What is the shaking of the lulav and etrog set all about?
Each day of the holiday of Sukkot (excluding the Sabbath), we move the Four Species lulav and etrog set three times in each of six directions immediately after reciting the blessing. Many do this by turning around while extending the Four Species in each direction: eastward, southward, westward and northward, then facing east upwards and downwards.
According to the kabbalistic explanation, taught by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, we do not actually turn in each direction. Instead, we face eastward and extend the species: southward, northward, eastward, upward, downward, and westward. After each movement, the lulav and etrog are brought towards the heart. The Chabad custom is to bring the Four Species close enough to actually touch the area of the chest where the heart is located.
The Arizal explains that the six directions represent the six emotions (loosely translated here from the Hebrew):
- South: kindness (chesed).
- North: discipline (gevurah).
- East: harmony (tiferet).
- Up: perseverance (netzach).
- Down: submission (hod).
- West: connection (yesod).
- Bringing the four species towards the heart: communication (malchut).
Our sages explain that the manifestation of the Divine Presence in this world - the Shechinah, stems from the west. If the Shechinah is in the west, figuratively, when facing east, south would be to its right and north to its left.
The right hand represents “kindness” while the left hand represents “discipline.” East and west would then correspond to the “center” attributes of “harmony” and “connection” respectively. “Perseverance” and “submission” are represented by the upward and downward movements. The seventh attribute, “communication” is represented by the heart to which the Four Kinds are continually returned.
Following the Scholar
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, explains the traditional movement of the Four Species:
Our sages point out that the Four Species, each having different combinations of taste and smell, represent the four different types of people that make up our nation:
- The lulav (date tree frond), which has a sweet taste (dates) but no particular smell, represents the Jewish scholar, who dedicated to internalizing knowledge (taste) but does not distinguish himself by his good deeds.
- The hadas (myrtle branch), which has a pleasant smell and no taste, represents the one who is outstanding in his performance of good deeds, which positively affect one’s environment - like a “good smell”, but lacks outstanding Torah scholarship.
- The etrog (citrus fruit), which has both a good taste and a good smell, represents one that excels both in Torah study as well as in good deeds.
- The aravah (willow branch), which has no special smell or taste, represents the person who does not excel in either one of the aforementioned qualities.
The idea is to unite the various individuals and unite them into one indivisible unit.
The blessing may not be recited unless all four kinds are present, so why then, is it that the blessing that is recited only mentions the lulav?
The Talmud attributes this to the fact that the lulav “is the tallest” and most visible of the four.
The physical prominence of the lulav and its dominance over the other three kinds implies the spiritual prominence and dominance in what it represents - namely Torah study, which is the primary motor of all aspects of Jewish personal, community and national life. The power we gain from Torah study enables us to influence and transform the world around us.
We extend the Lulav and its accompanying species to the various points in order to express this idea in more detail.
The Southern Hemisphere is hotter than the Northern Hemisphere, therefore south and north represent, respectively, heat and cold.
We begin the movements by extending the Four Kinds, led by the lulav, three times to the south, followed by three times to the north, demonstrating thereby that it is through Torah study that we can dominate both the hot, seductive instincts as well as the cold indifference that threaten our spiritual vitality.
We then move the Four Kinds towards the east, where the sun rises, representing the source of light. Through Torah study we gain the ability to increase and add even more light to the world.
We move the lulav upward, implying that through Torah study we can reach the highest levels and secrets of knowledge, and then downward, representing our ability to positively influence the lowest levels of the human experience.
Finally, we carry the lulav westward, representing G‑d’s manifest presence (as explained above) which represents our ability to become partners with G‑d in creation, as it were, to the point of being able to dictate His behavior and even annul his decrees.
After careful study, it seems that the Rebbe’s explanation is an elaboration of the Arizal’s teaching, with emphasis on its practical impact on our physical world and on our personal struggles and challenges.