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When to Make the Bracha on the Arba’a Minim According to Sephardim and Ashkenazim

Introduction

For many centuries, the great commentaries on the Gemara have grappled with a classic conundrum. On the one hand, one must make a bracha on a mitzvah “oveir la’asiyatan,”immediately prior to performing the mitzvah (Sukkah 39a). On the other hand, the Gemara (Sukkah 42a) states that one has fulfilled the mitzvah as soon as he lifts the arba’a minim (“m’dagbaih nafak bei”), seeming to preclude the possibility of reciting the bracha on the lulav oveir la’asiyatan.

Thus, one cannot recite the bracha before taking the arba’a minim because it is too early to do so. On the other hand one cannot recite the bracha after taking the arba’a minim because it is too late. Let us review some of the classic resolutions to this paradox, with a special focus on the approach of Tosafot Sukkah 39a s.v. Oveir. We will then review how the Shulchan Aruch rules regarding this issue and discuss how Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews apply this rule in practice.

Tosafot’s Resolutions to the Problem

Tosafot offers no less than four possible solutions to this problem.

1) The first suggestion is that one should take some of the arba’a minim prior to uttering the bracha, and the rest of the minim after reciting the bracha. Although it is not commonly accepted Ashkenazic practice to follow this suggestion, in Rav Soloveitchik’s (notes of Rav Soloveitchik’s shiurim, Sukkah 39a) reports that his grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, followed this view.

2) Tosafot proceeds to suggest turning one of the arba’a minim upside down prior to the recitation of the bracha and turning it right-side up after the bracha has been recited. This is an effective approach because one does not fulfill the mitzvah of the arba’a minim unless all four are held right-side up (see Sukkah 42a and 45b).

3) The third suggestion is that one bear in mind not to fulfill the mitzvah of the arba’a minim until after he has uttered the bracha. Tosafot explains that this suggestion is not only according to the opinion that believes mitzvot tzrichot kavanah, that without intention to fulfill the mitzvah he cannot fulfill his obligation (see Brachot 13a and Rosh Hashanah 28b). Tosafot explains that even according to the opinion that believes that mitzvot aynan tzrichot kavanah—one can fulfill a mitzvah even if he does not bear in mind that he is fulfilling the Divine command—one does not fulfill a mitzvah if he deliberately has in mind not to fulfill the mitzvah. It should be noted that almost all Rishonim agree with this last assertion of Tosafot.

Rav Soloveitchik (notes of Rav Soloveitchik’s shiurim, Sukkah 39a) points out two possible weaknesses in this approach of Tosafot. One problem is that after reciting the bracha when one will intend to perform the mitzvah, he will be entirely passive. He will be holding the arba’a minim, but not actively “taking“ the arba’a minim. There is considerable doubt as to whether one who is merely holding the arba’a minim but has not taken them has fulfilled the mitzvah.

A second criticism is that although one has delayed the kiyum hamitzvah (fulfillment of the mitzvah) by intending not to fulfill the mitzvah, he has already performed the ma’aseh hamitzvah, the act of taking the mitzvah. Intention not to fulfill the mitzvah can serve only to postpone the fulfillment of the mitzvah but cannot cancel the concrete act of taking the mitzvah. One may argue, accordingly, that the requirement to recite a bracha oveir la’asiyatan demands of us to not only recite the bracha prior to the kiyum hamitzvah, but also prior to the ma’aseh hamitzvah.

Another (paradoxical) weakness with this approach is its sophistication. It is seemingly too abstract for many people, especially for those who are not yet learned. Chazal avoid establishing procedures that many people will find cumbersome and confusing (see, for example, Tosafot Avoda Zara 71a-b s.v. Shakilu). Perhaps these three criticisms motivated the Shulchan Aruch’s (O.C. 651:5) omission of this option to solve our problem.

4) Tosafot’s fourth suggestion involves an alternative explanation of the requirement to recite a bracha oveir la’asiyatan. Tosafot here asserts that one is considered to be reciting a bracha oveir la’asiyatan even if he has already begun the performance of a mitzvah, as long as he has not concluded the performance of the mitzvah. Thus, argues Tosafot, although one has already fulfilled the minimum requirement of taking the lulav by merely lifting up the lulav, since he has yet to wave the lulav (na’anuim), he has not yet fulfilled the mitzvah in its fullest sense. Thus, one who recites the bracha after taking the arba’a minim but before performing the na’anuim has indeed recited the bracha oveir la’asiyatan. It is important to note that in this approach, Tosafot assumes that the na’anuim are a facet of the mitzvah of arba’a minim and not a part of Hallel.

Conclusion: Shulchan Aruch’s Ruling and the Practices of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews

Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 651:1) presents Tosafot’s first opinion as his first option and the Tosafot’s second opinion as his second option. The Shulchan Aruch presents the first option as taking the three minim other than the etrog, reciting the bracha and then taking the etrog (right- side up). It is, in turn, the common practice among Sephardic Jews to follow this approach (this is the instruction provided in Sephardic Ohr VaDerech siddur). Ashkenazic Jews typically follow the second option of first holding the etrog upside down, reciting the bracha, and only then turning over the etrog to be right-side up (Aruch HaShulchan 651:13).

Postscript: Differences Between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews Regarding the Na’anuim

Are there situations when Ashkenazic Jews follow the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch and Sephardic Jews do not? The answer is yes, in a few instances, na’anuim being one of them. The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 651:9) rules that the na’anuim begin in front and then wind around the right and conclude with up-and-down motions. Sephardim (and chasidim), though, follow the Ari z”l practice1 of shaking to the south, then north, east, east in the upward direction, east in a downward motion and finally to the west (Kaf HaChaim 651:49).

Maran Rav Karo writes that one performs the na’anuim simply by moving one’s hands. While Ashkenazic Jews follow this practice, Sephardic Jews fully extend their arms holding the arba’a minim in a full motion back and forth, once again following the approach of the Ari z”l (Kaf HaChaim 651:48 and 93).

Two other differences between Ashkenazic practice and Sephardic practice reflect differences between Maran Rav Yosef Karo and the Rama. While the Rama (O.C. 651:8) records the practice to shake not only for Hodu la Hashem ki tov ki l’olam chasdo, but also the shaliach tzibbur shakes while reciting Yomar na Yisrael, etc., Maran does not record that na’anuim occur during Yomar na.

In addition, while the Rama (O.C. 651:9) defines na’anuim as shaking the lulav, Maran defines it simply as waving.

There is an important ramification of this difference. While some Ashkenazic poskim2 express reservations about using a lulav whose tip is closed by brown bark (sometimes referred to as “kora”) since one is unable to shake such a lulav, for Sephardim this is not a concern. In fact, it is preferable for a Sephardic Jew to purchase such a lulav,3 since the sealing of the tip in this manner allows for the purchaser to assume that the tip of the lulav is intact (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 645:3).

1 Sha’ar HaKavanot, Inyan Netilat Lulav. 

2 It is reported that Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (known as the “Brisker Rav“) opened up the kora around the lulav to ensure that it is truly closed and not held together by the kora.

3 Both Yalkut Yosef (Orach Chaim 645:15 and Rav Lebhar’s Magein Avot (Orach Chaim 645:3) cite as authoritative the Sdei Chemed’s (Asifat Dinim, Ma’arachet Araba’at HaMinim 3:1) assertion that the Sephardic minhag is to choose such lulavim without removing the brownish bark from the bottom of the leaves to ascertain that the top leaves are intact.

By Rabbi Haim Jachter


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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