Talk is Sheep: Sukkot 2020

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

The dominant ritual of Sukkot is waving the four species, commonly referred to as the lulav and etrog. The rabbis who compiled the Talmud explored reasons for both how and why we wave them. They describe that, during the time of the Temple, the priests would wave sheep brought for sacrificial offerings. You read that right: a priest would take an entire sacrificed sheep between two pieces of bread (apparently, thin-sliced deli meat had not yet been invented), hoist it in front of him, then in back of him, then toward the sky, then toward the ground.

Keep in mind that waving this sheep sandwich was not the primary part of the ritual – the primary part was the actual sacrifice of the animal. Yet, another rabbi mentions something important: although waving the sheep conglomeration was not the essence of the commandment, it is the process by which we ask for forgiveness and for pardon. The commentator Rashi adds that God’s forgiveness was best achieved through the actual spilling of the blood of the sacrificed animal, but if all one did was wave the animal, it would still be enough to ask for forgiveness. This passage shows that waving not only summoned the power above us, but also was a key way to express our prayers.

The importance the rabbis placed on waving the sheep sacrifice – even if it was a secondary aspect of the ritual – indicates that Jewish rituals are sometimes best observed when we are careful to follow even its marginal aspects. In the case of a lulav and etrog, our rabbis are quick to point out that the main part of the commandment is to actually take these items into our hands. But by waving the lulav and etrog, we display and appreciate the beauty of God’s creation in a place in which we worship God. Waving the lulav and etrog helps make the commandment, and indeed the holiday of Sukkot, a beautiful part of our Jewish observance.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach!