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I am poet: hear me read!

What's shakin'?

It was widely rumored there would be a lulav shortage this year. Egypt, the world's largest supplier of the ritual palm fronds, apparently decided to drastically decrease the number of fronds harvested and shipped. (Lulav can mean either palm, or the trio of branches, of which palm is one, bound together for Sukkot use.) The cut-back in frond-cutting was caused by concern that green branches off of desert palms damages them irrevocably. Apparently an increasing number of lulavim are grown now in the American southwest, and inquiries are being made into the possibility of farming them in Jordan, but before Sukkot the J-blogosphere was abuzz with worries that some Jews might be out-of-luck come festival time. High Sukkot drama!

The anticipated problem doesn't seem to have materialized, though; I ordered a set (lulav and etrog -- which is to say, bundle of palm/willow/myrtle and nubbly yellow citron) online from West Side Judaica last week with no problem. The Jerusalem Post explains ("Lulav prices drop after cartel bust") that a shipment of 100,000 lulavim was exported (or smuggled?) on Yom Kippur eve, alleviating the shortage. Go figure. Anyway, one way or another, there seem to be enough branches and fruits to go around.

The practice of celebrating Sukkot with the Arba Minim (Four Species) comes from Torah:

On the first day [of the festival] you shall take the product of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days. [Leviticus 23:40]

Early rabbinic authorities interpreted that verse to mean the three branches of the lulav (does anyone know how/why the etrog entered the picture?), and established the practice we follow today, of shaking the Four Species together in all six directions. We also shake them during recitation of certain parts of the liturgy (mmm, hallel), and there's a custom of carrying them around one's synagogue sanctuary daily during Sukkot (and seven times on Hoshannah Rabbah, the seventh day of the holiday.)

For what purpose do we shake? That depends on who you ask. Some say the shaking invokes an abundance of blessing (of all kinds, e.g. coming from every direction), or that it praises God Who is everywhere, or that it wards off damaging winds and stops harmful dew (that's the classic explanation; it comes from Talmud). Shaking the Four Species in all six directions has been compared with the practice of circle-casting. Personally, I like the interpretation that with each beckoning motion, I draw holiness toward me, inviting God-consciousness to surround me on all sides.

It's not just the action that's overdetermined; there are more interpretations of the Four Species themselves than you can shake a lulav at. They can be understood to represent four kinds of Jews, or four aspects of a human being. (In either metaphor, it's significant that the Four Species are always held and used together, implying something about the importance of balance and unity.) Some say that the Four Species represent the four letters of the Tetragrammaton (about which more anon), or the four winds, or the four directions, or the four worlds. It's not much of a stretch to see the lulav as a phallic symbol; complementing it, the etrog becomes symbolic of a womb. (That might be why some Jewish folk traditions prescribe eating thin slices of etrog to aid in labor.) One midrash suggests that the etrog, not the apple, was the fruit eaten by Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden.

This year I ordered my first lulav-and-etrog set (I've fulfilled the mitzvah of shaking them before, but never with my very own bundle of fruit and leaves) and was amazed at their fragrance when they first came out of the box. The myrtle and etrog in particular have a spicy sweetness to them. It seems a shame to go to all this trouble to order them from so far away, and then unceremoniously pitch them when Sukkot is over. Fortunately, at least where the etrog is concerned, I have a better plan.

The Jewish Holidays tells me that some folks make etrog preserves to be eaten at Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. It's a way of connecting the two festivals across winter's long cold chasm. Ethan and I are big fans of canning and preserving, so I did some digging and found this ginger-etrog marmalade recipe. I might have to pick up a few lemons and some ginger root next week and give this a try; I love the idea of extending Sukkot's sweetness in this way.

I'll close this post with one more interpretation of the Four Species, from this week's Shalom Report, courtesy of Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

Traditionally, the 4 Species are said to replicate the Holy Name: etrog is Yod, lulav is Vav, etc. BUT--If as traditionally defined you hold the etrog in your left hand and the lulav etc in your right hand and try to "read" them as Hebrew from right to left, you get the letters backward. (HWHY) The only way to get them right is for someone else to "read" your 4 species and you to read theirs. Only with I-Thou is YHWH present.

I might offer another reason why it's useful to shake the Four Species in company -- the photo op. In order to snap the following photo, I had to hold both components in one hand, which isn't the traditionally-accepted way to do things (and yes, I realize I'm holding the etrog upside-down; technically the stem should be pointing the other way). Cut me some slack; it's not easy to fulfil a mitzvah and take one's own picture all at the same time! At least I didn't try to document the actual shaking. Though if I ever learn how to use my camera to shoot little movies...

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