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The Story of the Lulav

By Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Each of our festivals has a unique and special commandment that defines it. Rosh Hashanah has the Shofar and Yom Kippur has the fast. Hanukkah has the Menorah and Pesach has the Matzah. Only Sukkot has two special commandments: The Sukkah and the Lulav, also known also as the four species.  

Where does Lulav come from? That’s not a simple question. The description of Sukkot in Book of Leviticus is odd. It first describes the festival as a seven-day festival of booths. Only after finishing describing the festival, in what appears to be a footnote, the commandment to take the four species is added. It is missing in all the other references to Sukkot in the Torah.  

The historical trail of the Lulav in the Second Temple period is intriguing. Sukkot is mentioned in the book of Nehemiah, one of the last books of the bible, which describes the return of the children of Israel to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile. As the returning exiles are reintroduced with Jewish tradition, we read: 

‘On the second day, the heads of the clans of all the people and the priests and Levites gathered to Ezra the scribe to study the words of the Teaching. They found written in the Teaching that the LORD had commanded Moses that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the festival of the seventh month, and that they must announce and proclaim throughout all their towns and Jerusalem as follows, “Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms and [other] leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” (Nehemiah 8:13-15) 

In this description, the four species aren’t separate from the Sukkah – they are the building materials out of which the Sukkah is constructed! 

The Septuagint – and early Greek translation of the Bible – has a different description. This is the translation of the passage about the Lulav from the Book of Leviticus: 

“And on the first day ye shall take goodly fruit of trees, and branches of palm trees, and thick boughs of trees, and willows, and branches of osiers from the brook, to rejoice before the Lord your God seven days in the year.”  

What is unique in this description is that there aren’t four species at all – there are five! There appear to be two different types of Willow branches. This may seem odd, but remember that we also have a separate celebration with the Willow branches that takes place on Hoshana Rabbah. This translation may be an early reference to the Willow branches becoming a separate observance. 

A third mention of the Lulav can be found in the Second Book of Maccabees, which tells the story of Hanukkah. While the temple was defiled by the Greeks the Jews were unable to celebrate the festivals. When they return, they symbolically celebrate Sukkot. 

And they celebrated an eight-day festival, as in the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long afore they had held the feast of the tabernacles, when they wandered in the mountains and dens like beasts. And they brought willow branches, and fair boughs, and palms also, and sang psalms unto him that had given them good success in cleansing his place. They ordained also by a common statute and decree, that every year those days should be kept of the whole nation of the Jews. [II Maccabees, 10] 

This was the first Hanukkah celebration, which was a delayed celebration of Sukkot. They did not construct booths. Rather they brought symbolic branches to the temple as a symbol of the festival. There are reasons to think that the Lulav started its life as a ritual of the Temple whereas the Sukkah itself was a home ritual.  

It is only with the destruction of the Second Temple, and the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism that the prime location of the Lulav moves into the home, and Sukkot becomes a two-symbol festival as it is practiced today.  

Rabbi Chaim Weiner  
Tishre 5781 

Posted on 1 October 2020