Sukkot matters (3): Finding meaning in shaking the lulav

The shaking of the Four Species, sometimes called ‘shaking the lulav’, has attracted a number of meanings over the course of Jewish history. One of these was the idea that all the four plants require water to grow, and this was a ritual to invoke the right amount of rain for the crops. I would certainly like that to happen, but I am also interested in Jewish rituals as a source of meaning for the emotional, psychological and physical development of the individual and the community.

There are two interpretations in particular that speak to me.

Drawing into ourselves the attributes of God

First, there is the explanation by Rabbi Isaac Luria (the ‘Arizal’ or ‘Ari’), the father of Lurianic Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in 16th century Safed. He taught that the repeated movement of the four species towards the chest/heart, represented the lowest, most grounded aspect (sefirah) of the Tree of Life: malchut, receptiveness. Through this action, we receive the Divine gifts and energies from the six aspects (sefirot) above it: chesed/abundant loving-kindness, gevurah/discipline, tiferet/harmony, netzach/endurance, hod/humility, yesod/connection.

This is more than just intellectual musing. Taking time to meditate on each of these attributes can change us. How do we relate to each of these qualities? What changes if we add a physical element to the meditation? Modern psychological techniques in behavioural change link physical actions and ritualized movements to focused thoughts, visualisations and intentions. These seven life-affirming qualities represented on the kabbalistic Tree of Life – what modernists might call a ‘cognitive map’ – can become more realizable, more embodied, through appropriate mental re-patterning combined with physical reinforcement.

Judaism is not just a set of ideas, beliefs, stories and values; it is a spiritual path that is realized through enactment and embodiment. Our story says that at the revelation of God’s giving of the Torah at Sinai, we said na’aseh v’nishma “we will do, and we will hear”, and one of the core teachings that has come down to us about this is that we will learn by doing. We have a modern saying, “Fake it till you make it.” If we do something enough times, then it starts to become real, and part of us. If we faithfully carry out some of the rituals passed down to us, reframing and making new meaning when we feel it is appropriate, then we will start to embody the values we aspire to. Ritual does not have to be ‘empty’.

Invocation, dedication and gratitude

What does it mean to shake the lulav in six directions: East, South, West, North, Up, and Down? The Talmud teaches: “It is as if he is taking them [the species] and bringing them to Him Who owns the four directions. He raises them and lowers them to Him Who owns the heavens and the earth.” (Sukkah 37b) So the six directions are a simple representation of all possible directions. For me, there are three levels to this interpretation.


First, when I mindfully shake the lulav to all the directions, I am reminded, through performing the action, that there is nowhere that God is not.

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
Even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”
Even the darkness will not be dark to You; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to You.

(Ps 139:7-12)

My understanding of prayer, actions and words performed mindfully in this way, in a sacred context, are the equivalent of what J. L. Austin called ‘performative utterances.’ They not only affirm God, but actually invoke and bring into here-and-now reality the particular attributes that we name; we are call into being the way that we want to relate to God, and want God to relate to us. Shaking the lulav, I call into being the God of all Creation, everything and every-where; by doing so, God who is no-where, is, for me, now-here.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev wrote a powerful invocation that reads as a sacred love-poem:

Du, Du, Du!
You! You! You!
I want to sing a ‘You-Song’ to You!
Du, Du, Du!
Where can I find You?
And where can I not find You?
Wherever I go: You! – Wherever I stay: You!
Only You! – None but You! – Again You!
Always You!
Du, Du, Du, Du!
When things go well: You! – God forbid, ill: You!
AyDu, Du, Du … Du, Du, Du!
Du, Du, Du … Du, Du, Du!
You, You, You!
Skyward: You! Earth: You! Above: You! Below: You!
Du, Du, Du … Du, Du, Du!
You! You! You!
Wherever I turn myself: You!
Wherever I remain: You!

I have been so moved by Reb Levi’s poem that I have composed a song with it. You can listen to my setting of ‘Dudeleh’ here.


That God is both beyond everything, and permeates all space and time, and is the originating and sustaining force for all, is for me, is awe-inspiring. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had a name for it: ‘radical amazement’. From this awe naturally flows a feeling of humbleness before a might and wisdom and compassion beyond my comprehension. I feel this when, in the Aleinu prayer near the end of a service, we recite together the words v’anachnu korim umishtachavim u’modim – ‘we bend our knees, prostrate, and acknowledge our thanks’. The metaphor of God as absolute Ruler to whom I feel moved to re-pledge allegiance is overwhelming.


The last word of that aleinu phrase is modim – ‘thanks’.

Invoking the God of everywhere and everything, the Creator and Sustainer of all, opens my mind and heart to awe. And awe opens me to surrender and re-dedication to God, the One who knows and dispenses absolute Judgment and Compassion. With such a powerful sense of the Presence, and the simplicity that comes from this moment, I find myself flooded with gratitude for Life that flows towards me and through me, and out of me back towards its Source.

For me, this is the true mystery and the miracle of the shaking of the lulav – invoking, affirming and savouring the wonder and flow of Life itself.

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