June 12, 2024
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The Underlying Meaning of the Word ‘Lulav’

The word לולב never appears in Tanach. It is a word from rabbinic Hebrew. But what is its origin?

Most scholars believe it derives from an underlying verb לבלב. This also seems to be the view of our Sages. See Yoma 81b, which refers to “lulavei gefanim” (grapevine shoots) and then uses the verb לבלבו.

Everyone agrees that the verb לבלב means “blossom.” See, e.g., Onkelos on Gen. 40:10, which uses the word לבלבין as a translation for the word נצה (blossoms).

But how do we get this “blossom” meaning from the letters לבלב?

In one view, it comes from the underlying letters לב, with its “heart” meaning. See E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 292.

But I had also noticed that M. Jastrow (p. 689) had taken a different approach. He connected the word לבלב with the root לבה, and wrote (p. 688) that the latter was a contraction of להב, a word with the meaning: “flame, brightness.” Then David Curwin (HaMizrachi magazine, Sukkot 2020) took this same position. He wrote that לולב was derived from לבלב (blossom) and then explained that “the blossoming of a plant radiates like the shine of a fire.” I prefer this explanation over the “heart” explanation. (Curwin is the author of the balashon.com site, which all readers interested in etymology should subscribe to.)

But I was also told by my wife that there are studies that show that talking to plants makes them grow. This makes me think that there might be some merit to the “heart” etymology. But I am not convinced. (These studies have also found that plants grow faster to the sound of a female voice than to the sound of a male!)

(The word לבלב also appears in the “Kah Keli” piyut. One can make the argument from this piyut that לבלב is related to “heart” since it is preceded by the word לב here. But this is mere wordplay by a paytan.)

***

This would be a good place to discuss a very important Rambam. It gives his view of midrash in general and also provides his interesting explanation of the mitzvah of the four species. The Torah tells us to use these items on Sukkot but never explains why.

This is what he writes in the Guide to the Perplexed, Book III, ch. 43:

“As regards the four species our Sages gave a reason for their use by way of Aggadic interpretation, the method of which is well known to those who are acquainted with the style of our Sages. They use the text of the Bible only as a kind of poetical language [for their own ideas], and do not intend thereby to give an interpretation of the text. As to the value of these Midrashic interpretations, we meet with two different opinions. For some think that the Midrash contains the real explanation of the text, while others, finding that it cannot be reconciled with the words quoted, reject and ridicule it. The former struggle and fight to prove and to confirm such interpretations according to their opinion, and to keep them as the real meaning of the text; they consider them in the same light as traditional laws. Neither of the two classes understood it, that our Sages employ biblical texts merely as poetical expressions, the meaning of which is clear to every reasonable reader. This style was general in ancient days; all adopted it in the same way as poets [adopt a certain style]. Our Sages say, in reference to the words ‘and a paddle (yated) thou shalt have upon thy weapon’ [Deut. 23, 14]: Do not read azeneka, ‘’thy weapon,’ but ozneka, ‘thy ear.’ You are thus told that if you hear a person uttering something disgraceful, put your fingers into your ears. Now, I wonder whether those ignorant persons [who take the Midrashic interpretations literally] believe that the author of this saying gave it as the true interpretation of the text quoted, and as the meaning of this precept: that in truth yated, ‘the paddle,’ is used for ‘the finger,’ and azeneka denotes ‘thy ear’? I cannot think that any person whose intellect is sound can admit this. The author employed the text as a beautiful poetical phrase, in teaching an excellent moral lesson, namely this: It is as bad to listen to bad language as it is to use it. This lesson is poetically connected with the above text. In the same sense you must understand the phrase, ‘Do not read so, but so,’ wherever it occurs in the Midrash.

I have departed from my subject, but it was for the purpose of making a remark useful to every intellectual member of the Rabbanites. I now return to our theme. I believe that the four species are a symbolical expression of our rejoicing that the Israelites changed the wilderness, ‘no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates, or of water to drink’ (Num. xx. 5), [to] a country full of fruit-trees and rivers. In order to remember this we take the fruit that is the most pleasant of the fruit of the land, branches that smell best, most beautiful leaves, and also the best of herbs, i.e., the willows of the brook. These four kinds also have these three purposes: First, they were plentiful in those days in Palestine, so that everyone could easily get them. Secondly, they have a good appearance, they are green; some of them, viz., the citron and the myrtle, are also excellent as regards their smell, the branches of the palm-tree and the willow having neither good nor bad smell. Thirdly, they keep fresh and green for seven days, which is not the case with peaches, pomegranates, asparagus, nuts, and the like.”

The above translation from the Arabic is from the Friedlander edition. I have not checked the many other translations. I suspect they do not differ much.

When the Rambam said at the outset: “As regards the four species, our Sages gave a reason for their use by way of Aggadic interpretation,” he does not state what Aggadic interpretation he is referring to. But surely he is referring to the midrash at Lev. Rab. 30:12 where the etrog is viewed as symbolizing those with Torah knowledge and good deeds, the lulav as those with Torah knowledge but without good deeds, the hadas as those who have good deeds but lack Torah knowledge, and the aravah as those who lack both Torah knowledge and good deeds. (The midrash continues that they are all joined together in this commandment, so that each can atone for the other.) Rambam must reject a literal understanding of midrashim such as these because he is viewing all the four species in a positive light.

Certainly, a factor in motivating Rambam’s interpretation of the commandment is that the Torah mentions an obligation of ושמחתם in connection with it. See Lev. 23:40.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. His website is rootsandrituals.org. Rambam’s remark that “they keep fresh and green for seven days” unfortunately does not square with the reality of his own experience with hadassim and aravot, for reasons unknown to him.

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