Bizarre Practices


Dear Rabbi:
We are now in a period of the year that celebrates the holiday of Sukkot.
Sukkot commemorates the years that the Jews spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, and celebrates the way in which G-d protected them under difficult desert conditions. Sukkot is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths.
Sukkot is celebrated by, first of all, building a sukkah. Jews are required to eat in the sukkah for eight days (seven days in Israel), and some even sleep in the sukkah for the duration of the holiday. The sukkah is decorated and the first day is considered a holy day in which most forms of work are forbidden.
The arba minim, (four species) are recognizable symbols of Sukkot. They are the etrog (looks like a large bumpy lemon), lulav (palm branches), hadasim (myrtle branches) and aravot (willow branches). The term lulav is often used to refer to the palm, myrtle and willow branches all together.
The above stems from what we read on the first day of Sukkot in the Fifth Aliyah at Leviticus 23:40-43 where the following is stated:
“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 G-d for a seven day period.”

“And you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord for seven days in the year. [It is] an eternal statute throughout your generations [that] you celebrate it in the seventh month.”

“For a seven day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths,”

“in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your G-d.”
Forgive me but I have always had a great deal of difficulty in associating with some of the symbols we deal with in order to practice our religion. Carrying the lulav and etrog are part of what I have trouble associating with. It seems to me that people look at these symbols as part of some mystical connection to the Almighty that I for one do not need in order to understand that there is a Supreme Being that is to be revered. Besides, the lines that I quoted merely state that “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”. Where does it say you are to shake the lulav for the seven days or look at the etrog for the entire time of the holiday? It is clear that we are supposed live in the sukkah for the entire seven day period.
At least there is justification for the above in that it is found in the Torah. Over the centuries, many customs have sprung up that allegedly enhance the way in which we enter certain holidays such as tghe just concluded Yom Kippur. Some of these customs, such as flogging oneself to atone for sin, happily have been forgotten. Others, such as immersion in a mikvah to indicate a state of purity, are still practiced by some. The most well‑known and yet most controversial of these customs is the practice of Kaparot, which literally means “atonements,” but in the sense of “ransom.”

Traditionally, a rooster is swung around one’s head and is then slaughtered while being declared a “substitute” for the individual, as an atonement for his or her sins. Like the Tashlikh ceremony of Rosh Hashanah, Kaparot is a folk ceremony that may have had superstitious, pagan origins. Rabbinic opposition to Kaparot has been strong and remains so today. There is no basis for this ceremony found in either the Torah or the Talmud.

At the JJC, we do not practice anything near as bizarre as Kaparot, but the fact that it is still used by some sects within the Jewish religion, gives me some pause as to how far we have really come as a religion that is supposed to be a “beacon to the nations”. I know that shaking a lulav or looking at an etrog does not come anywhere near what Kaparot stands for, but I for one do not need it to associate myself with the holiday of Sukkot. 


Dear Mordecai,

I'd like to respond to your last three emails - regarding Vayeilech, Haazinu, and Sukkot - all at once. 

You touch on many issues: Moses' death, the Gershwins, the attack of September 11, and the custom of lulav and etrog. 

I noticed how as you moved toward Sukkot, your topics became less dark. You expressed disappointment in God's fulfillment of the covenant in Vayeilech. In Haazinu, you described your reaction to 9/11.

When I look at Sukkot, I see a holiday that is about happiness and vulnerability. I see vulnerability embodied in the Sukkah, which serves as an imperfect shelter. Happiness is like that imperfect shelter; the purpose of life is not to be invincible but to acknowledge one's frailty. Therein lies a path to happiness. 
You ask, "Why do generations of Jews have to suffer because of the transgressions of some of our fore fathers?"

From one perspective this looks like collective punishment, but what it really is is collective responsibility. Each of us is responsible for one another. This is difficult to understand in a culture that is dominated by an ethos of self-sufficiency. 
What's the difference between shaking a lulav and etrog and swinging a bat? You might find this question silly at first. The bat swings for a purpose, but ultimately a bat swinging is just as ultimately purposeless as anything else given that sports is ultimately frivolity, which we use as an opportunity to behave fanatically. 
I would think of waving a lulav and etrog more like Tai Chi than anything else. We are trying to orient ourselves in space by identifying the six directions. We link those six directions to two phrases. Phrase one is Hodu l'Hashem ki tov and the second is Ana Hashem hoshia na. Sometimes, physicalizing a practice makes the lesson more attainable. I suppose we could just point in the six directions, but introducing objects into the practice seems to ground a person more effectively in space. I also think that the fact that the four species are mentioned in the Torah is incredible. Our relationship with these four species is ancient. 

But I must ask, Are lulav and etrog any stranger than tefillin? Yet I know you wear these. 

You ask, "Where does it say you are to shake the lulav for seven days or look at the etrog for the entire time of the holiday?" 

We have addressed this topic before. Unless you are a Karaite, Sadducee, or even a Samaritan then you must acknowledge that the Oral Law has authority and that we don't just do what is written in the Torah. Deuteronomy teaches that the Sages had the authority to make decisions based on their understanding of the Torah. Their understanding of the Torah was comprehensive - in certain ways greater than we can ever achieve. They knew the Tanakh by heart. This does not mean that we shouldn't try to understand what they said in a historical context or that whatever they said is what we should do today. Nevertheless, if you are only going to practice what is actually written in the Torah, then you stand the chance of becoming like the Karaites and Sadducees, which is to say irrelevant. 

Maybe treating your three emails at once was a mistake. You brought forward many interesting points and asked challenging questions. We are now more than a year into this enterprise. I believe that we are on the verge of completing the Torah. I have encountered your perspective in various guises as you have closely studied the parsha shavua. What has struck me and what I am anticipating most is the Genesis readings on Jacob. Somehow, I think that the person of Jacob is of great importance if we are to distill your thinking about the Torah after having been a student of it for many years. The character of Jacob is of great import because as you know we are known as the House of Jacob, not the House of Abraham, nor the House of Isaac. Something about Jacob really gets at the heart of what being a Jew is. 
Secondly, I see you challenging G-d frequently and wondering whether what He has asked of us is too much. I think this is a fair question to ask given how great the challenges facing the Jewish people are. I believe in your challenges and think they reflect an important sense of commitment to the covenant. I appreciate you thinking about these matters and your unwillingness to settle for pious answers.