Lulav & Huts: What’s the Connection?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: Can you please explain the relationship of the lulav and etrog to the succah? On most holidays, there is usually a relationship between the mitzvos and the holiday like matzoh on Pesach, or the succah and Succos. So what is the purpose of the lulav and etrog? I am finding it very hard to find any information. Of the many people I have spoken to, little information is known. The main response I get is, “We do it because we are commanded to by God.” Well, this of course is a given, but I find this response problematic.

Rabbi: In his book entitled Horeb[1], Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained a close relationship between the succah, etrog and lulav. I will mention his ideas, followed by my thoughts, stimulated by Rabbi Hirsch.

The Succah, a minimalistic structure, is to break man away from his materialistic lifestyle: the physical world is not the goal of our temporal earthly existence. The 4 species embodies the correct attitude towards the source of all physical good. We give thanks to God for His bountiful harvest: waving produce in all 4 directions, upwards and downwards, we demonstrate that God alone has complete dominion over the world.

The Talmud states, (Succah 37b):

 Why do we wave the Lulav? R. Yochanan said, “We wave out and back (horizontally) to the One who owns all four directions on Earth, and we wave the Lulav up and down to the One Who owns heaven and Earth.”

Rabbi Yochanan separates the two acts of waving “forward/back/left/right” from “up/down” to teach us that there are two areas of God's dominion which require our affirmation. God is the sole Creator of all. This is why we wave up and down, referring to heaven and Earth: all creation is contained in these two spheres. But if up and down covers all creation, what is left to recognize about God’s greatness, as we wave in 4 directions too (forward/back/left/right)? This refers not to creation, but to God's government of mankind: God has complete knowledge/governance of man’s travels on Earth (our actions) as alluded to by these “4 directions,” which is limited to earthly activity. This subtle difference points us to the realization that there are two distinct areas in which we must attest to God’s greatness: 1) God is omnipotent, He can do all, as He created heaven and Earth (waving up/down), 2) God is omniscient, He knows all, as He is aware of all our travels and actions (forward/back/left/right).

This theme is reiterated as the two main themes of the High Holiday prayers, Malchyos (omnipotence), and Zichronos (omniscience). Rabbi Yochanan’s view is that waving the four species on Succos must demonstrate God’s dominion in all areas: His creation, and His government of man. We wave His creations up and down to demonstrate that He created all that is above, and all that is below. But He also governs all that He created, demonstrated by waving the species in all 4 directions. God’s omnipotence and omniscience is again o display in the Temple: the Menora possesses 7 branches (7=creation) and a table of 12 showbreads displays God’s providence (food) over the 12 Tribes. 

Why must the Succah be temporal and frail by design? Man sustains his false attempts to compensate for physical insecurity by striving for riches and earthly permanence, expressed in building luxurious homes. Succah breaks man away from his desire for physical security. Man must view God as his security, instead of viewing himself as the sole cause of his fortune. With his attachment to physical security, man removes God from the equation and fails to appreciate His vital role. Therefore, God commands us to dwell in a flimsy structure for a week, as a detachment from our greatest physical security: our homes. God must retain central focus. 

Lulav complements succah by emphasizing the use of the physical for the right reasons. We thank God—the Source of our bounty—replacing our faulty view of the physical with proper thanks to God for providing vegetation. All physical objects that we are fortunate to receive should be used in recognition of the Creator of these fruits, and not to reaffirm our own physical strength.

It also makes sense that Succah—not Lulav—is used to demonstrate man’s required break from the physical. Man's home is the one object which embodies earthy permanence...not so man’s food. Therefore, I believe a frail home (succah) is used as opposed to fruits, which are consumed objects, and do not afford man the satisfaction of permanence. Since man does not attach himself to fruits as he does his home, the home is from where man must make his break. Succah breaks down man’s weighty attachment to the physical, while lulav redirects man’s attachment towards God, the source of all our sustenance. This is the connection.

This explains why we read Koheles (Ecclesiastes) on Succos. In this philosophical masterpiece, King Solomon presents the correct philosophy for man in relation to God, labor, wealth, happiness, death, ego, accomplishments and myriads of attitudes and philosophies. Numerous times King Solomon states, “What extra is there for man in all his toil that he toils under the sun?” He even commences his work with his summary, “Futility of futilities.” The Rabbis questioned King Solomon’s statement, “How can King Solomon say all is futile, when God said in Genesis that the world is very good?” The answer is that King Solomon only critiqued the physical as an ends in itself. When God said it was good, He meant that as long as it serves only as a “means” to man's pursuit of wisdom and a perfected life. There is no contradiction between King Solomon and God (Rabbi Israel Chait).

Fulfill the obligations of this Succos holiday. Adhere to the commands of eating, drinking, and certainly sleeping in the succah, even light naps. Make the scach (succah covering) from detached plant life such as reeds, wood, or bamboo, so you may gaze through the gaps at the stars as you lie on your bed, recognizing your Creator, the sole Creator of the universe. Wave the 4 species in all horizontal directions demonstrating God’s exclusive dominion over all man’s affairs. Wave them upwards and downwards, demonstrating God’s exclusive creation of that which is up and down—heaven and Earth.

By living in these frail booths, may we strip ourselves of our false security, and may our waving of the lulav, esrog, haddasim and aravos redirect our security towards the One who provides a bountiful life, thereby realizing that our ultimate protection and security comes from God.

[1] Soncino Press, 6th English Edition 1997, pp 132