suggests a pair of lips.
- Etrog (citron)—the etrog, which most resembles a large, bumpy lemon has both taste (slightly bitter) and fragrance (its aroma is exquisite). Considered the heart because of its shape, it symbolizes those who have studied and accomplish good deeds.
Together, these species come together taken in hand and waved in six directions: north, south, east, west, upwards, and downwards. These directions represent where we find God—all around us. By waving the lulav at the appropriate times both in the sukkah and during Sukkot services, we are reminded that God is all around us, perhaps no closer to us than after the end of the High Holy Days and during the fall harvest season when we are so connected to nature.
Interestingly, the American Pilgrims who first came to this country so many centuries ago based their Thanksgiving on the festival of Sukkot. They found the holiday of giving thanks for the bounty of the fall harvest resonant, and the holiday stuck, as (of course) we celebrate it every November here!
Barbara Barnett is a noted Jewish educator, author, speaker, and online journalist. She has developed numerous innovative programs and initiatives, award-winning publications and worship experiences for adults and families, as well as cutting-edge educational tools.