Succos: Why Do We Only Make A Bracha On The Lulav?

It is difficult not to feel some sort of connection between Yom Kippur and the upcoming holiday of Succos. There are a number of connections often spoken about, but in this post, I’d like to highlight a less common one.

The Gemara asks an interesting question — one that we don’t really ever think about because we’re so accustomed to it: Why do we only make a bracha on the lulav? The Gemara gives an even more interesting answer: Because the lulav is the tallest of all of the species. Ok… Sounds like something of a strange answer, but things gets even weirder. The Gemara proceeds to counter by asking why we don’t just lift the esrog higher, and this way we would make a bracha on the esrog, what is deemed to be the “best” of the 4 species. The Gemara replies that we make the bracha on the lulav because its plant is the biggest. As in, since the tree/plant on which a lulav grows is the tallest of the all the 4 species, we make the bracha only on that.

Now, very often when the Gemara gives a confusing answer, it is rooted in what is actually a confusing question. One might think that the Gemara’s original question above is quite simple — “Why do we only make a bracha on the lulav?” — but it begs the obvious retort — “As opposed to what?” In other words, what would the Gemara have liked to have seen here?

Indeed, there are a number of ways of approaching this now rather more difficult question. On the one hand the Gemara could be asking why we don’t make individual brachos for each species. Alternatively, the Gemara could be asking why we don’t just make one single bracha that includes all the species under it. Further still, the Gemara could very well be asking as follows: Why do we only make a bracha on the lulav?! We should be making a bracha only on the esrog!?

(Just to clarify before we proceed, by the way, the reason why the Gemara assumes that the esrog should be the most important — and, if anything, the only thing we make the bracha on — is for the simple reason that it comes first in the posuk that is the source for the daled minim. You know, “pri eitz hadar”, etc…)

Considering that there are so many ways of understanding the Gemara’s question, and considering that it is totally possible that the Gemara is asking one of the first two options presented above, we are still faced, in short, with the simple question of why the esrog is seemingly pushed aside in favor of the lulav.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik has an interesting take on the question. All these acts are pretty strange to begin with. What, really, are we even doing as we shake a prod and poke with our daled minim? What we are doing, says Rav Soloveitchik, is, in a word, davening. Just as we bow, and sway, and rise on our feet during regular prayer, as acts of prayer in and of themselves, so too, the shaking and moving of the daled minim is a form of prayer. All these actions in relation to the lulav are all in and of themselves a form of tefillah. They are movements towards, and for, God. His proof for this is the posuk in Tehillim:

“Az yeranenu kol atzei ya’ar”
"Now all of the trees will sing (to God)"
(Psalm 96)

And what is the “tree” of the 4 species? The lulav. Thus, it takes precedence, and that is why we make a bracha specifically on it.

I would, however, like to propose another approach that is absolutely beautiful in methodology, and critical in scope. I heard quoted in the name of Rav Mirsky from Beit Shemesh the following: He suggests that the esrog is given precedence because agriculturally speaking, the esrog and lulav are different in fundamental ways. The palm tree (from which we get the lulav) makes for very popular landscaping. They are the classic resort tree, and line the streets of many cities around the world. Why is this? Simply because these trees are very, very low maintenance, and are very easy to grow. There is incredibly little that one needs to do to keep these trees alive. Switching gears for a moment; what is it like to raise an esrog? Extremely difficult. It is absolutely at the opposite end of the spectrum from a lulav tree. The care required for an esrog is intense.

With this in mind, says Rav Mirsky, there are two models of avodas Hashem. The esrog is the result of amazing effort, a combination of circumstances, and a supportive and conducive environment. The lulav, however, is able to survive and exist despite its circumstances. It is not easy to blossom and grow on the edge of a desert, but the palm tree can thrive there while an esrog most certainly cannot. Succos is designed to highlight both of these aspects of serving God, but ultimately the “lulav model” more so.

Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah are designed as the perfect situations in which to serve God. We are in shul all day, we fast, and we spend all day in prayer and private meditation. And there is the time right after Yom Kippur, namely Succos, and one wonders, what are we supposed to do now? And so we make the bracha on the lulav, because even when we are not in a perfect situation — even when our surroundings are not perfectly calibrated for the service of God — we still can, and must, serve God all the same. And there is beauty, accomplishment, and success in being able to serve God not just when it is easy — not just when your environment is conducive to it — but even when it is not. Such is the level of the lulav.

Of course, one’s environment is still important. You cannot produce an esrog in the environment of a lulav, but a lulav is still equally as important, if not more so. And, indeed, one can produce a lulav in the environment of an esrog.

Rav Mirsky then gives an incredible reading of the popular posuk, and one said on Yom Kippur:

"Dirshu hashem b’himatzo, v’karuhu beoso karov”
“Seek God where He is found; Call out to Him when He is close
(Isaiah 55:6)

If you were asked how many clauses there are in that posuk you would no doubt respond “two”. Indeed, that is the classic reading of the posuk. It is poetically repetitious. The second half is a repeat, in different words, of the first half. Both halves are essentially the same thing.

No, says Rav Mirsky! They are not the same thing at all! They are two completely opposite clauses. The first half, “Seek God where He is found”, represents the esrog model of avodas Hashem. Take advantage of the Beis Midrash. Take advantage of Shul. Take advantage of your Shabbos and Yom Tov tables. Period. Next clause. “When is God close? When we call out to Him”. Rav Mirsky reads the second half of this posuk as a reference to the line in Ashrei:

“Karov adonai lechol korav, lechol asher yikrauhu ve'emet.”
“God is close to all them that call upon Him; to all that call upon Him in truth.“

Seek, and ye shall find. God lives where we let Him. It is easy to see and feel God on Rosh HaShanah Yom Kippur, in a shul, or learning in a Beis Midrash. This is the environment of God, and we should take advantage of it. “Dirshu hashem b’himatzo”. But when we are not in Shul, when it is not Yom Kippur, when we are out in the world, out in our sukkahs, at our place of work, or at school — do we call out to God there as well? Do we see God there as well? When we watch TV, or see a movie, or play a game, or read a book — is that a holy act as well? Is that all part of our service of God, or are these things simply a waste of time? Far from saying that we shouldn’t be doing these things, the question becomes: Can we do these things differently? “Karuhu beoso karov”. Call out to God, and He will be there. Look for God, and you will find Him.

We must bring God into every aspect of our lives, and that is the challenge that the lulav model of service of God represents. Even when it is not easy, and even when it is not obvious, can we do it? Just like the lulav, can we thrive regardless of our environment?

The service of God like an esrog, in a pristine, carefully cultivated environment, is easy. But the higher level of service of God, and the kind that Succos is all about, is that of the lulav — namely, even when we are not in a pristine environment. The question that Succos calls us to answer — and very possibly the reason why, according to Rav Mirsky at least, we highlight the lulav mores than the esrog — is specifically when we are on the edge of the desert, and when there is hardly any water at all, are we able to thrive, and call out to God there as well?

A Word About Codices: Aleppo vs. Leningrad vs. Masoretic

Yom Kippur