Home Perspectives Features In the shadow of the etrog: Time the lulav got its due

In the shadow of the etrog: Time the lulav got its due


Oh the modest myrtle… the wistful willow… and the lowly lulav!

Lowly lulav? Yes, while the lulav, willow and myrtle certainly play their own role on Sukkot, they never seem to get the attention (or the big bucks) of the etrog.

Case in point: after a winter frost destroyed 90 per cent of this year’s choice crop of Italian etrogs, some people are lining up to shell out $500 for survivors of the frost. Have you ever about people lavishing that kind of attention or bucks on lulavs, willows or myrtles? Well, now it’s time to give them their due.

Full disclosure: I am equally guilty of having focused a previous column on the etrog with nary a mention of its brethren. Today, I make amends.

Hadas (Myrtle)

The myrtle is an evergreen which the rabbis compared with the good qualities of Esther whose Hebrew name was Hadassah (“Myrtle”). Its aromatic branches have been used for preparing the bride-groom’s wreaths. They were used in festivities and betrothal celebrations, and some of the sages would juggle with myrtle branches, throwing them up and catching them.

Although it is not as common as aromatic cloves or cinamon, some have the custom of using myrtle leaves left from the lulav for the besamim spices for the havdalah service. But did you know that there is also an ancient custom to welcome in the Sabbath with branches of myrtle? As the husband returns from synagogue, he would pick up branches of myrtle while reciting the beautiful “Woman of Valour” from Proverbs.

Rabbi Joel M. Finkelstein demonstrates how to shake the Four Species:

Lulav (Palm frond)

You’ve purchased your lulav. You’ve made sure it measures up to all the rabbinical requirements. Now what? Shaking a lulav is not a random set of pulses. Although there are various traditions, the basic goal is to encompass all the directions plus up and down. According to the Kabbalistic explanation, taught by Rabbi Isaac Luria, “the Arizal”we do not actually turn in each direction. Instead, we face eastward and extend the species: southward, northward, eastward, upward, downward, and westward.

The Arizal explains that the six directions represent the six emotions and Kabbalistic traits:

  1. South: kindness (chesed)
  2. North: discipline (gevurah)
  3. East: harmony (tiferet)
  4. Up: perseverance (netzach)
  5. Down: submission (hod)
  6. West: connection (yesod)

Then bring the four species towards the heart: communication (malchut).

Alternatively, I like this contemporary approach:

Question:How do you make a lulav shake?”

Answer: Mix 1 quart lime sherbet with 2 litres ginger ale. Pour into a tall, clear glass. Insert “lulav” (celery stalk) and lemon slice and serve. That’s how to make a Lulav Shake!

Arava (Willow)

And last – and to some people, least – is the arava, the branch of a willow tree. Rav Elyakim Krumbein asks how the simplest and most lacking in visual distinction of all the four species came to be used. It is even more puzzling that on the seventh day of Sukkot, the altar in the Temple was decorated with willows and people would proclaim, “Yofi lekha mizbeach!” – “Beauty unto you, altar!”

Rav Krumbein explains that the arava by itself it is not eye-catching in the least. Its entire significance is in its association with the lulav, etrog and myrtle. Together with them, it creates the harmonious whole, to which it adds its own contribution.

“Likewise, when decorating the altar, the aim is not to adorn it with a beautiful object, but to create an overall pleasing appearance. The arava will not detract by drawing undue attention to itself, but will fulfill the function of setting off the altar with refreshing greenery. From this point of view, the lowly arava may be seen as embodying a central message of Sukkot. … Of all the species, the arava is the most water-dependent. … It therefore stands to reason that the arava is a major presence when we beseech the Almighty for our own sustenance.” 


Adds Lauren Levin, Dean of the Midrasha UK, “On Sukkot, a festival when we welcome one and all to a united sukkah, the message of the willow is paramount. It reminds us to celebrate the things in our lives that seem far more ordinary, but in fact may well be the ‘bread and butter’ of our existence. The mundane routines that sustain us are often the ingredient that allows the special elements of our lives to shine and remain viable. In addition, the willow branch reminds us to celebrate the understated individuals in our community who we may sometimes take for granted.

“Not only are they a critical component of our communities, but they may well be the silent heartbeat of so much of our growth.”