Loewenstein’s shtiebel on the second floor of the North London flat was packed tight, from wall to wall, that balmy Sukkot morning. Congregants jostled for space to place their spear-like lulavim and cotton-cradled etrogim.
“Hold my etrog while I go outside for a moment,” said Dad “and mind the pitam, don’t drop it.”
Honored with the trust, I fondled the etrog carefully, but alas, it rolled out of my hands and plunged head first onto the floor. Even before it hit the ground, I knew it. The worst had happened. The pitam, the stem, had broken off. I recall being down on my knees among the swaying tzitzit and flapping frock coats trying to piece it back on. And then—my father’s expression. Even more horrified than when I dropped and broke his cordless mechanical shaver.
The Arba Minim, the four species of plants that we are required to take on the Festival of Sukkot, are mentioned in Leviticus: “Ulekachtem lachem beyom harishon, and you shall take for yourselves on the first day, pri etz hadar, the fruits of the hadar tree, kapot temarim, branches of palm trees, ve’anaf etz avot, boughs of thick leaved trees, ve’arvei nachal, and willows of the brook.”
The Talmud interprets these words as referring to the following plants. Pri etz hadar means the etrog that is both beautiful, hadar, and resides, hadar, in trees all year round. Kapot temarim, which can also be read kafut, bound together, temarim, means the lulav, shoots of date palms that, in their early stages, before they fan out into palm branches, are tightly bound and spear shaped. Anaf etz avot, boughs of covered trees, means the hadas, myrtle, because “avot” means braided and the myrtle leaves look as though they are braided around the branch.
The lulav is bound with three myrtle branches on its right and two willow branches on its left. The lulav is held in the right hand and the etrog is held in the left hand. Although the Torah only commands us to pick up the Arba Minim, ulekachtem, the rabbis require that we wave them in all four directions of the compass as well as upward and downward.
Achievements are often flaunted in all directions. The Torah reminds us that all achievements are gifts from God. And so on Sukkot, the rain festival, we wave the Arba Minim in all directions acknowledging that God, the Rainmaker, brings the rains from the four corners of the earth. The Talmud in Sukkot tells us that waving the Arba Minim also wards off destructive winds that would otherwise drive harmful rain.
The lulav also symbolizes the scepter of victory with which we emerge after vanquishing the Yom Kippur prosecutor. Although the mitzvah of Arba Minim can be fulfilled at any time during the day, there is a close connection between the mitzvah of Arba Minim and the reciting of Hallel. “Is it possible,” asks the Talmud, to perform the mitzvah of lulav without reciting Hallel?” Accordingly, the lulav is waved when reciting certain verses of Hallel that both thank God for His kindness, Hodu Lashem Ki Tov, and ask Him for further mercy, Ana Hashem Hoshea Na.
During the Temple era the lulav was taken inside the Temple on all of the seven days of Sukkot but outside the Temple on the first day only. After the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai ruled that the Arba Minim be taken on all seven days of Sukkot, everywhere. Accordingly, lulav on the first day is biblical and on the last six days rabbinical.
The minimum requirements for a kosher etrog that apply to all seven days of Sukkot are as follows: (i) It must be at least the size of an egg (there is no maximum size limit), (ii) it may not be round like a ball, (iii) it must be halachically edible as food and not subject to any shemitah, terumah or orlah eating restrictions, (iv) it must be free from certain types of blemishes that reduce its size (v) and it may not be the product of grafting with a lemon tree (murkav). Other features that add to the beauty of the etrog, but are not essential, are that it have a pitam, that the pitam be in a straight line with the stem and that it have bumps and ridges. If the pitam broke off, then, although it is preferable to use another etrog, according to many authorities the broken etrog may be used on the first day of Sukkot as long as part of the pitam remains intact. If the pitam broke off entirely, the etrog may not be used on the first day of Sukkot unless it is the only etrog in town. It may, however, be used on the last six days of Sukkot. Of course, an etrog that never had a pitam is kosher.
The lulav must measure 12.4 inches along its backbone, and the central leaf, the te’yomet, must be double-leafed, closed, intact and straight. The hadas must have small triple leaves over a majority of the branch, should be between 9.3 inches and 11.4 inches long and the tip should be intact. The aravot must have red stems, their leaves must be narrow and lip shaped, and they must be smooth-edged.
Other requirements, common to all the Arba Minim, are as follows: (i) On the first day of Sukkot, the Arba Minim must belong to the person using them and not be stolen or borrowed, since this would defeat the “ulekachtem lachem requirement,” (ii) on the first day of Sukkot the Arba Minim may not be dried out and withered since this defeats the hadar requirement, which, according to some opinions, applies only on the first day, and (iii) they may not be subject at any time during Sukkot to condemnation for having been used in connection with idolatry. In order to fulfill the mitzvah with a borrowed lulav on the first day, the owner should stipulate that he is giving the lulav to the user as a gift to be returned after use. According to some authorities, such a condition may be implied even if not expressed. Out of the same concern, the Arba Minim should be fully paid up before Yom Tov.
When the Arba Minim are picked up for the first time each Sukkot day, the blessing Al Netilat Lulav is recited all seven days and Shehecheyanu is added the first day. These blessings are recited with the etrog in the left hand, the pitam facing head down. When the blessing is completed, the etrog is then turned the right way up. The reason for this is to allow for the blessing to be recited before the mitzvah is performed, in accordance with the rule of “over le’asiyatan.” On Shabbat, no Arba Minim are taken because of the rabbis’ concern that this might lead to carrying the Arba Minim in the streets.
The Arba Minim are compared to the human being in prayer. The lulav symbolizes the backbone, the etrog, the heart, the hadas the eyes, and the arava the lips moving in the service of God.
Raphael Grunfeld, a partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, received semicha in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Harav Haga’on Dovid Feinstein, zt”l. This article is an extract from Raphael’s book “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed,” available for purchase by emailing Raphael at [email protected]