What’s the Truth about . . . the Arba Minim?

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Misconception: It is ideal to hold the lulav (along with the hadasim and aravot) and the etrog together in one hand.

Fact: It is preferable to hold them in separate hands.

Background: With all of the mitzvah objects that we use on Sukkot, balancing them while davening can be difficult. During Hallel, one often holds a siddur as well as the arba minim; reciting the daily Hoshanah prayer is even trickier as one circles the bimah holding the arba minim while chanting mostly unfamiliar text.

The mitzvah of the arba minim, the “Four Species,” is described in Vayikra (23:40): “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day [of Sukkot]1 the fruit of the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree and willows of the brook.”

“The fruit of the hadar tree” refers to the etrog (citron), the “palm fronds” is the lulav, the “branch of a braided tree” refers to the hadasim (myrtle) and the “willows of the brook” are the aravot or hoshanot (Sukkah 35a). The Torah is not explicit regarding how many of each species should be used. Chazal explain that one lulav is all that is needed (Sukkah 34b), and as suggested in the verse, one etrog is used. The generally accepted halachah is that three hadasim and two aravot are used (SA, OC 651:1).2

Taking all four of these species constitutes one mitzvah; if one of the species is missing, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah (Menachot 27a; Rambam, Hilchot Lulav 7:5; SA, OC 651:12). One can also pick up all four species sequentially and fulfill the mitzvah, however, it is preferable to take all four at once. How is one supposed to hold all the flora at the same time? The Gemara debates whether there is a mitzvah to tie the lulav, hadasim and aravot together and concludes that while it is not obligatory, they should be tied together whenever possible because it beautifies the mitzvah. The mishnah (Sukkah 3:8) describes how the residents of Jerusalem used gold thread to tie the lulav together with the hadasim and aravot. Today most people accomplish the tying, as the Mishnah Berurah describes (651:8), with the woven holders made from lulav leaves (known as koshiklach). Others, such as the Chatam Sofer (commentary to Sukkah 36b, s.v. “b’mino”), insist that in addition there should be a double knot tying them together, as mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch (651:1).3 Irrespective of whether or not they are tied, those three species are to be held together while the etrog is held separately.4

Rava (Sukkah 37b) explains that the lulav should be held in the right hand and the etrog in the left. There is a debate as to whether one has fulfilled the obligation if he reversed hands.5 The Beit Yosef (OC 651, end of section with s.v. “v’elu hadalet minim”) cites a gemara from the Yerushalmi that if one holds the etrog together with the lulav in one hand, he has not fulfilled the mitzvah. The Mishnah Berurah (651:15) cites both that opinion as well as the opposing one mentioned by the Taz (651:14) that it is acceptable to hold them all in one hand as long as they are not bound together. This is because, as Rashi explains (Sukkah 34b), the verse does not link the etrog with the other species. The Mishnah Berurah and Shoneh Halachot (651:11) conclude that when in doubt as to whether one has fulfilled a Biblical obligation, one should repeat the action without reciting a blessing. Since the commandment to take a lulav is Biblical only on the first day of Sukkot, they seem to rule that if one held all of the minim in one hand on the other days of Sukkot, he need not repeat the mitzvah.6

The ideal way to perform the mitzvah is to hold the lulav, aravot and hadasim in the right hand and the etrog in the left. One should then bring the etrog close to the other three species (SA, OC 651:11). An interesting story is told by the thirteenth-century Rabbi Menahem Recanati in which he saw in a dream that his guest was writing the Four-Letter Name of God with a space before the final heh. He understood that each of the species represents one of the letters in God’s name (see “Yehi Ratzon” in Siddur HaGra) and the next morning he saw that the guest was not holding an etrog. From this some conclude that just as in writing God’s Name the letters should have a little space between them, but not too large a space, the same applies to the arba minim. The first Belzer  Rebbe (Rav Shalom Rokeach) thus explained that we use koshiklach as they keep the aravot and hadasim near the lulav but with a separation.7

Prior to davening, most people hold the lulav and etrog in two hands. The problem arises during Hallel, and even more so during Hoshanot. Shearim Metzuyanim B’Halachah by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Braun (to Sukkah 37b) notes the common practice of holding the lulav and etrog in one hand during Hallel and Hoshanot. He postulates that it is an old custom, and even though he does not have a strong halachic basis for it, he cites the fallback principle (Pesachim 61a) that if Jews are not prophets they are at least descendants of prophets and hence, their customs have a valid basis.

Yet others do not agree. The Ben Ish Chai (Ha’azinu: 14) writes: “There are those who, in error, hold the lulav and etrog in one hand and the siddur from which they read Hoshanot in the second hand and this is not correct.” Indeed, the Yalkut Tehillim (cited by the Gra at the beginning of OC 660) describes the hakafot as “all Jews, old and young, take their lulavim in their right hands and etrogim in the left and encircle . . . .” Moadim U’Zemanim (2:121) offers a novel explanation: if the lulav is tied together with the other two species, then even if the etrog is held in the same hand, it is separate from them and one has fulfilled the mitzvah. If, however, the “binding” is accomplished by holding the three together, then if the etrog is in the same hand, the mitzvah was not performed properly. Despite the fact that most people tie the lulav and already fulfilled the mitzvah of taking the arba minim before reciting Hoshanot, he observes that people who are meticulous about performing mitzvot continue to hold them in separate hands.

It is reported8 that Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik (the Griz) was careful to always hold the lulav and etrog in separate hands, and not only while reciting the berachah. Throughout Hallel and Hoshanot, he kept the lulav in his right hand and the etrog in his left. When this was difficult, novel solutions were found. Thus, during the recitation and “parade” of Hoshanot, the shaliach tzibbur would hold the lulav in his right hand, the etrog in his left hand and one of the congregants would walk backward holding the siddur in front of him so that he could read. During Hoshanot, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would be scrupulous about holding the lulav and etrog in two hands even in his old age when he was weak, and he held that this is the correct way to perform the mitzvah (Halichot Shlomo 11: n. 74). He would hold his siddur on his arm, and when he got tired, someone would hold it for him. Recently, the use of a novel “Hoshanot text” card that slips onto one’s arm has become quite popular.

As noted, the preferred method, as per Rava’s statement (Sukkah 37b), is that the lulav be held in the right hand and the etrog in the left (OC 651:2),9 but they should be held next to each other (Beit Yosef, OC 651). Both the lulav and etrog should preferably have direct contact with one’s hand.10 The Rema (OC 651:7) says that although one is not obligated to remove one’s rings while holding the arba minim, the custom is to do so and to remove one’s tefillin. The Mishnah Berurah (651:36) cites several opinions that state that rings must be removed.

Chazal have assigned various meanings to the Four Species and what they represent,11 such as the Avot plus Yosef Hatzaddik as well as the Imahot. Among the most famous12 is that the Four Species represent four types of Jews. The etrog, which has a pleasant aroma and taste, represents one who has Torah and good deeds. The lulav, which produces a fruit with taste but no smell, represents a Jew with Torah but who lacks good deeds. The hadas, with a pleasant aroma but no taste, symbolizes the Jew with good deeds but no Torah, while the aravah, which has neither smell nor taste, signifies the Jew who has neither Torah nor good deeds but nonetheless desires to be part of the Jewish people. The midrash continues that God does not want to punish any of His children, and He therefore instructs that we take the arba minim together in one bundle, symbolizing that all Jews must be united and atone for one other. The midrash does not specify what is meant by “together” and does not address the halachah discussed in this article. The Eitz Yosef picks up where the midrash leaves off, and explains that “together” means the lulav, hadas and aravah are to be tied together while the etrog is to be held near them but in the other hand.

The verse in Leviticus (23:40) that teaches us about the arba minim concludes with the command to rejoice: “. . . and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven-day period.” May it be that all types of Jews will rejoice before Hashem in the Beit Hamikdash this Sukkot, together with their arba minim.

Notes

1. Biblically, the mitzvah applies for seven days only “in the mikdash” (in the words of the mishnah) and on the first day of Sukkot outside of the mikdash. On the second day of yom tov in Chutz La’Aretz, the mitzvah to take the lulav and etrog is considered rabbinic in nature; on Chol Hamoed (in Israel, beginning on day two of the holiday, and in Chutz La’Aretz beginning on day three), the commandment has the status of “zecher l’mikdash,” a remembrance for the way things were done in the times of the Temple (Rambam, Hilchot Lulav 7:13-15). According to the Rambam (commentary on the mishnah), “mikdash” in this context includes all of ancient Jerusalem. Because of this opinion, many make an effort to go to the Old City of Jerusalem on Chol Hamoed and shake the lulav again in order to possibly fulfill a mitzvah d’Oraita. For Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s opinion of this practice, see Harerei Kedem, sec. 139 and Nefesh HaRav (Rabbi Hershel Schachter [Jerusalem, 1994], 219).

2. This is the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael. Rabbi Akiva maintains that just like there is only one lulav and one etrog, there is only one hadas and one aravah (mishnah Sukkah 3:4; Torat Kohanim to Vayikra 23:40). The Rambam, following most of the Geonim, rules like Rabbi Yishmael, as do the Tur and SA (OC 651:1). However, the Ramban rules like Rabbi Akiva (see Beit Yosef to OC 651). These are the minimum requirements for hadasim and aravot. Throughout the generations there has been a custom to add hadasim to beautify the mitzvah (see SA, OC 651:15 and Zohar Amar, The Four Species Anthology [Hebrew] [Tel Aviv, 2009], 60-68). This custom may go far back, as coins from the Bar Kochba era seem to indicate the use of many hadasim.

3. See Rabbi Yosef Lewy, Minhag Yisrael Torah, vol. 3 (Brooklyn, 5755), 155-157.

4. See Torat Kohanim and Malbim (HaTorah V’Hamitzvah) as well as Tosefet Berachah, all on Vayikra 23:40, for an explanation of how the verse alludes to grouping them.

5. Rabbeinu Chananel (Sukkah 42a), Rabbi Avraham Borenstein (Avnei Nezer 492:8) and Chazon Ish (OC 149) imply that if one reversed the hands, one has not, even post facto, fulfilled the mitzvah. The Ritva (Sukkah 42a), Meiri (Sukkah 37b), Rema (651:3), Chatam Sofer (Sukkah 42a) and K’tav Sofer (Shu”t OC 107) disagree and rule that one has nonetheless fulfilled the mitzvah. The Taz (OC 651:4) is quite emphatic that one fulfills the obligation in either case (also see Har Tzvi 107). The Magen Avraham (651:9) and Mishnah Berurah (651:19) take Rabbeinu Chananel’s position into consideration while acknowledging that it is in the minority (see Sha’ar Hatziyun 651:23), and rule that one should retake the arba minim but not recite a berachah.

6. The Shulchan Aruch HaRav (651:1) leans toward the view that if they are held in one hand, one has not fulfilled his obligation. The Sha’ar Hatziyun (651:16) deduces from the Taz’s statement that, according to him, if all four species were bound and held in one hand, one has not fulfilled his obligation, even post facto. The Sha’ar Hatziyun is troubled by this and argues that even in such a case, there is no need to perform the mitzvah again.

See Sha’arei Teshuvah (651:17) and Mishnah Berurah (651:23) for how a one-handed person should fulfill the mitzvah and Chayei Adam (148:8) and Shoneh Halachot (651:13) for how a person without arms can fulfill the mitzvah.

7. See Taz 651:14; Sefer Ta’amei Haminhagim, p. 347; Rav Dessler, Michtav Me’Eliyahu vol. 5 (5757), p. 418.

8. Shimon Yosef Miller, Uvdot Vehanhagot L’Beit Brisk, vol. 2 (5759), p. 85 and Nefesh HaRav, p. 218.

9. According to the Rema (OC 652:3; see MB 652:19 and Sha’ar Hatziyun 23), a lefty should reverse these instructions and hold the lulav in his left hand and the etrog in his right hand. The Shulchan Aruch, and in his footsteps, Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 6:2:5), disagree (see Beit Yosef and Bach to Tur OC 651). The Kaf Hachaim (OC 651:38) says that a Sephardi should first perform the mitzvah according to the Rema’s specifications and then repeat it according to the Shulchan Aruch’s instructions. If a shul rabbi is a lefty, Rav Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo 11:16) states that irrespective of how he performs the ritual at home, in shul he should hold the arba minim as everyone else does.

The Aruch L’ner (Bikurei Yaakov [commentary to Hilchot Lulav] 651:9) discusses, inconclusively, whether a lefty should also reverse the position of the hadasim and aravot. The Mishnah Berurah (651:12) rules that he should not reverse them.

10. See, however, opinions in Sukkah 37a (e.g., Rava, Rabbah) that allow certain types of barriers. See Tosafot (Sukkah 37a) who suggest that they can even be held with a handkerchief.

11. See Vayikra Rabbah 30.

12. Vayikra Rabbah 30:11.

Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is on the faculty of the Brain Science Program at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2014 .