Lulav-Waving in the Mishnah

One of the special practices of the holiday of Sukkot is the taking of several arboreal species, as commanded in Leviticus 23:40, although it is unclear what one should do with those arboreal species (see, for instance what was done in Nehemiah 8.1417). The sages of the Mishnah advocated that these arboreal species should be waved, as we see in three separate mishnayot in the third chapter of Sukkah, occurring at the beginning, middle, and end of the chapter. Let’s take a look at each of these three texts and then consider them together.

Minimum Size
The first mishnah of the third chapter of Sukkah concludes with a minimal size for the lulav, quantifying it with the necessity of waving ability (Sukkah 3.1):

לוּלָב שֶׁיֶּשׁ בּוֹ שְׁלשָׁה טְפָחִים כְּדֵי לְנַעְנֵעַ בּוֹ, כָּשֵׁר

A lulav which is three handbreadths in length in order to wave it is valid.

Where in the Liturgy Are the Arboreal Species to be Waved?
The second occurrence of waving appears in the middle of the chapter with a dispute between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, although they mostly agree –  they agree on three verses where waving should occur, with Shammai’s House arguing for a fourth waving amidst Hallel (Sukkah 3.9):

וְהֵיכָן הָיוּ מְנַעְנְעִין
בְּהוֹדוּ לַה’ תְּחִלָּה וָסוֹף, וּבְאָנָּא ה’ הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא, דִּבְרֵי בֵית הִלֵּל.
וּבֵית שַׁמַּאי אוֹמְרִים, אַף בְּאָנָּא ה’ הַצְלִיחָה נָא.
אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא, צוֹפֶה הָיִיתִי בְרַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל וּבְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, שֶׁכָּל הָעָם הָיוּ מְנַעְנְעִים אֶת לוּלְבֵיהֶן, וְהֵן לֹא נִעְנְעוּ אֶלָּא בְאָנָּא ה’ הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא

And where [in the liturgy] do they wave [the lulav]?
“At ‘Give thanks to the Lord’, at the beginning (Ps. 118.1) and at the end (Ps. 118.29), and at ‘O Lord, deliver us’ (118:25),” the words of Hillel’s House.
Shammai’s House says: “Also at ‘O Lord, let us prosper’ (Ps. 118.25).”
Rabbi Akiva says: “I was watching Rabban Gamaliel and Rabbi Yehoshua, and while all the people were waving their lulavs, they waved them only at ‘O Lord deliver us’.”

Minimum Age/Ability to Wave
In the final line of the third chapter, we hear about the minimum ability/age at which one is obligated to wave the arboreal species (Sukkah 3.15):

קָטָן הַיּוֹדֵעַ לְנַעְנֵעַ, חַיָּב בַּלּוּלָב

A child who knows how to wave is obligated in lulav.

Considering the 5Ws & H
I find a helpful rubric to consider mitzvot through the investigative journalistic rubric of asking Who?, What?, When?, Where?, Why?, and How? – lulav-waving is fascinating to consider through this framework:

Who?

One who knows how to wave

קָטָן הַיּוֹדֵעַ לְנַעְנֵעַ

מי?

What?

Waving the arboreal species

נענע ארבעה מינים

מה?

When?

At three verses during Hallel

בְּהוֹדוּ לַה’ תְּחִלָּה וָסוֹף, וּבְאָנָּא ה’ הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא

מתי?

Where?

Anywhere

בכל מקום

איפה?

Why?

???

???

למה?

How?

???

???

איך?

While plugging the statements about lulav-waving from the third chapter of Mishnah Sukkah into this framework, what stands out are the two spots that feature lacunae: why are the species waved and how are they to be waved?

Why do the sages of the Mishnah not specify how the lulav and associated species are to be waved? Was it a free-for-all in one’s choosing of lulav-waving? Did people have a sense of how they were raised to wave it? Were there different customs as to how Jews waved them – perhaps location-dependent?

Of course, the bigger underlying question is why are the arboreal species to be waved at these three (or four) times? Why is waving a significant part of both the minimal physical requirement of the lulav and for the minimum age/ability of a person? Were the sages not satisfied with simply taking these species around with them? Also, what is special about those three/four verses that these species were to be waved?

Some fascinating questions to consider. What’s further curious is that such matters may be explicated in the corresponding Tosefta, yet Tosefta Sukkah omits any mention of lulav-waving, which deepens the intrigue.

(I realized I wrote on this exact same topic five years ago, which you’re welcome to check out for a different arrangement of the presentation and consideration of these texts.)

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