Loewenstein’s shtiebel on the second floor of the apartment house was packed tight one balmy Sukkot morning. Congregants jostled for space to place their spear-like lulavim and cotton-cradled etrogim. “Hold my etrog while I go outside for a moment,” said my father, “and mind the pitam, don’t drop it.”
Honored with the trust, I fondled the etrog carefully, but alas, it rolled out of my hands, and plunged headfirst onto the floor. Even before it hit the ground, I knew it. The worst had happened. The pitam, the stem, had broken off. I recall being down on my knees among the swaying tzitzit and flapping frock-coats trying to piece it back on. And then there was my father’s expression – even more horrified than when I dropped and broke his cordless mechanical shaver.
The arba minim, the four species of plants we are required to take on the festival of Sukkot, are mentioned in Leviticus. “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, pri etz hadar, the fruits of the hadar tree, kapot temarim, branches of palm trees, ve’anaf etz avot, boughs of thick leaved trees, ve’arvei nachal and willows of the brook.
The Talmud interprets these words as referring to the following plants: Pri etz hadar means the etrog that is both beautiful (hadar) and resides (ha-dar) in trees all year round. Kapot temarim, which can also be read as kafut, bound-together temarim, means the lulav, shoots of date palms which in their early stages, before they fan out into palm branches, are tightly bound and spear shaped. Anaf etz avot (boughs of covered trees) means the hadas, the myrtle, because “avot” means braided, and the myrtle leaves look as though they are braided around the branch.
The lulav is bound with three myrtle branches on its right and two willow branches on its left. The lulav is held in the right hand and the etrog is held in the left hand. Although the Torah only commands us to pick up the arba minim, the rabbis require that we wave them in all four directions of the compass as well as upward and downward.
Achievements are often flaunted in all directions. The Torah reminds us that all achievements are gifts from God. And so on Sukkot, the rain festival, we wave the arba minim in all directions, acknowledging that God, the Rainmaker, brings the rains from the four corners of the earth. The Talmud in Sukkot tells us that waving the arba minim also wards off destructive winds that would otherwise drive harmful rain.
The lulav also symbolizes the scepter of victory with which we emerge after vanquishing the Yom Kippur prosecutor. Although the mitzvah of arba minim can be fulfilled at any time during the day, there is a close connection between the mitzvah of arba minim and the reciting of Hallel.
“Is it possible,” asks the Talmud, “to perform the mitzvah of lulav without reciting Hallel?” Accordingly, the lulav is waved when reciting certain verses of Hallel. During the Temple era, the lulav was taken inside the Temple on all seven days of Sukkot but outside the Temple on the first day only. After the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai ruled that the arba minim be taken on all seven days of Sukkot, everywhere. Accordingly, lulav on the first day is biblical and on the last six days rabbinical.