The Lulav, the Etrog, the Medicine Pipe


For many years, I used to have long talks with Anselmo Valencia, the Chief of the Yaqui Indian Nation, about the similarities and distinctions between the beliefs and practices of Native American cultures and Judaism. Similar discussions have taken place over the last 10 years between numerous rabbis and Grandfather Wallace Black Elk, a Lakota Elder. But the link between these cultures was all brought home to me a few years ago when my neighbors saw me blessing my Sukkah with the Four Species, and thought I was doing an “Indian” ritual. Suddenly, I realized the amazing similarities between the prayers of a chanupa, or medicine pipe (filled only with tobacco, let’s be clear on that issue early on), and the waving of the lulav and etrog. Both practices are so incredibly important to their respective cultures, and both are so beautiful. But what is amazing in some ways is how similar the understandings, intentions and practices are surrounding these ritual objects.

The Sukkot liturgy specifically tells us that our intention is to be the “unification of the name of the Holy One.” Similarly, Nicholas Black Elk (Lakota Elder of the early 20th century) spoke of how the ceremony of the chanupa unifies the “four spirits” that “are only one spirit after all.” While Rabbi Noson (Rebbe Nachman’s disciple) taught that the waving of the Four Species is to “reveal God’s kingship to all humanity,” Native peoples around the country set their intention on the chanupa as being “Mitakuye Oyasin”… “for all relations.” As Black Elk prays with his pipe, he shouts to God, “This is my prayer; hear me!” How often do we Jews hear that phrase throughout our services?

The construction of the chanupa and Four Species is nearly identical in many ways as well. There are many symbolic meanings for the lulav and etrog among Jews, and it is commonly accepted that among other things they represent the “four worlds,” the letters of God’s sacred four letter name, and the backbone, eyes, lips, and heart of a human being. Native Elders teach of the chanupa as being composed of the “four worlds” of mineral (the bowl is made of stone), plant (the wooden stem), animal (the stem is usually wrapped in animal skin) and human (it is the human’s mouth which physically touches the pipe). The chanupa is considered a symbol of all aspects of Creation.

The lulav is traditionally considered “masculine” with the etrog being “feminine,” and the Bahir teaches that the unification of them is symbolic of the unification between the male “brooks” and the female “sea.” When a pipe-carrier places his pipe together, it is with the understanding that he is unifying the feminine energies of the bowl with the masculine energies of the stem. Both “female” objects of bowl and etrog are held in the left hand, and both the lulav and the pipe stem are held in the right hand as the unification takes place. Both cultures place great value on the “integrity” of the objects, and in both spiritual traditions the items cannot be used if they are stolen from another or if they are physically damaged in any way.

Even the ways the objects are used are consonant with each other. We wave the Four Species in six directions — right, left, ahead, up, down and back. Many tribal traditions teach that the smoke of the chanupa must be blown three times to the four directions, and then above “to Grandfather Sky” and down “to Grandmother Earth.” Both the Jew and the Native American become the catalyst that combines all the elements into all the directions, and both individuals are more centered within themselves and in harmony with all of Life around them as a result of their spiritual practice with these ritual objects.

Even internal “discussions” about the practices are similar. Talmud tells us that the School of Shammai prohibits the carrying out of the lulav into the public domain, while the School of Hillel allows it (Betzah 1:5). Similarly, there are some tribal traditions that allow the use of the chanupa in large public gatherings of prayer, while others believe it is a tool only to be used privately or with the immediate family.

Does the great number of similarities between the two spiritual practices mean that they have the same historical root, and that the traditions are connected in some way? Probably not. More likely, they are both a reflection of authentic beliefs, experiences, and awareness translated into rituals that actively affect the individual user and culture. Different cultures have found similar ways of accessing the same truths and teachings about life and God, and both are incredibly powerful and awakening.

Many Native Elders teach that each individual should learn to pray with the chanupa. As Jews, it might be beneficial on every level if we all performed the mitzvah of waving the lulav and etrog, for our own personal benefit and for the sanctification of the Name.

Shanah Tovah.


Michael Barclay teaches ethics at Loyola Marymount University, and is a student at the Academy of Jewish Religion, Los Angeles.

Around the Orange


It’s a couple of hours before the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) quarterly Orange County Jewish-Latino roundtable group and Joyce Greenspan is worried.

“I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen tonight,” says the ADL’s Orange County director. “Usually, we have a dinner, but it’s a different format this time. I’m just afraid that not many people will show up.”

Her fears are unfounded; by the time the roundtable’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start time rolls around, the Santa Ana Police Department’s Community Room is teeming with talk of Mexico and Israel by members of Orange County’s Latino and Jewish communities. Some of the people present belong to civic organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American Jewish Committee; others are citizens eager to learn more about each other’s culture. Conversations about the Sephardic heritage of Mexico (both old and new) serve as starting points for conversations among former strangers. One man tells Johanna Rose that a Latino friend of his recently married a Jewish woman. “I bet you the reception lasted forever,” says Rose with a laugh. “Both of those cultures know how to party!”

Once the evening’s program begins, though, the pleasantries quickly fade. A representative of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee presents a video called, “Arafat: In His Own Words.”

The formerly friendly banter turns into tense conversation, with the Jewish members of the roundtable adamantly maintaining that Arafat has no credibility, while Latino participants ask who could possibly represent the Palestinian people besides Arafat.

To an outsider, the heated arguments would appear to be further proof of a growing animosity between the communities, except that by the end of the discussion, nearly everyone is on a first-name basis, and afterward, they go back to the casual banter.

Such is the purpose of the roundtable, says Greenspan, who has moderated the roundtables since their inception six years ago. “Our roundtable is a great opportunity for Jews and Latinos in Orange County to inform each other of problems that each face in a friendly environment, where issues that might be uncomfortable to speak about in public can be discussed openly,” she says.

“This didn’t happen after one meeting. It’s like any good relationship; it grew slowly and deeply,” she adds.

The Jewish-Latino roundtable originated as a joint effort of the ADL and Los Amigos of Orange County (a Latino grass-roots organization) so that the communities could better understand each other. Polarizing issues pertinent to both communities, such as immigration and the Middle East have been discussed over the years with no bitterness other than lively disputes. The roundtable also serves as a focal point for both communities to better understand each other’s culture.

“I remember one time I went to a Los Amigos meeting to invite them to a Jewish-Latino Passover seder event,” Greenspan says, “and I was surprised when someone asked, ‘What’s a seder?’ Now many Latinos and Jews know about it and want to participate largely because of the roundtable.”

But the Jewish-Latino roundtable is not just a sharing of food and debate; action is an integral part of the group. When the Anaheim Union High School District tried to sue Mexico for $50 million in 1999 for the cost of educating the children of illegal immigrants, Latino leaders enlisted the help of the ADL, which immediately came out against the proposal as tantamount to a legislative hate crime.

Similarly, the Latino participants of the roundtable wrote many letters of condolence and support to the victims of the Northridge JCC tragedy that same year.

Such mutual support is important to people like Eleazar Elizondo, a Santa Ana resident who “came on my own as a civic-minded person.” Elizondo notes that meetings like these are important for both communities, especially as they begin to assert themselves in the traditionally conservative and white county.

“The Jewish community in Orange County has largely been transparent, while the Latinos have yet to truly find their voice,” Elizondo says. “Meetings like this bode well for the future of the county. Diversity of both thought and culture is good for all of us.”

Bridging both communities is Bruno Ledwin, an Argentine Jew who lives in Dana Point. Ledwin — whose calm comments served as a respite from the sometime rancorous dialogue — feels an extra urgency to see that events like these continue. “Belonging to both cultures, it’s especially important to me that both communities communicate,” he says. Echoing Elizondo’s thoughts, Ledwin also views such events as a common ground from which both groups can further assert themselves in Orange County. “Jews and Latinos have great qualities from which both can learn from each other. We’re two very important communities in the county.”