The Directional Shaking of the Lulav: Bible, Mysticism, and Religious Polemics

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Yaakov Jaffe


The shaking of the lulav in a variety of directions is a familiar and central ritual for the holiday of Sukkot.[1] Since youth, the Jew dutifully follows the instructions printed in the Mahzor or Siddur as to the precise order of the shaking of the lulav into different directions; the shaking of the lulav is a major part of this important biblical mitzvah. Few Jews understand the reasons why the lulav is shaken into these different directions, and even fewer Jews appreciate how late the current order of directional shakes is. Though the idea of shaking the lulav finds its origins in the Bible, the precise form it takes today is a later adaptation of the biblical format.

Biblical Background: Linking the Holidays of Vayikra 23
Vayikra 23 is a highly stylized chapter of the Humash, describing six times in the Jewish calendar which are all both “mikra kodesh[2] – days of proclaimed holiness, and also days upon which work is forbidden. The verses in this chapter address each of these six times in turn, noting the timing of the occasion,[3] the days’ status as Shabbat, the inclusion of a special sacrifice,[4] and the type of work that is forbidden.[5] The presentation of the holidays at the start of the seventh month are shorter; the only other detail provided regarding Rosh Ha-Shanah is that it is a day of “Zikhron Teru’ah” and the only other detail provided regarding Yom Kippur is that it is a day when the Jew afflicts his or her soul.

The three pilgrimage holidays are all presented at greater length, each including at least two additional commandments: one which is historical in nature and one that is agricultural in nature. The historical commandments remind the Jew of the events of the nation’s past: the holiday of Pesah includes the seven-day command to consume matzot, recalling the Exodus, and the holiday of Sukkot includes the seven-day command to reside in a sukkah which recalls the Jews camping in sukkot when they left Egypt.[6] The unnamed holiday following a forty-nine day count that we now call Shavu’ot includes the historical mitzvah to leave over part of the harvest towards the poor; this seems to also recall the historical realities of the Exodus from Egypt and the entry to Israel.[7]

The pilgrimage holidays also each include an agricultural mitzvah that is focused on the Temple which is explained at great length. On Pesah, an omer measurement of the first barley harvest is waved and sacrificed in the Temple on the day after the first-day holiday.[8] On the fiftieth day that follows, leavened bread is offered and again waved in the Temple. And on Sukkot, the time of the fruit harvest, the fruit of a beautiful[9] tree is brought with the branches of the date palm and some other trees and used as part of rejoicing before Hashem.[10] It is implicit in the Torah that these three commandments all serve the same purpose, thanking God for the harvest of the time period. It naturally follows then, that just as the first two items are waved, so too the third set of items, the lulav and etrog, is also waved.[11]

Temple Waving: Tenufah in the Beit Ha-Mikdash
Many sacrifices are waved in the Temple; the Mishnah in Menahot[12] provides a wide list of sacrifices that are waved, and the Humash includes other, additional cases[13] where a sacrifice of part of it must be waved before God. The Humash uses two words to describe the waving process, “tenufah” and “haramah,” which leads the Talmud[14] and the commentaries[15] to interpret sacrificial waving as including two aspects, a vertical movement up and down on the z-axis (haramah) and a horizontal movement back and forth on either the x- or y-axis (tenufah). Thus, the item is waved or moved in four directions, two up and down, and two back and forth. The overwhelming consensus of the early views is to follow both the simple meaning of the Biblical words and the early Talmudic sources and to understand that Temple waving involves four directions. If that is true, it follows that the lulav and etrog should only be waved in four directions, matching the official protocol for waving in the Temple, and this appears to have been the early procedure for the shaking of the lulav and etrog. Some early commentaries expand the Temple waving to six directions – including both up-and-down, back-and-forth and also right and left,[16] essentially north, south, east, and west, although this is a minority view.[17]

Polemical Considerations
By the Middle Ages, the formerly innocuous motion of waving Temple items began to take on a new interpretation, as Christians would often make similar motions as a way of drawing a cross in the air or upon themselves. By this time, the Temple had been destroyed and so the only waving that remained was the waving of the lulav on Sukkot and it was increasingly seen as being problematic, and almost idolatrous in nature. This led to a change in the waving protocol and led to a new custom of waving the lulav in six directions, thereby contrasting it with Christian practice. Though some explained this to have had been the original custom in the Temple,[18] it was a new development to avoid the appearance of engaging in Christian ritual.

Rambam (Hil. Lulav 7:9-10) uses the same language as the Talmud, and then says that the lulav is shaken three times “in each directly,” seemingly each of the four directions mentioned. However, Rambam does not explicitly specify whether he intended the lulav to be shaken in four or six directions. Rabbeinu Manoah, also of Provence, notes in his commentary that the original Talmudic practice was to only shake the lulav up-and-down and back-and-forth but not to all four cardinal directions, but he endorses the newer custom of shaking the lulav in six directions. Rabbeinu Manoah believes Rambam agreed with this view although Rambam’s language can be interpreted in either way; if he followed the newer custom, it is further challenging to tell whether he felt that was the original Temple custom or whether he was also responding to polemical considerations.[19]

Rosh notes that shaking the lulav in more directions – four original and two additional – does not violate the original biblical view but merely adds to it. Consequently, the idea of shaking in six directions quickly became the consensus view of Jewish practice. Many argued that increasing the number of directions to which one directed praise and prayer to God would only be a positive thing. Yet other changes in the shaking of the lulav made the polemical considerations less relevant as well. Rif and others[20] expanded each directional shake to include three sub-shakes and this further hid any possible Christian overtones to the shaking of the lulav. The lulav was now shaken in six directions, an expansion of the practice in the Temple, and any Christian overtones to the original Temple practice were surely forgotten.

If the first order of shaking has its origins in the Bible and the second in polemical considerations, a third system of how to shake the lulav finds its origins in Jewish mysticism. The original shaking in the Temple involved shaking first on the x- or y-axis and then up and down, involving paired motions back and forth. The mystical shaking separates some of the pairs and creates an entirely different map of how to shake. The mystical interpretation takes different forms – indeed, Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe and Arizal have different orders for shaking on the basis of different mystical traditions – but what they have in common is that they originate new patterns for the shaking of the lulav and etrog. Levush argues that the lulav should be shaken east, north, west, south, up and down, based on a variety of reasons, some of the mystical.[21] There are different accounts of the view of Arizal, but they all end with shaking to the west, separating the vertical and the horizontal directions, a stark departure from the biblical and Talmudic precedent.[22]

Many shake the lulav in accordance with the older, non-mystical order and not in the newer mystical order, following the principal that the mystical tradition is only followed when it does not contradict the explicit received tradition.[23] Yet, given that the medieval method of shaking is itself of more recent vintage and not the original method, it is harder to argue against the mystical method. As Arukh Ha-Shulhan notes, “Know that all the shakings are not essential, and whichever manner he shakes fulfills the obligation.”[24]

Ancient and Adaptive
Thankfully, the practical implications for the order of the shaking of the lulav appears to be a low stakes issue halakhically – no authority argues that the shaking in one precise order or another is absolutely vital for the performance of the mitzvah. Yet, it still illustrates how Jewish practice evolves and changes from time to time and how at the same time Jewish practice remains rooted in the written verses of the Bible, words first entered onto a scroll millennia ago. The development of Jewish law over the centuries often involves the need to make choices about the interplay of major issues – changing major, ancient beliefs on account of polemical concerns, mystical innovations, liturgical inventions, or the exigencies of the times. The shaking of the lulav is another example where many of those same factors come to the forefront and impact our present-day practice as well. Much as we might sometimes think that our current practices and custom are the same ones that Jews have always followed, we must regularly remind ourselves that many practices reflect changes and new ways to fulfill ancient prescriptions.

[1] This is my second essay on the philosophical implications of the customs regarding lulav and etrog. The first essay appears here.

[2] Rashi (Vayikra 23:27) defines this term as meaning a day of prayer, special meals, and special clothing. Rambam seems to connect this term with the positive requirement to abstain from work (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot 159-167). See also Tosafot to Shavu’ot 13a.

[3] For most of the days, a calendar date is provided, while Shabbat falls on every 7th day. Shavu’ot takes place on the fiftieth day after the Omer sacrifice.

[4]Ve-hikravtem ishe la-Hashem” an allusion to the lengthy description of the sacrifices for each day in Bamidbar Chapters 28-29. The phrase does not appear next to Shabbat, as the additional sacrifice is smaller on Shabbat. The phrase also does not appear in the discussion of Shavu’ot, likely because a lengthy account of a different sacrifice also appears in Vayikra, although Shavu’ot, too, has additional sacrifices only mentioned in Bamidbar (Rashi 23:19).

[5] Sometimes all work is prohibited and sometimes “Milekhet Avodah”; see Ramban 23:7.

[6] Torat Kohanim to 23:43 cites the famous Tanaitic debate what exactly Sukkot commemorates. This same debate also appears in Mekhilta Beshalah Chapter 13, implying that Sukkot commemorates the events of the first week of the Exodus and not the events of the forty years of traveling.

[7] Pesach recalls the first three of the five aspects of redemption from Shemot 6:6-8, while Shavu’ot recalls the last two including the gift of the land which is recognized through the harvest law. The inclusion of Vayikra 23:22 amongst the laws of festivals is challenging no matter the interpretation: Rashi explains that this is designed to grant foremost status to the harvest laws, while Ibn Ezra says the inclusion of the verse is a temporal coincidence since the laws are followed at the same time as Shavu’ot. See also the surprising interpretation of Ramban who connects the verse with Pesach and not with Shavu’ot.

[8]Makharat Ha-Shabbat.” Since throughout the chapter “Shabbat” meant holiday, it means the day after the holiday. For a lengthy analysis of the Rabbinic responses to the Karaite view see Ibn Ezra to 23:11 and Menahot 65b-66a.

[9] “Hadar” – beautiful or splendid, see Ibn Ezra.

[10] The Mitzvah of the four species is heavily tied to the Temple, and they are Agadaically compared to a sacrifice (Sukkah 45a). Indeed, according to Biblical law, they are brought each of seven days in the Temple but only on the first day outside of the Temple (Sukkah 41a). The halakhah of not using a mitzvah object which is formed through a sin applies specifically to sacrifices and the four species, but not to other mitzvot (see Ramban Pesahim 35a and Rabbeinu David 35a who explicitly calls the four species “a sacrifice”). Jewish tradition has long realized that the four species are in parallel to the sacrifices of the Omer of Pesah and the breads of Shavu’ot and should be treated as such, like sacrifices. Since they involve fruit, however, they are not brought upon the altar, see Vayikra 2:11-12.

[11] The amora Rabbah argues that the lulav and etrog are waved like the other sacrifices, Menahot 62a and Sukkah 37b. Rabbah does not explain that his rationale is based on the parallel between the three commandments in the Bible, but this is a reasonable reading of his view.

Tosafot in both locations note that the wavings of these three sacrifices are linked even more strongly on the basis of Rosh Ha-Shanah 16a; they are waved differently from other sacrifices – but Rambam and Rashi in the notes that follow disagree with the expanded view of the Tosafot.

[12] Menahot 61a: the sacrifices of a Metzorah, Bikkurim, the priestly portions of a piece offering, the bread and lambs of Shavuot, the flour offering of a Sotah, and the Omer of Pesah.

[13] The consecration sacrifices of Shemot 29:24-28, and the Levi’im in Bamidbar 8:13-15.

[14] Menahot 62a. The Talmud makes mention of moving the sacrifice back and forth and also up and down, but does not mention moving it in six directions, two each on the x,y, and z axes.

[15] Rashi’s Bible commentaries uses the same language as the Talmud in six different places to indicate that waving involves only an up and down motion and a back-and-forth motion – Shemot 29:24, Shemot 29:27, Vayikra 7:34, Vayikra 10:15 Vayikra 23:11, Bamidbar 5:25; in none of those places does Rashi say that anything is waved to the four basic cardinal directions. In one of those cases Rashi says that the waving relates to G-d’s mastery over 4 directions, but it is clear that the waving, itself, is only back and forth. Rashi to Sukkah 37b and 38a uses the same language. This also appears to be the view of the Rambam in Hilkhot Temidim U-Musafim 8:11 and Ma’aseh Ha-Korbanot 9:7, as understood by the Radvaz, although the Radvaz argues the Rambam should not be understood simply and should be interpreted instead as being in accordance with the unusual view of one singular Rashi and Rambam’s earlier Mishnah Commentary, discussed in the following note.

[16] Rashi in Menahot seems to offer this view as does Rambam in his Mishnah Commentary. See previous note – both of these authors composed numerous other texts which offer a different view.

[17] It should be noted that a round earth does not have four corners or four directions but has an infinite number of directions and thus subdividing the circle of directions into four is not immediately more intuitive than subdividing into two. Still, the Tanakh does give some primacy to a concept of four directions, see Yehezkel 7:2 and 37:9, Zekharia 6:5 and 2:10, Yeshayahu 11:12, Yirmiyahu 49:36, Daniel 8:8 and 11:4. Thus, even if the phrase isn’t true scientifically, it is true in biblical poetry.

[18] Writing in the early 14th century, Rosh (Sukkah 3:26) cites the view of the Itur (twelfth-century Provence) outlining the change in the waving of the lulav. The Itur notes that the original view was to shake the lulav only back and forth and up and down (after all, moving the lulav back and forth is sufficient to symbolize G-d’s mastery of the entire world); he says the lulav should not be shaken in six directions as doing so draws the shape of a cross on the x and y axes. Rosh rejects the Itur, arguing that there is no limit on G-d’s mastery so why not shake the lulav in more directions! Then Rosh notes how Itur’s view of four directions draws the shape of a cross more clearly. Though Rosh and Itur both believe their view is the original, Talmudic one, we have noted how the basic language of the Talmud supports the Itur’s reconstruction. Indeed, since two live sheep were waved in the Temple, it would be very difficult to have two priests standing side by side, waving them to the lateral directions. This discussion also appears in Tur 651 although some printings were changed slightly because of the censor. Bah endorses Itur’s view as the original practice, but then cites many later authorities who argue the present-day practice follows the Rosh. Meiri to Sukkah agrees with the Itur; this is not particularly surprising as they both lived in Provence.

[19] 18b in Rif pages. Though Rambam did not live in a Christian country, he was somewhat aware of basic Christian practices. There is no evidence that Rambam was aware of the practice of Christians crossing themselves, however.

[20] See the lengthy discussion in the final page of Ramban’s Hilkhot Lulav (which is silent on the number of the directions but often appears to indicate it is four directions not six). See also Mahzhor Vitri 365, which requires six sub-shakes first and then the movement to the four directions. Rosh discusses this as well loc. cit.

[21] Levush 651:11. Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller rejects this view after a detailed consideration of the evidence both in his Tosafot Yom Tov commentary to the Mishnah, and in his Malbushei Yom Tov commentary on Levush. Heller argues it should be shaken ESNWUD, the view of Shulhan Arukh. Tosafot Yom Tov also cites the view of Rashi in Menahot that the shaking should be in pairs NS-EW-UD and of the Tur ESNWUD.

[22] See Magen Avraham and Ba’er Heitev to 551, arguing it should be SNEUDW or ESNUDW. Both of these views involve shaking in two three-pointed triangles and not in pairs or in a circle.

[23] It is beyond the scope of this essay to fully examine the relationship between Jewish Law and Jewish mysticism. For some context, see the works summarized in the initial pages of Robert Bonfil, “Halakhah, Kabbalah and Society: Some Insights into Rabbi Menahem Azariah da Fano’s Inner World,” in Isadore Twersky and Bernard Septimus, eds., Jewish Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 39-61. One figure who had a strong, but nuanced view on the topic was Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller. Heller accepted the teachings of Jewish mysticism but still felt they should be rejected when they contradict the received halacha; see Joseph Davis, Yom Tov Lipmann Heller: Portrait of a Seventeenth Century Rabbi (Portland, Oregon: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004), 59-65. Indeed, one of the lengthiest essays in the entire Malbushei Yom Tov is Heller’s rejection of Jaffe’s position of lulav shaking on these grounds.

[24] 651:27.

Yaakov Jaffe serves as the rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, founded by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1963, and as the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School. He received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he holds graduate degrees in Bible, Jewish History, and Jewish Education. He is the author of Isaiah and his Contemporaries, a commentary on Yeshayahu and the other Biblical books of that time, now available from Kodesh Press.