Friday, October 2, 2009

Lulav is a Many Spendored Thing: Spiritual Web Journey

Since we’ll be having a parade of dozens of lulavim and etrogim this Sunday and using them throughout the festival after that, it behooves us to understand what it’s all about. These ancient agricultural symbols were undoubtedly THE most popular in in the Jewish world during the time of the Second Temple, and beyond. The evidence is in the written literature and especially in the ancient coins and mosaics archaeologists have uncovered. Some of that can be found below. First, an excerpt from an article by my colleague Rabbi David Seidenberg, found in the book “Trees, Earth and Torah: a Tu B’Shevat Anthology” (JPS 1999), focusing on the Kabbalistic meaning of these ritual objects; then a list of Web sites to visit.

From the Introduction

Jewish mysticism imagines the cosmos to be a manifestation of the divine which unfolds through ten powers or qualities, which are called the s'firot. The world of the s'firot is pictured in terms of two forms: a cosmic tree and a primordial human body....

The Central Column

Sefer HaBahir_, the Book of Brightness, which was redacted in the 12th century but includes much older parts, is the earliest document to explore these themes, earlier even than the codification of the s'firot. In its beginning paragraphs, it describes a king playfully discovering a spring of flowing, living water as he begins to cut out the stone from which to build his palace. What does he do? Plant a garden, and a tree, to "delight the whole world"...

Using the verse "Tsadik founds the world" (Prov. 10:25), the Bahir explains that "[there is] a single column from the earth to the firmament, and Tsadik, The Righteous One, is it's name, and when there are righteous people/tsadikim in the world, it becomes strong, and if not it becomes weak." (Bahir, sec. 100) The image the Bahir uses, "a single column from the earth to the firmament", emphasizes that the tree, the column, the tsadik and man are all images in the Bahir of what connects the upper and lower worlds, and of what is dependent upon both the upper and lower worlds.

To the human eye, no creature embraces heaven and earth more than a tree. A tree is poised in-between-worlds, its roots dividing out smaller and deeper into the earth beneath until they seem to dissolve in it, its branches soaring above us, full of leaves like hands holding the sky. This same sense of stretching characterizes human experience in our most wakeful moments: the sense of being between, of stretching to embrace physical and spiritual. This sense is expressed in the working of our minds and in our physical posture, stretched from earth to heaven. The tree and the human body both become symbols for what unites the divine and the mundane, and for how the worlds depend upon each other and flow towards one another.

Root and Branch.

Kabbalah is not only interested in the cosmic tree as a symbol of divine connection. It also tries to understand this connection by reflecting on the anatomy of trees and of the human body. The Bahir continuously weaves together images of the tree and the human body, as we have already seen in the d'rash on the word "ish" above. The "single column" we have read about is not just the trunk of a tree; it is also the spinal chord, one vertebra upon another, as is hinted at in the phrase "the powers of the Holy One, this one on back of this one, [which] resemble a tree". (Bahir, sec.118-119) In this metaphor, the source of water or wisdom is the brain, and the spinal cord the channel, which carries the water to every part of the body.

The dynamics and dimensions shared by the tree, the human body, the world and God, are especially closely examined in the ritual of waving the lulav, which is so strongly connected to both the human body and to trees. According to Sefer Bahir, the myrtle, willow and lulav become like a human body when they are bound together:

[I]t says, "take.. a branch of a tree thick-interlaced/`anaf `ayts `avot" (Lev. 23:40). It must be that his branches are stretched around/over his main part... A mashal, to what does it compare? To a person, who has his arms and protects his head with them, and here his arms are two and his head makes three: "`anaf" to the left [=willows], "`avot" to the right [=myrtle], and "`ayts" is found in the middle [the lulav]. And why is he [the lulav] called "a tree" [when he is only a single branch]? Because he is the root of the tree. (Bahir, sec. 176)

The three-word phrase from the Torah, `anaf `ayts `avot, is traditionally understood to refer to myrtle branches, but the Bahir reads it as referring to all three species which are bound together. The binding of myrtle, willow, and lulav turns them into a single body. The lulav branch stands for the whole tree because it is its "root" (the place from which all new growth occurs), and so it is like a person's head, which stands for the whole person.

The cosmic axis is not only represented as a tree and a human body, but the symbols of the tree and the human are images which converge together in a single picture of the body. The Bahir identifies the fruit, heart, spinal cord, body and root together in the following passage:

Israel, holy ones, carry the body of the tree and his heart. As a heart is majesty/hadar, the fruit of the body, even so Israel bears the fruit of the tree of majesty (pri `ayts hadar = etrog). As a date palm, its branches around [the crown] and its lulav in the middle, even so Israel carries the body of the tree: this is its heart. And corresponding to the body is the cord of the [spinal] column in a person, which is the root/`ikar of the body. And just as lulav [can be] written, "lu layv/to him a heart", even so the heart is tied to him [the spinal cord]. (Bahir, sec. 98)

This is reminiscent of the well-known midrash that also maps the ritual of the lulav to the human body (lulav branch to spine, etrog to heart, willow to lips, myrtle to eyes), but it is far more complex. Because the Jewish people carries the symbols of the heart, the lulav and etrog, in our Sukkot prayers, we collectively become the body of the divine Tsadik who carries the heart. By the same token, we become the cosmic tree because we bear its fruit and branches...

A brief botany lesson: the lulav is the only place from which new branches grow in a date tree, though sometimes a baby lulav will grow from the base of the trunk to form a new tree. To take the central lulavim from a tree is to kill the tree (the lulavim we use on Sukkot are offshoots taken from the base). The main lulav is therefore like a heart: it contains all the vitality of the tree and all of its vulnerability...

The Bahir emphasizes that the heart is tied to the spine (we might understand this to mean: tied by the nerves to the spine), as the fruit is tied to the root by the tree trunk. This is important because according to Kabbalah, the sin of the Garden of Eden is not eating from the tree of knowledge, but separating the fruit from the tree; this separation is what brings death. Israel repairs this sin when when we unite the etrog with the lulav. We reconnect the fruit to the source of its vitality every time we do a mitzvah.


the custom of shaking the lulav in all directions – the four points of the compass, and up and down – originally symbolized an acknowledgment of God’s all-encompassing presence. But in Hasidic thought, the practice took on other symbolic, spiritual meanings. Hasidism brought the mystical teachings of the kabbalah to the masses, reinterpreting long-standing traditions with the spiritual meaning.

For Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the shaking of the lulav was a meditation that could last half an hour.

Each direction had significance; each represented a different prayer.

The following is adapted from Rabbi Carlebach's teachings:

First, face right. Right in Kabbalah signifies the attribute of hesed, kindness, mercy, overwhelming beneficence. It’s a reminder of Abraham, master of hospitality. Facing right, slowly shaking the lulav in and out three times, think about all the hesed, the giving in your life, and pray to God to perfect it. Do you find it too hard to be generous? Or are you suffering from an excess of generosity, of kindness, of love? "We don't know when to love and how to love and we always put so many borders inthe wrong place," explained Rabbi Carlebach. Facing right, pray for God to grant you the proper measure of hesed.

Then face left. Left in Kabbalah is gevurah – strength, strict judgment, limits. Gevurah is Isaac – bound for sacrifice on Mount Moriah, unflinching, accepting of judgment. Take this opportunity to think of the limits, the judgments in your life. Are your circumstances too confining? Do you need more boundaries, or fewer? Do you need more strength? This is an opportunity to invite God to help you fix the limits in your life.

Next, face straight ahead: tiferet, or beauty. This is the balance, where the beneficence and the boundaries are in their proper proportions. It is Jacob, it is the middle course.

Then, look up. Can you connect with God? What’s the holiness you need in your life? How high can you rise this year?

Then, aim down. This is about groundedness, about your foundations. And it’s about your ability to find the buried treasures, under your feet; the truths buried in the dirt.

Finally, backwards. The essence of repentance is being able to go back and fix your past. This is a prayer that your past be fixed by your coming to terms with it.

Now: some great sites to see, on the lulav and on Sukkot in general:

Jusdaism 101 on Sukkot -

The handbook of Biblican Numismatics:

Coins from the First Revolt (66-70 C.E.)

Toolbox - Holiday: Waving the Lulav and Etrog


Modern Israel – Jerusalem through coins:

Sukkot Through the Ages -

Virtual Jerusalem lulav site:

Sukkot family and educational activities -

OU Sukkot Site (basic and “advanced” information)

Rabbi Schneierman’s Sukkot Page (with a link to the award winning MIT Sukkah)

JTS Sukkot Site

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