July 15, 2019

Best of Friends, Best of Fronds: A Lulav Story

For several months now, I have been dreaming of finding the perfect lulav — a palm frond the Torah requires us to wave as part of the ritual of the four species on Sukkot. 

To be kosher, a lulav needs to be at least 16 inches. Most lulavim that we see in synagogues are around 3 to 4 feet tall, but there is no maximum height limit for the lulav. 

I wanted a unique lulav to demonstrate my love of the commandment and my desire to serve Hashem. And, of course, I wanted something that would be exciting for the children of our synagogue in Washington, D.C., to see.

So I set out to search for a very, very tall lulav. 

The first step was to contact my friends in Israel and see if they could help. They couldn’t. The logistics were too complicated.

I then started looking in Arizona. I called the largest date farmers in the state. They were somewhat interested until they learned that I was looking only for a single frond.  After that, they weren’t so quick to return my calls. 

By this time, it was the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and I feared that this year my dreams would not come true.

I had one last hope. I called my friend
Rabbi Yossi Cunin, the Chabad shliach to Beverly Hills.

The night before Rosh Hashanah, every rabbi has a million things to do. But when I called Rabbi Cunin, he seemed to drop everything to help me.

He called palm tree nurseries and date farms and random farmers looking for the right lulav.

The day after Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Cunin drove to a farm and looked at its palm trees. The owners offered him one frond that was almost 7 feet tall, the farm’s tallest. There were, however, a couple of catches. The farm wanted $650. We couldn’t justify paying that exorbitant price when an entire set of Four Species typically costs less than $65.

It already was almost Yom Kippur. I was ready to give up.

That night, Rabbi Cunin couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned all night.

He got up early in the morning and looked up at the heavens to ask Hashem for direction. He desperately wanted to help me find my lulav.

And then, he noticed, high in the sky, way, way up where he almost never looked before, there was a single, kosher lulav growing directly over his property.  

He had never noticed it before, but there it was — beautiful and glorious!

The next morning as the sun rose, he started calling gardeners to help him get it down. Finally, one man came and started climbing the palm tree. On his way up, he estimated the lulav was only 4 or 5 feet in length.

But then he cut it down and it turned out to be 9 feet 2 inches. It was the perfect size for us!

Rabbi Cunin immediately drove to Melrose Carpets, and the owner was kind enough to give him a carpet tube to ship it in across the country to Washington. It was too big for air freight, so it required ground delivery — seven days, with an arrival on the eve of the holiday of Sukkot.

I started out looking for the perfect lulav, but what I really found was the perfect friend. Here was a rabbi who dropped everything on the eve of a major holiday in order to help another rabbi in his service of Hashem.

I am so grateful that Rabbi Cunin shares with me the value that when it comes to serving Hashem, our efforts are a reflection of our values. If we put our heart and soul into performing a commandment, it demonstrates that we recognize that we are servants of our Creator.  And once we recognize that, then that in turn will impact every action we do in our lives. As true servants of God, we will be better able to visit the sick, feed the hungry, comfort the mourners and inspire the weary.

So if you want to wave the perfect lulav this year, you can stop by our synagogue. But even if you can’t make it, we all can join together in recognizing that we humans have work to do on this earth: We are all servants of our Maker.

RABBI SHMUEL HERZFELD is the head rabbi at Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. 

The Magic of Sukkot

Symbols of jewish fall festival of Sukkot, lulav - etrog, palm branch, myrtle and willow - on old wooden background.

As a child, I always wanted a sukkah. My family lived in a small, rent-controlled apartment in West Hollywood. The space had its drawbacks for our family of five, but all year long, the walls of our small dining area somehow expanded to accommodate a seemingly unlimited number of guests for Shabbat and holiday meals. In our tiny kitchen, my mother cooked an array of Sephardic foods adorned with the artistic grandeur and culinary magic she brought from Algeria. There was only one holiday when physical limitations hindered us from celebrating our Jewish tradition in grand style: Sukkot.

We had no backyard or common area, and our single, tiny balcony could fit only a few chairs. So my family never was able to build its own sukkah.

Knowing how much I longed for my own sukkah, my mother would decorate the walls of our dining area with beautiful fabrics and the sukkah decorations I made at my Jewish day school. She suspended fruits from the small chandelier above our table, and — for the complete effect — affixed leaves to the low ceiling.

It may not have been a “real” sukkah, but it was the best we could do with the space we had. It was beautiful, it was meaningful and it was ours.

Still, I dreamed of having a sukkah of my own. Every year, I joined friends in the Bnei Akiva youth group to deliver palm fronds to Jewish homes all over Los Angeles. Along the way, I looked longingly at the variety of structures going up in people’s yards and driveways. 

One of my annual highlights was when one of our school rabbis would invite a group of us to a meal in his family’s sukkah. For my friends, those meals were breaks from their family sukkahs. For me, though, they were cherished opportunities. Some of my fondest memories are of those meals — singing, dancing and studying Torah with friends under the palm leaves.

I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to have a sukkah that blended the warmth my mother created in our dining room sukkah with the magical aura I felt in my rabbi’s sukkah.

That day finally came in 1993, when, after several years away from Los Angeles, I returned to become rabbi of a synagogue in Westwood, Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. My wife, Peni, and I moved into a condominium building nearby. We didn’t have a backyard, but the common space was large enough to accommodate a sukkah.

As the holidays approached, I told Peni I would visit one of the Jewish stores to purchase a pre-fab sukkah.

She would have none of that. Peni grew up in a Modern Orthodox family in Brookline, Mass. Her father, a physicist whose own father ran a hardware store, built a sukkah every year on the family’s outdoor deck with a wood frame and yellow fiberglass sides. That lasted until Peni was in high school in 1985, the year Hurricane Gloria struck New England two days before Sukkot. As the family watched through the kitchen window, a gale lifted the entire sukkah off the deck and it crashed into the backyard, shattering into pieces.

With that formative experience in mind, Peni set to work, determined to build a sturdy sukkah (ignoring the fact that hurricanes don’t usually strike L.A.). She phoned her father for advice, then visited Anawalt Lumber to gather the materials: wood planks, screws and all the hardware. She proceeded to design, craft and build the most beautiful wooden sukkah I had ever seen.

I wasn’t blessed with my wife’s design or handiwork skills, so I was of little help. My only role in building this sukkah was to provide the schach — the palm fronds that form the sukkah’s rooftop. “After all these years, you can finally build your own sukkah,” my mother said, laughing, “and all you’re doing is putting palm fronds on top? Really?”

Feeling totally inadequate, I set out to find the best available schach. If this was going to be my one limited role in my first-ever sukkah, I was going to make this the most awesome roof that a sukkah had ever seen. But before I did that, I decided to study all of the halachah (Jewish law) relating to schach.

While Peni was sawing wood and crafting the walls, I sat at my desk with a host of rabbinic commentaries on schach. As I studied, I discovered that while my role was less creative and physically demanding than Peni’s, it was no less meaningful.

The Talmud tells of the “great sukkah debate,” a disagreement about the meaning of the Torah verse in which God says, “I made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). According to Rabbi Akiva, the text is referring to actual sukkahs, physical structures. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees. He says the sukkahs weren’t actual structures — the “sukkot” were God’s protective clouds of glory, which hovered above the Israelites throughout their sojourn in the wilderness.

While Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation describes the sukkah as a complete structure with walls — an opinion with which Peni would concur — Rabbi Eliezer’s view depicts the entire sukkah as a protective rooftop. In other words, the schach is the sukkah. So, according to Rabbi Eliezer, by acquiring and adding the roof, I would be the one actually building the sukkah. (Try explaining that to my wife, who was outside in protective goggles, sawing and drilling wood.)

I set out to acquire schach, keeping in mind the Mishnah’s rule that the roof material can be anything “not susceptible to ritual impurity and that grows from the soil.” Instead of calling Bnei Akiva, I drove my compact Datsun to a nearby park and gathered the 15 most attractive palm fronds I could find. I somehow fit them into the car — the “magic” of Sukkot, I guess.

Arriving home full of joy and excitement, I climbed a ladder and placed the greenery atop the beautiful walls Peni had created. The two of us stood and admired the gorgeous sukkah we had constructed together, blending the spirit of both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer.

At last, I had my sukkah. What remained was for us to re-create the beautiful aura I remember from my Sephardic home’s dining-area sukkah, my rabbi’s spiritual teachings in his sukkah and from Peni’s cherished family memories. 

One of the texts I remembered learning in my childhood rabbi’s sukkah described the custom of the 16th-century kabbalist Rabbi Moses Cordovero to refrain from idle chatter and mundane conversation while sitting underneath the schach. Cordovero’s custom was rooted in Rabbi Eliezer’s view, that the schach represents God’s protective clouds. Because we are directly underneath them, he taught, we should engage in positive and spiritual exchanges. Cordovero turned his sukkah into a beit midrash, a house of Torah study, where the discussions around the table were matters of the intellect and the spirit.

Peni and I were eager to bring that spirit into our first sukkah. That first week was magical. We invited my parents and siblings, congregants, friends, colleagues and neighbors. One guest, an architect, marveled at the quality of the structure. “You have great talent with design and building,” he said to me.

I laughed and directed him to my wife. “All I did was put the branches on top,” I said.

Surrounded by loved ones, we stayed up late into each night of Sukkot that year, singing, eating, drinking and celebrating this unique tradition.

The sukkah is a Jewish space like no other. For seven special days, it can become our refuge from the negative politics and controversies of the outside world. By limiting our speech under the schach to Torah, literature, poetry, music, art and science, we can make it a “house of Divine wisdom.” Cordovero’s custom can empower us to turn our sukkot into libraries of the soul and sanctuaries of the spirit.

Not to mention ideas. The Israeli author S.Y. Agnon, a personal favorite, once described himself as “one who sits and writes stories in a small sukkah.” It may have been small, but it inspired such great stories and novels that in 1966, Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, making him Israel’s first Nobel laureate. If the sukkah worked for Agnon, maybe it could work for the rest of us.

The theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described Shabbat as a “palace in time.” The sukkah can serve as a palace of big ideas with the schach — God’s protective clouds — not only hovering above our heads but penetrating our minds and souls.

Over 24 years, Peni and I have hosted hundreds of guests in our sukkah. Besides creating the structure of the sukkah, Peni, who comes from an Ashkenazic family, learned to masterfully re-create the Sephardic dishes from my mother’s kitchen. From her own childhood come her bubbe’s rolled cabbage and homemade gefilte fish and the traditional Ashkenazic zemirot (religious songs), which we love to sing. Together, we have worked to create a sukkah table that, in a sense, represents Jewish unity.

That sense isn’t limited to food and songs. We are committed to making our sukkah a place where Jews of all backgrounds feel welcome and comfortable. Under the palm fronds and within the walls, we have heard and shared stories in French, tunes in Ladino, prayers in Arabic, recipes in Farsi, poems in Spanish, and Israeli songs. Our children have hosted sukkah sleepovers, and our sukkah walls have embraced passionate discussions over Israel and other emotional issues, all in the spirit of celebrating unity within our community’s diversity.     

That seems fitting for Sukkot, the one holiday for which the Torah invites Jews of various backgrounds to bond as one and sit together: “You shall dwell in sukkot for seven days; all citizens of Israel shall dwell in sukkot.” (Leviticus 23:42) Based on that verse, the Talmud envisions a grand Jewish gathering: “This teaches that all Israel are able to sit in one sukkah.”

By inviting all Jews to sit in one sukkah and enjoy God’s shelter from the same schach above our heads, Sukkot asks us all — Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Chassidic, Reconstructionist, Humanist, secular, Israeli and Diaspora Jews — to celebrate our differences together, at least for a week.

Our celebration at home often includes non-Jews, as well. Many of them have marveled at the unique beauty of the experience. “If this is the way the Israelites lived in the desert,” one told me, “they should have stayed there!”

Amid all of its festivities, Sukkot presents an irony. In our prayers, we refer to the holiday as Z’man Simchateinu, “our season of joy.” One would think that joy would include indulging in all of the physical comforts in life. Yet on Sukkot, we are commanded to celebrate by leaving the comfort of our homes.

Raising our children in Los Angeles, Peni and I have worked hard to teach our kids that life isn’t all about your ZIP code or the year and make of your car. Sukkot, when we find joy while living outside, beneath palm leaves, has helped us convey that message to them.

More than once, we have hosted children who live in homes so large that they could have sukkahs bigger than the entire apartment I grew up in. These families don’t build sukkahs, but when their children come to ours, they seem as captivated as I was all those years ago in my school rabbi’s sukkah.

Think of how we spend money on electronics — phones, tablets, laptops — and just a few months later, the new model comes out, and the one we have isn’t good enough anymore, and we convince ourselves that we must upgrade. Sukkot challenges us to think differently. It reminds us that life is about family, friends, health, intellectual exchanges, spiritual enlightenment and much more.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer agreed that when the Jews wandered in the wilderness, a sukkah protected them.

My own Sukkot journey has taken me from the decorated walls of my little dining room to the schach I placed atop the beautiful walls built by Peni. Throughout, one common thread has remained: The real magic of Sukkot lies not in what you build, but how you live within it. 

RABBI DANIEL BOUSKILA is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international educational and cultural organization with its own campus in the Old City of Jerusalem and executive offices in Los Angeles. He also is an instructor of Talmud at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.

Desperately seeking Sukkot supplies on Pico-Robertson

Yeshiva boys don’t sell lemonade; they sell etrogs. 

“Etrog! Get your etrog!” a pre-pubescent voice shouted as I ventured down Pico Boulevard on Oct. 5, when sidewalks became home to an etrog bidding war that would make Sotheby’s cower in shame. I’ve bartered at shuks in Jerusalem and wrangled for turquoise in Bangkok, but I’d never haggled for etrogs in Pico-Robertson. 

During the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, yeshiva boys set up booths in the famously Jewish neighborhood, displaying their lulav and etrog merchandise. Starting at $40 a pop, etrog prices skyrocketed, depending on shape and texture. 

“This one’s a beauty,” said Ari Ohayon, 13, while showing off an $80 etrog. Ari was selling etrogs — and had found customers for about three by noon — while his brother Gad, 8, manned the lulavs. (He hadn’t sold any yet but was hopeful.)

Itai Esudri poses with Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch’s most expensive etrogs, priced at $100 and $120. 

What makes a good etrog? 

“No blemishes and a short pitom [tiny growth at the end]” Ari said. The young etrog expert recommended a short pitom because if it breaks, the etrog loses all value.

Another vendor, all of 15 years old, outside of Elat Market on West Pico Boulevard, pointed to a different kind of etrog.

“Yemanim [Yemenite Jews] only like the green ones,” he said.

Then he picked up an etrog featuring a girdel, an indent in the citron’s midsection, and said, “And Chabad buys these.”

So, basically, there’s an etrog for everyone.

One of the powerhouse etrog vendors on Pico was Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch, which had four booths stationed at different locations on the street. Itai Esudri, a teacher and mentor at the yeshiva, said he woke up at 6 a.m. to set up booths, whose locations he had already mapped out.

But the locations are acquired on a first-come, first-served basis, and Esudri’s students missed out on a prime location in front of Livonia Glatt Market when they arrived just a few minutes late. Five rival booths — including one manned by a 12-year-old boy — were already set up in front of the market’s sliding doors, and Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch was forced to settle for a spot down the block.

“It’s a real business,” Esudri said. 

In fact, Esudri knew a rabbi from Israel who would fly to Canada during Sukkot to build customized sukkot for people. “He’d come and make 20 grand, then fly back,” Esudri said. That money funded his temple during the year.

Students working for Yeshivat Ohr Chanoch made commission off of every etrog they sold. Because the base price was $40, any etrog priced over that amount meant extra money for the student. Both the student and the yeshiva benefited from purchases, Esudri said, but the point wasn’t all about profit. 

“These kids come together to raise money for the yeshiva. I told the guys, if you’re in it for the money, it’s not worth it.”

Of course, etrogs weren’t the only commodities available on Pico Boulevard the day after Yom Kippur. Beginning at 10 a.m., Lisa Lautman was at the corner of Pico and La Peer Drive — standing in sweltering heat, slathered in sunscreen — selling bundles of palm. Her photographer brother, Shimmy, operates a schach (sukkah roof covering) business during the Sukkot season. 

Lisa Lautman stands at the corner of Pico and La Peer selling schach, bundles of palm.

Selling schach is the Jewish version of hawking Christmas trees. Cars would stop at the corner and someone would roll down their windows and holler: “How much for your schach?” 

“Forty-five for a bundle of 10!” Lautman responded. Then the bidding tango commenced.

Local resident Yehuda Cohen bought a lulav from a vendor after working into the wee hours of the night to build his sukkah. He said he started building his temporary structure after Yom Kippur’s Neilah service and continued until 1 a.m.

And on this Sunday, he strapped his newly acquired lulav onto his backpack, mounted his bike and cycled back home to finish the sukkah he started the night before. The lulav waved behind him, looking like a samurai sword.

Something about Sukkot ignites the entrepreneurial spirit within people.

Metro Glatt restaurant used its parking lot to sell sukkot, and Nagilla Center Gifts and Hardware advertised certified kosher bamboo at its shop. Fliers were taped to walls and stapled to utility poles throughout the neighborhood, promoting professional custom sukkot-builders with a plea: “Do you need a sukka built without the backbreaking labor involved?”

And business only promised to heat up.

“Sunday’s the slow day,” Esudri said. 

Usually, the hustle comes Tuesday and Wednesday, when last-minute shoppers descend on Pico Boulevard to get all their Sukkot essentials. 

“It’s a zoo,” Esudri said. 

But because Sunday was slow, most booths closed up shop around 3 p.m.

At the end of the day, Gad Ohayon, the young lulav vendor, was running down the street with a cart full of unsold goods. As he passed, he shouted out, “I sold four!” with an ecstatic smile and continued down Pico Boulevard, gloating and over the moon. 

How to feed the hungry

On the fifth night of Sukkot, a panel gathered in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard headquarters to discuss how to handle hunger both at home and across the country. Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino explained that it was an auspicious date for such a conversation. 

Consider, he said, the lulav that is waved during the holiday. It is an aguda (bundle) composed of different plant species, each of which has a specific set of qualities: One has a taste, one a smell, one neither and one both. These are supposed to correspond to the people of the Jewish community, Farkas said, some of whom are versed in Torah and some of whom know justice, some of whom know both and some neither. 

“And the rabbis ask the question, then, why do you have this last group, the group of people who just don’t seem to have any worth?” he said. “[They answer] by giving the line from the Torah that we are to take up all four species together and to make them one aguda, which means for me that if we want to change the world … we have to bind ourselves to each other and cover for each other’s failing and work together through all of our differences.” 

This seemed to be the theme of the night, which brought together four diverse panelists doing work both in Los Angeles and across the globe, whose strategies ranged from short-term emergency food aid to encouraging grass-roots activism to lobbying members of Congress directly on issues of international consequence. The panel’s title was “The Second Harvest 2.0: Innovative Strategies That Address Hunger Locally and Globally.” Part of Federation’s Community Engagement Initiative, the Sept. 24 event drew about 50 people.  

Farkas, founder of the group Netiya, which works to help communities of faith plant urban gardens, was joined by Robert Egger, whose L.A. Kitchen aims to tackle food waste while creating jobs and feeding the elderly, as well as Paula Daniels, former chair of the L.A. Food Policy Council and senior policy adviser to former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Rounding out the panel was Jonathan Zasloff, representing the American Jewish World Service, where he volunteers, and moderator Abby Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. 

The conversation covered topics from corn subsidies to international food aid, and it tended to focus on broad-based systemic thinking over immediate solutions to local issues. As Leibman remarked at one point, “A board member [once] said to me, ‘We’re not going to food bank our way out of hunger.’ ” 

Or, as Egger put it, “Sure, I want to fish the baby out of the water here, but who’s throwing the babies in the water upstream?” 

Hunger is a complex problem, the panelists agreed, and finding a solution to it is even more complicated. It doesn’t help that Congress passed a bill in September that, if enacted, would cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over the course of the next 10 years. Leibman characterized this as “huge slap in the face … to all those who are struggling to recover from the terrible economy and to put food on the table for their family.” She also said that “as the nutrition safety net is being shredded … somebody, somewhere, somehow is going to have to pick up the slack.”

This means finding short-term solutions, like food banks, but also thinking long-term about creating systemic change. For Egger that means job creation, and his goal with L.A. Kitchen is to produce something that will feed the hungry today while also giving them the skills to look for work that will enable them to support themselves tomorrow. 

To that end, L.A. Kitchen will run a job-training program for people returning home from prison, pairing them with youth aging out of foster care and teaching them to prepare food in commercial kitchens. L.A. Kitchen will take seconds — produce that’s considered unsellable for cosmetic reasons — and turn it into meals for the city’s elderly. It’s an elegant system that creates, as Egger puts it, side-by-side learning and serving instead of a model that “emphasizes the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver.” 

Daniels looks at the issue from a civic angle. She said that Villaraigosa’s idea was to “use the market power of the city to influence what’s being produced,” creating a demand for healthy produce and then using a decentralized system of local food hubs to distribute it.  In effect, this means using the government dollars that purchase food for schools and hospitals to incentivize local production of that produce, and then creating a smaller-scale system to distribute it throughout the city — which means jobs in picking and packing, driving and distributing as well as preparing and serving. 

The issue, both in America and around the world, panelists agreed, was rarely that there weren’t enough calories; it’s almost always an issue of getting those calories into hungry mouths. 

Zasloff, who is also a rabbinic student at the ALEPH ordination program, closed out the panel by reminding the audience that charity is not a spectator sport, especially in Jewish tradition. He spoke of a blessing that thanks God for knowledge and awareness, and urged everyone in the room to acknowledge their own blessings, and to try once a day to think or do something about hunger.

“Do one thing every day, and that will make you more aware, it will connect you in with what else is happening, and it will begin to …  motivate you to do something and pursue your own path, that will allow you to link up with other people.”

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.”

More stories for Sukkot: 

Israel will not receive lulavs from Sinai

Israel likely will not have palm fronds from the Sinai for this year's Sukkot lulavs.

Terror in the Sinai and a lack of communication between Israeli and Egyptian agricultural agencies are the reasons that the palm fronds will not be imported, Israel National News reported Monday. They are grown in the Sinai's al-Arish area, located west of the Gaza Strip.

Last year, Egypt banned the export of the palm fronds to Israel, leading to fears of a lulav shortage for the holiday and higher prices. Israel's Agricultural Ministry then encouraged local palm farmers to increase production.

Avner Rotem, manager of date palms on Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi in the Beit Shean Valley, told INN that there should be enough lulavs grown in Israel to meet domestic needs and for export.

Israel previously had imported about 700,000 palm fronds a year in the run-up to Sukkot, which is about 40 percent of the annual demand. Another 700,000 of the 2 million lulavs used in Diaspora Jewish communities also came from Egypt.

The holiday begins on the evening of Sept. 30.

Bnei Menashe in India get Sukkot’s four species

The Bnei Menashe community of northeastern India will celebrate Sukkot this year with lulavs and etrogs sent from Israel.

The Shavei Israel organization, which works to strengthen ties between the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world, sent hundreds of sets of the four species to India prior to the holiday.

The Bnei Menashe, Hebrew for “sons of Manasseh,” claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, sent into exile by the Assyrian Empire more than 27 centuries ago. They live in India’s northeastern border states of Manipur and Mizoram.

Some 1,700 Bnei Menashe live in Israel, including 450 who have arrived in the past three years and settled in the Upper Galilee. Approximately 7,300 remain in India.

“The Bnei Menashe are anxiously waiting for Israel’s government to pass a decision to allow them to come to Israel,”  Shavei Israel chairman and founder Michael Freund said in a statement. “We hope the new year will bring good news and that the age-old dream of the Bnei Menashe to return to the land of their ancestors will soon become a reality.”

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