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Shaking It


I am all for customs. They add variety, exoticism, and often humor into our ever more pressurized and material world. And Judaism has its fair share of strange things to do. If you take them all as friendly pointers, as ways of thinking and acting differently to the way one habitually does, they can add some spice to life and might even be elevating. They are as a general rule harmless and, if they will not necessarily do you any good (unless you’re a mystic who believes in magic), at least they do not do obvious harm.

You just might not want to indulge in say, whirling chickens around your head before Yom Kippur. Though come to think of it, it can’t be harmless for the poor chickens. As for me, I’d rather give money any day instead of running the risk of picking up some fowl virus.

Sukkot is a festival with a heavy overload of exotic things to do. (And I don’t mean getting drunk on vodka on Simchat Torah, something we have Lubavitch to thank for. Getting drunk on single malt whiskey is a much older and healthier custom.) I mean everything to do with the four plants we take and shake and wave, the Arba Minim. They are the Lulav, Etrog, Hadasim, and Aravot. (For those of you looking from outside in, they are the palm branch, citron, myrtle, and willow. Just think of Palm Sunday, except that’s in the spring and we do ours in the autumn.)

So much can go into buying the Four Kinds of Plants and the expense can be mind-blowing if you go for the top of the range. Perhaps you have seen this depicted in the film Ushpizin. The tips of the lulav have to be examined to make sure they are not split. (And women think split hair is a problem.) You might, as I do, prefer a lulav with a kneppel. That’s the husk still intact at the top that reduces the chances of split fronds but has the disadvantage of not sounding so good when you shake it (more of that shortly).

The etrog is even more complicated. You want one that is genuine citron, not a mixture of other citrus, not one grafted. Preferably one watched over by the thousandth generation of Sicilian Mafiosi shepherds whose goat manure is vintage, or better still from the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, and not to mention the more controversial ones from Corfu.

And don’t even begin to get involved in the issue of the pitom, that cute little mushroom-like protrusion at the top of the fruit (not to be confused with the bottom, which has the remnant of the stalk that attached it to the tree). The pitom is pure vanity. It takes just one clumsy move or a kid’s over-enthusiasm and it’s gone and your etrog is useless, a defective reject. Far better to get one that never ever had a pitom so there’s nothing to break off. And then there are the marks, the spots and the bubbles. You will need magnifying glasses, microscopes, and jeweler’s loops to sort out the goats from the sheep, the lemons from the citrons. And a really laboratory-tested pure one, certified by experts, sanctified by saints, and commercially exploited by rabbis, can run into thousands! I know people who live elegantly the whole year round on the etrogs they sell for Sukkot.

I suppose splurging money on a religious artifact is at least no worse than throwing away 100 times more on horsepower you can never use in traffic or jewels that 99% of people cannot tell from glass or cubic zirconia.

What concerns me, however, is the way you wave your lulav and when. You see, as of course anyone who knows anything about Judaism will tell you, there are a hundred different ways of doing it. You take them in your two hands, hold them out in front of you and shake. But how do you shake? Is it a swirling cutlass swipe, an up and down beating motion as if to cut any nasty lingering evil spirits in two? Is it a sedate Germanic putting out and pulling back in, three times or two? Is it an en-garde foil-wiggling at the end, as though you are trying to clean out the right ear of the fellow in front, or perhaps you are trying to spike his kippa and toss it into the air?

And which direction do you rotate? Most go east, south, west, north, up, and down. Others go right, left, front, up, down, and back. The Kabbalists added their variations, and the rebbes a few refinements more. Beware if you are out of sync with your neighbor. It does not matter if what you were doing was good enough for King David or the Vilna Gaon, you will get black looks, superior noses in the air, and if you are really out of luck, some kid will be delegated to tug your kaftan and tell you that you are an ignorant fool or a heretic for ignoring local custom.

You see, that’s what I do not like about customs. They give every pompous inadequate religious snob a chance to feel superior, to make you feel inferior, and to do the very opposite of what true religion is supposed to do which is to engender happy, uplifted, and spiritual feelings. The complexities of the varieties of customs are minefields laid out to trap the unwary, and make the visitor feel out of place and ignorant. They are the means of ensuring that small select groups of holier-than-thou’s can recognize who is in and who is out. It is like the dress code that enables you to get into the right nightclub or casino. Which might be fine for nightclubs and casinos and fashion shows, but it is not what religion should be concerned with. And you, sir, are waving your lulav under my nose and in the wrong direction. No way into heaven for you! (You see, Yom Kippur is over and I’m back to normal!)

19 thoughts on “Shaking It

  1. Work on the premise that they'll be both shocheling and rotating in an anti-clockwise fashion in Australia and the rest of the southern hemisphere and you won't go far wrong! Oh, the vagaries of Judaism!

    It was good to read your piece this morning and have a laugh. Thanks, Jeremy.

  2. Thanks for once reminding us of the difference between our true holy traditions and social up-manship. At least with the casino or nightclub, the cards are on the table. All are in the same racket.

    Those with their little 'chumralech' need to, in addition, beware of not turning our divine service into a laughing stock or worst. Like the person I ran into on Chol Hamoed who claimed there are rabbis who forbid drinking a water outside the Sukkah…

  3. Am I simply a pedant? Yes, I know everyone calls the four plants ARBA MINIM, but the dictionary says ARBA-AH MINIM.

    Or should we simply stop teaching children that Hebrew numbers have masculine forms and revert to the simple feminine for all of them?

  4. Michael:
    You are absolutely right and I am afraid there's too much inconsistency in transliterations (and I am very inconsistent, why two P s in Yom Kipur? Or two C's in Succot?). It is indeed Arbaah, because of the ayin, and you are right to correct me.
    To play safe, I wish you a Giten Kvitel!

  5. Anonymous:
    And breathing outside the Sucah too!!! But that's a matter of kashrut as well, because there are all kinds of microorganisms and bugs in the air! Someone's going to corner the market in Kosher Air soon, believe me!

  6. Leila:
    You mean they DON'T stand on their heads to wave the lulav? Some Hassidic masters dance the jig when they do it too! Might make an interesting car sticker.

  7. And the saddest part is, the whole point (one of many, anyway) of the ritual is to symbolize the unity of all the many kinds of Jewish People everywhere on earth!

  8. Derek:
    Yes isn't it a sad fact of life that when one focusses on survival one inevitably turns inwards, and we have been doing it for so long it's almost second nature. As you rightly point out, that was neither the message of the Torah nor the Prophets. It's time to change. Jeremy

  9. You forgot the basic tyranny of modern judaism regarding lulav and etrog – everyone has to have one of their own. In years gone by only a few would buy and the majority shared them or used the communal ones. There must be more lulavim now than at any point in our history, And it's no aliyah or pesicha unless you conform.

  10. Not to rain on anybody's hakafot, but it's probably not as unhealthy to get drunk on vodka than on malt whisky. The aging of the latter in oak barrels for flavor also makes for chemicals called congeners, which are carcinogenic. They also aggravate a hangover. Vodka is stored in glass-lined tanks in the much briefer time between distillation and bottling; its only poison is the alcohol.

  11. Anonymous:
    You are right about the history, hence all the laws about 'lending' or 'giving' to someone else. But hold on, the same could be said for almost anything. We are in general much more material and acquisitive nowadays, so why not apply the habit to something that at least symbolically has spiritual value? The problem indeed is making life uncomfortable for those who choose not to or cannot conform! We seem to have lost the value of human respect in the rush to assert our religious exhibitionism.

  12. "They give every pompous inadequate religious snob a chance to feel superior, to make you feel inferior, and to do the very opposite of what true religion is supposed to do which is to engender happy, uplifted, and spiritual feelings."
    But isn't the smug attitude of your piece, and that of the admiring reactions to it, not just another form of religious one- upmanship as you say to those who take their rituals too seriously for your taste; we are better than you, we know better what Judaism is really about (happy feelings apparently). It becomes not a matter of an objection to exclusive clubs as such but which club you choose to belong to.
    Best wishes
    Chosid Shoyte

  13. Chosid Shoyte:
    My initial reaction to your comments was that maybe you are right. But then on consideration I don't think so. I do not in any way object to taking rituals as strictly as one wants to; on the contrary, when done out of dedication and commitment it is most praiseworthy. What I object to is when some religious people make other religious people feel inadequate or think they are automatically on a higher spiritual level simply because they do more or stricter things.

    For example, if I choose to follow Chazon Ish strict measurements for rituals such as Kiddush, or if I choose only to eat Chassidishe or Beit Yosef Shechita, and if then I make someone who is less strict but still makes kiddush over a full mouthful of wine and adheres to the Shulchan Aruch on Shechita feel inadequate or wrong, that is precisely the sort of religious one-upmanship I deplore.

  14. There are irritating self-righteous people everywhere. You set out criticisms of complex customs as such. If you had simply said you do not like people who use them as a means of exclusion that would be unexceptionable but of course less in-your-face-controversial-radical etc. and so not so good for ratings.
    chosid shoyte

  15. Chosid Shoyte:
    It's true I do try to entertain as well as make a point and teach, but the fact is that a lot of even reasonably committeed Jews feel very uncomfortable in either strange surroundings or where they feel they will make idiots of themselves or stand out. Now I don't for one minute expect Torah committed Jews to change their customs to suit those who are 'tinokot shenishbeu' but I do try to make less knowledgable Jews feel wanted and not excluded and I also try to get frum Jews to try to understand how the other half might feel.

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