June 23, 2024
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Exploring the Meaning of Naanuim

Naanuim—waving the four species on Sukkot—are an essential, if somewhat mysterious, part of the holiday. While the Torah commands “taking” the species—technically, merely lifting them fulfills the mitzvah—early rabbinic sources require waving. But what is the meaning of naanuim and how is it related to the overall experience of Sukkot?

Before addressing the “why” of waving, we should first consider the “when.” The Mishnah (Sukkah 37b) points to two verses within the Hallel prayer where one should wave the species: Hodu la-Shem ki tov (“Praise God for he is good”) and Ana ha-Shem hoshi’ana (“O God, deliver us!”).

As it happens, these two verses, in a nutshell, represent two major themes of Sukkot: Hodu la-Shem is an exclamation of thanksgiving for the past; Ana ha-Shem is a supplication for the future.

On this holiday we acknowledge the past, celebrate the present and anticipate the future; it is a time of both joy and hope. The Torah requires, and emphasizes, joy on Sukkot. But underlying that joy are conflicting experiences and feelings. As the culmination of the fruit harvest, Sukkot evokes feelings of relief and thanksgiving. But concurrently (in Israel), it is the start of the rainy season; therefore, it is also a period of anxiety and supplication. Sukkot is a holiday of contentment and worry, of solemn hosha’anot, festive meals, and even revelry at simchat beit hashoevah—all within the same day.

The “when” of naanuimHodu la-Shem and Ana ha-Shem—thus provides a view into its meaning, linked to the meaning of Sukkot itself. In fact, with respect to the “why” of naanuim, the Talmud offers two explanations: First, omni-directional waving demonstrates God’s omnipresence and mastery over the universe; we point the lulav laterally “to whom the four directions belong” and upwards and downwards “to whom are heaven and earth. “An alternate explanation is that the act of waving “restrains harmful winds and dews.”

These two reasons also derive from motifs of Sukkot: By waving the lulav in all directions, we acknowledge God’s dominance over nature and thank him for its bounty. From spring grains to late summer fruits, and with countless other gifts, we have been the beneficiaries of God’s kindness. At the same time, as we prepare for the coming rains, we concede our fragile vulnerability to “harmful winds and dews, ” to uncontrollable events that can disrupt or threaten our lives. We wave away nature’s dark side, imploring God to fend it off.

Tosafot, in explaining the “when” of naanuim, add another dimension to the “why.” Proposing a biblical source for our Mishnah, they note the juxtaposition of three phrases in I Chronicles (16:33-35): “The trees of the forest sing (yeranenu)” is followed by hodu lashem ki tov which, in turn, is followed by “Deliver us (hoshi’enu), O God, our deliverer.”

The similarities noted by Tosafot between these verses and the Hallel verses are clear. More relevant to the meaning of naanuim, however, is their analogy of lulavim to forest trees: In the act of waving the lulav, we mimic the joyful song of the forest—a personification based on the sound of strong winds blowing through trees.

But if naanuim are supposed to evoke nature’s songs of praise to God, why do we wave at ana Hashem hoshiana, which is a piercing and desperate cry for salvation rather than a paean of thanksgiving?Shouldn’t this elemental call for divine help elicit tears rather than joy?

The answer may be this: In response to God, nature—including man—moves simultaneously toward God with love, and away from him in fear (a common theme in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s essays, especially U-Vikahstem Mi-Sham). When confronted with the infinite, creation calls out with joy, longing to unite with its creator. But, at the same time, everything in the finite world, from galaxies to forests, trembles before God—“The earth is convulsed at the sight; mountains melt like wax at God’s presence” (Ps. 97:3-4). During the Sukkot Hallel, we enact this dual response with our lulavim. At Hodu, our lulavim sing, waving like wind-tossed treetops. At Ana ha-Shem, they, and we, shake with trepidation and fervent prayer.

Perhaps, to properly frame the Sukkot experience, Hallel concludes at the last hodu with a final wave of joy.

By David S. Zinberg

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