Besides building the sukkah, the other distinctive mitzvah of Sukkot is a ritual known as Waving the Lulav. The Biblical source for this mitzvah is found in Leviticus:
On the first day, you will take for yourselves a fruit of a beautiful tree, palm branches, twigs of a braided tree and brook willows, and you will rejoice before the Eternal your God for seven days. -Leviticus 23:40
The lulav is a bundle of the Arba Minim, the Four Species: the etrog or citron (“fruit of a beautiful tree”), palm frond, two myrtle branches (“twigs of a braided tree”) and three willow branches. We make a bouquet of the tree branches and hold them next to the citron, recite the blessing, and then wave the lulav to the four corners of the compass as well as heaven and earth. The blessing:
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh haolam
Blessed are you, Eternal our God, ruler of the universe
asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav
Who has sanctified us with His commandments
v’tzivanu al n’tilat lulav (Amen)
and commanded us to take up the lulav (Amen)
Rather than write out the instructions for waving properly, I’m going to share a video by Rabbi Wendi Geffen:
Now you may be thinking, “Rabbi, this is the weirdest mitzvah ever! What is this all about?” There’s no single answer to that question. Here are some possibilities:
- Shaking the lulav all four directions plus up and down acknowledges the whole creation which God has made and entrusted to us. The four species “stand in” for the vast variety of species by including one that smells and tastes good (etrog), one that smells good but doesn’t have a taste (myrtle), one that tastes good but has no smell (date palm) and one that has neither smell nor taste (willow.)
- If you consider that the holiday falls at the point when rain might be expected in Israel, and at the completion of the harvest, then it makes sense that this ancient rite may have begun as a fertility ritual. Look at the lulav: the branches are long and thin, the citron is (literally) an ovary. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the fertility theme in bringing the two together.
- Rabbi Michael Strassfeld offers several other interpretations in his article Lulav and Etrog: Symbolism.
My own take on this ritual, as with all the Sukkot rituals, is that it brings us into direct contact with nature. We have to acquire the branches and the lulav, we hold them in our hands, we smell them, we handle them day after day. We even watch them wilt a bit as the week goes on. Nature is fragile. You can order bits of it on the internet, yes, but when the real thing is in your hands, it is not tidy, not digital.
Sukkot is not a head trip. It is a festival of hearts and hands in contact with the living world. God commands us to get away from the study table, outdoors into nature, to reconnect with the world that according to Genesis is tov meod – very good.