How to celebrate Sukkot
If you’ve ever felt just a little silly sniffing what looks like an oversized lemon and shaking some branches, you’re not alone. Even though we do it every year, many of us aren’t quite sure why we do it.
This year, Sukkot begins on the evening of Sept. 30, and across the world Jews will spend the first week of October hosting dinner parties in their sukkahs, sleeping under the stars and, yes, shaking the lulav and smelling the etrog. As we celebrate the festival of the harvest, several symbols come into play, including the sukkah (the temporary structure with a palm-frond roof and one open side), creative decorations and, of course, the lulav and etrog.
Sukkot begins just days after we conclude the High Holy Days. For many families, the eight-day holiday is a chance to invite guests to their home to share in festive meals, served in the sukkah, while giving thanks for the abundance in life.
“The entire idea of Sukkot, the festival of our joy, of our rejoicing, is all about giving thanks,” says Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Torah in Ventura.
To show our thanks to God, we recite prayers and perform mitzvot, which include the waving of the “four species” (arba minim). What is commonly referred to as the lulav actually contains three of these required items: the lulav, which is the strong palm leaf that serves as the backbone for the “bouquet” of plants, myrtle (hadas) and willow (aravah). The fourth ingredient is the etrog (citron). The plants are assembled together and then held next to the etrog when the blessing for the items is recited.
The commandment to wave the lulav can be found in Leviticus 23:40: “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven-day period.”
Of course, before you can shake your lulav, you have to get one. You can find lulavim and etrogim at local Judaica stores, like Shalom House in Woodland Hills, which expects to sell the sets for $75 to $80 this year. It’s also possible to order the sets online. At moderntribe.com, a kosher set imported from Israel runs $81. The sets arrive with the lulav unassembled — you store the pieces in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them. The etrog, which comes in its own box, should be stored at room temperature.
Most of the items in the kits are hand-selected. This is important because they must be fresh, Hochberg-Miller says. Selecting an etrog means ensuring that the pittum — the part of the fruit that would flower if it were still on the tree — remains intact.
The blessings over the lulav and etrog are meant to be said each day, but most people perform this mitzvah at least once during the week of Sukkot at shul, Hochberg-Miller says.
Wave the lulav in all four compass directions while reciting the blessings. Blessings typically are said in the morning on each of the first seven days of Sukkot; however, it is not “against the rules” to say the blessings in the evening. Waving the lulav is a mitzvah.
The customs surrounding the lulav and etrog, when incorporated into the celebration of Sukkot, can add a new dimension of meaning and beauty to the holiday. “In Israel, most people take a lot of time and care to select the perfect etrog,” Hochberg-Miller says. “This falls into the category of hiddur mitzvah, which means to beautify a mitzvah. So anything you are commanded to do — such as installing a mezuzah on your doorpost or lighting Shabbat candles — can be made more special. This is the basis of Judaic art. We can make things more beautiful with our effort.” To that end, the more impressive the etrog, the more special the mitzvah.
Each portion of the lulav can represent different things to different people. “Our eyes are shaped like the myrtle leaf,” Hochberg-Miller says, “so when we look at the world of creation, we are praising God with our eyes.” The etrog “represents the human heart. Your heart has to be in the mitzvah. Our prayers have to have our hearts in it when we give thanks to God — we cannot simply be paying lip service,” she says.
All of the items have to work together. “When you hold a lulav and an etrog in the sukkah, you hold them together so you are making one package,” Hochberg-Miller says. “We are outdoors in the environment with the natural world around us. I find incredible meaning in Sukkot. When you are sitting outside in the sukkah, you understand the vulnerability of life.”
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