The Mitzvah of Lulav on Shabbat

We see that the Mishna unequivocally states that we should perform the mitzvah of waving the lulav on the first day of Sukkot even if the first day of the holiday falls on Shabbat. So, naturally, the question must be asked: Why do most Jews not hold by this practice today?

Rabbi David Bar-Hayim,

Rabbi Bar-Hayim
Rabbi Bar-Hayim
Arutz 7
This year, the first day of the holiday of Sukkot falls on Shabbat. Most Jews do not perform the mitzvah of waving the lulav (or "Four Species") on Shabbat while others do so. What is the basis for these differing practices and what is the stance of the Halacha (Jewish law)?

Regarding the mitzvah of lulav - a positive Torah commandment - the Mishna (Sukkah 3a) states:
When the first day of Sukkot falls on Shabbat, all of the Jews bring their lulavim to synagogue (on Erev Shabbat because of the prohibition of carrying from one domain to another); and [the next day] everybody identifies his lulav and takes it. And this is because it was said: "One may not fulfill one's obligation on the first day of Sukkot with the lulav of his fellow." And on the remaining days of Sukkot, one may fulfill one's obligation with the lulav of his fellow.
In the following chapter, the Mishna (Sukkah 4a) goes on to state:
The lulav and the aravah (willow), six and seven.... How is the lulav seven? When the first day of Sukkot falls on Shabbat, one waves the lulav seven days; on other days, [when the first day of Sukkot falls on the rest of the days of the week, one does not wave on Shabbat in the middle of the holiday because only on the first day of Sukkot does the mitzvah of lulav override Shabbat and thus one waves] six [days].
Thus, we see that the Mishna unequivocally states that we should perform the mitzvah of waving the lulav on the first day of Sukkot even if the first day of the holiday falls on Shabbat. So, naturally, the question must be asked: Why do most Jews not hold by this practice today?

In my humble opinion, the answer is related to the competition and rivalry that prevailed between the center of Torah in Eretz Yisrael and the center of Torah in Babylon some 1,400 years ago.

Hard to believe? Perhaps, but when we examine the sugya (relevant discussion) in the Babylonian Talmud we are left with this distinct impression. Without this perspective, it is extremely difficult to understand why the Talmud states one thing and then contradicts itself on the very same page.

At the beginning of the deliberation (Sukka 43a), the Talmud states simply that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael - who know which day was declared to be Rosh Chodesh and are therefore in no doubt as to the date on which the holiday begins - perform the mitzvah of waving the lulav on Shabbat, as per the Mishna. The Jews of Babylon, on the other hand - who are in doubt as to whether the first day of Sukkot falls on Shabbat or Sunday - do not perform the mitzvah of waving the lulav on Shabbat: "We in Babylon do not know the determination of the month and therefore do not wave lulav. They in Eretz Yisrael, who know the determination of the month, should wave and override the Shabbat."

However, as the discussion continues (43b), the Talmud suddenly changes its position and surprisingly declares: "Since we in Babylon do not override Shabbat, they in Eretz Yisrael do not either. But what of the first day, when we in Babylon do not override the Shabbat and they in Eretz Yisrael do? They answered: lulav will not override Shabbat for them either."

An entirely new claim is made here that contradicts the previous conclusion. Since the Jews of Babylon do not override Shabbat by performing the mitzvah of waving the lulav, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael must also act accordingly, and must therefore refrain from waving the lulav on Shabbat.

This latter claim is quite astonishing. On what basis can one claim that when one person can not fulfill a mitzvah, then his neighbor must also refrain from doing so?

This change of heart did not go unnoticed by the commentators of the Talmud. Rashi says that this was decreed "so that Israel would not be fragmented and the Torah would appear to be two Torahs." (44a) The Rambam, too, explains the matter in a similar fashion (Hilchoth Lulav 7, 16; in the Vilna edition, 17). This interpretation, however, is difficult to accept.

Would this be the only case in which the appearance of "two Torahs" is created? Do residents of the Exile (Galut) not observe every Yom Tov (festival) for two days, while the residents of Eretz Yisrael observe only one? Is it not the case that one group puts on tefilin while the other does not; one group prays the tefilah of Yom Tov, while the other says the weekday prayers; one group observes the Sukkot holiday for eight days, and the other, nine. And on Passover, one group makes one Seder, while the other makes two. Etc.

Furthermore, the Talmud's language does not readily lend itself to this explanation of Rashi and the Rambam. If the Talmud had wanted all Jews to observe one custom, it would have said so explicitly. The declaration that "since we in Babylon do not override Shabbat, they in Eretz Yisrael do not also," suggests that the explanation lies elsewhere.

And indeed, the Netziv (in his commentary Meromei Sadeh) rejects Rashi's rationale and suggests another reason that appears more in line with the Talmud's original intention: after the destruction of the Temple, writes the Netziv, the bulk of the Jewish nation was transplanted to the Exile. In this new reality the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, who are considered after the destruction as "negligible", must fall in line with "the custom of Am Yisrael."

But even this insightful elucidation requires further examination. The truth is that we do not possess sufficient historical data regarding the condition and numbers of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael as compared to the Jews of Babylon during the period immediately following the destruction of the Temple. In addition, as far as we know, the process that the Netziv describes - the transformation of the Exile into the center of the Jewish world - took place over hundreds of years. Moreover, the Babylonian sage Abbaye, who lived 250 years after the destruction of the Temple, is quoted in the Talmud (Pesahim 51a; Hulin 18b) as having said, "We are subservient to them," regarding the way the Jews of Babylon viewed themselves vis-a-vis the Jews of Eretz Yisrael. We must conclude that, at least up to the time of Abbaye, the status of Babylon was perceived to be inferior to that of Eretz Yisrael.

Having said this, the Netziv's understanding of the matter seems basically correct; it might, however, be formulated somewhat differently. As previously noted, the process described by the Netziv did not occur immediately after the destruction of the Temple. During the periods of the Tannaim (70-200 CE) and the Amora'im (200 to 500 CE) until at least the time of Abbaye (d. 337 CE), the Jews of Babylon recognized the lofty status and the birthright of the Jews and sages of Eretz Yisrael. During this period, it was completely acceptable in their eyes that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael would perform the mitzvah of waving the lulav when the first day of Sukkot fell on Shabbat, even though they themselves did not do so. This period is reflected in the first deliberation of the Talmud (43a) cited above.

However, with the passage of time, the center of Torah and the Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael was steadily weakened due to the persecutions of the Romans and the Byzantines, and later, in the aftermath of the Arab Muslim occupation. Thus, little by little, a new reality came into being: the center of Jewish life shifted to Babylon - as pointed out by the Netziv - and the worldview of Babylonian Jewry was shaped by this fact.

To this we must add that it is well known, as found in many sources, including statements of the sages, that an atmosphere of competition and rivalry prevailed between the Jewish centers in Babylon and Eretz Yisrael. The sages of Babylon were not at ease with the fact that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael were fulfilling the mitzvah of lulav at a time that the Jews of Babylon were not doing so; this would have been seen to imply that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael were of a higher status and order.

It seems that once the Babylonians felt that they were in a position to do so, they adopted the principle reflected in the summation of the second deliberation (43b): the Jews of Eretz Yisrael must accept the authority of the Jews of Babylon and act in accordance with their customs. (It goes without saying that the Jerusalem Talmud makes no mention of such a decree, and is of the opinion that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael must fulfill the mitzvah of waving the lulav on the first day of Sukkot even on Shabbat.)

Bearing all this in mind, one might well ask whether today we are required to continue to view the custom of the Jews of the Exile as the "custom of Klal Yisrael". Is this appropriate when, thank G-d, at least 50% of the world's Jews live in Eretz Yisrael and when the largest and most significant Torah center in the world is located in Eretz Yisrael? Is it still relevant to view the Judaism of the extinct communities of Babylon or of the present day Jewish Diaspora as somehow superior? And even if it is fitting that Klal Yisrael should observe one uniform custom, perhaps the Jews of the Exile should again fall in line with the Jews of Eretz Yisrael and not vice versa.

Perhaps the time has come to take seriously the words of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi: "One should always run to the Mishna more than to the Talmud" (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metziah 33a), and conduct ourselves here in Eretz Yisrael in accordance with the Mishna. Thus might we begin the process of redefining centrality and marginality in our lives as a nation and as individuals, and get ourselves collectively back on track.




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