So, we have finally had a bit of change in the weather. It’s starting to get sort of cool in the mornings and we’re getting some rain. The leaves are just starting to turn and fall. It might be my favorite time of year. It’s a time of year that many different cultures celebrate with harvest festivals and ceremony. In the Jewish religion the solemn holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time of atonement, repentance, and culmination in fasting, are immediately followed by the celebration of the fall harvest in the holiday of Sukkoth. (Immediately following the seven days of Sukkoth are the holidays of Simchas Torah and Shemini Atsereth. Maybe I can explore these holidays with you at another time.)
Sukkoth is similar to Passover in that there is much symbolism and ceremony. Mike experienced much of the Jewish religion as it was presented to him in his childhood as rather legalistic and intellectual, which he found dry and hard to relate to. But he always enjoyed the ceremony of the holidays. Of course there is ceremony in the rest of the year, particularly on the Sabbath day, but Sukkoth was a particular enjoyment because of its uniqueness. Ceremony and ritual can have a powerful effect on people. (At times Mike will suggest that his patients “have a ceremony” and flush their drugs down the toilet.) During the holiday of Sukkoth observant Jews will build a hut in their yard and take all their meals in it. The hut is put together according to particular specifications and although it has structure it is still open on all sides and on the top so that one can see the sky, the earth and all of one’s surroundings. It is decorated with fruits and vegetables. It’s reminiscent of the wanderings of the Jews in the desert for 40 years after the escape from slavery in Egypt. During that period they had no permanent dwellings but lived in structures that were portable and offered only limited protection from the elements. Mike’s brother, Rabbi Robert Gordon, may he rest in peace, famously built his Sukkah on a U-Haul trailer parked on his parking spot at his condo in Chicago when the COA wouldn’t let him build a Sukkah on his balcony. For the observant Jew, the building of a Sukkah each year is a religious obligation, not just some neat thing to do if it is convenient.
Mike and Judy were invited to friends Friday night to celebrate the Sabbath and Sukkoth, and Mike was invited to say the blessings and wave the lulav. He doesn’t remember ever having waved the lulav before, although he has seen it done in the synagogue many times. The lulav is a date palm frond. To the palm fronds are tied branches of myrtle and willow. Frequently the tied bundle of palm, myrtle, and willow is collectively referred to as the lulav. Held next to the palm frond is a citron. Citron in Hebrew is called an etrog. You might want to consult the internet to see a picture. You could probably also find a YouTube video which demonstrates the ceremony. You will notice, if you do look, that rather than waving the lulav back and forth, it is vigorously shaken in each direction. The practice goes back to the days of the temple and probably is derived from pagan ceremonies that go back long before that. Some people say that the paganistic aspects of the waving of the lulav bothers them, but it’s what Mike likes about it as much as anything else. There is much symbolism in the use of the four species as they are called. Some of the symbolism refers to the parts of the body. Lulav, because it is long and straight, refers to the spine. Myrtle refers to the eye, willow to the mouth, and etrog to the heart. The binding of these together represent that the Jew wants to devote all of himself to the service of God. Another rabbinic teaching is based on the presence, or lack thereof, of taste and smell of the four species. The lulav having taste but no smell symbolizes those who study Torah but do not practice loving kindness. Myrtle, smelling good but having no taste, symbolizes those who have no knowledge of Torah but do practice loving kindness. The Willow, lacking both taste and smell, symbolizes those who lack both knowledge of Torah and loving kindness. The etrog having both wonderful smell and taste represents those who both study Torah and practice loving kindness. However, whoever came up with this obviously never tasted an etrog. The aroma is heavenly but they are bitter beyond measure. Another tradition relates the four species to the four letters of God’s name, the Tetragrammaton.
So, just before the Sabbath Mike picked up the four species as instructed and shook them in seven directions, having first said the proper blessing. The seven directions were to the left, to the right, over the left shoulder, over the right shoulder, up, down, and forward. There are many rabbinic interpretations for the reasons for the waving in these directions. One interpretation has to do with a prayer for abundant rainfall for all the vegetation of the earth in the coming year. Another interpretation has to do with the acknowledgment of the universal presence of God always and everywhere.
The number seven has mystical significance in many traditions and domains. The mystical importance of the number seven could be related to the fact that seven is the largest single integer that is a prime number. No doubt there are many other reasons as well. The idea of the seven directions is prominent in Native American spirituality. While there are four acknowledged directions, North, South, East, and West, in sacred ceremony one also acknowledges up for Father Sky, down for Mother Earth, and within for the spirit that dwells within each person. Also found in Native American religious tradition are the seven spiritual gifts of White Buffalo Calf Woman. Roman Catholics acknowledge the seven sorrows, or Dolores, of the Virgin Mary. Christian tradition recognizes seven gifts of The Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Knowledge, Counsel, Fortitude, Understanding, Piety, and Fear of the Lord. The rabbis acknowledge seven fruits that were brought as offerings to the temple at the time of Shavuot, the first harvest festival, which occurs 49 days (seven times seven) after Passover. These first fruits according to Kabbala, the Jewish system of mysticism, correspond to the seven lower sefirot. Exploration of this is worth another whole blog which maybe I’ll get to some time. But briefly, here is what I understand about the seven fruits:
Wheat symbolizes chesed, or kindness.
Barley symbolizes gevura, or restraint.
Grapes symbolize tiferet, or beauty.
Figs symbolize netzach, or endurance.
Pomegranates symbolize hod, or majesty and glory.
Olives symbolize yesod, or foundation.
Dates symbolize malchut, or kingdom.
It is believed that the eating of these seven foods mindfully can promote a spiritual path and deepen one’s relationship with God. It’s kind of like the spiritual act of a cat killing and eating a mouse. It’s the perfect execution of God’s will.
Well, that’s all the news from Happy Meadows for now. Be well, be safe, and may all your ceremonies be happy ones as you progress down your (hopefully) spiritual path. . Sholom y’all!