The mitzvah of the Four Species on Sukkot is to take one Lulav, three branches of myrtle leaves and two branches of willow leaves bound together in your dominant hand, and the Etrog in your other hand, bring them together and shake them in the six cardinal directions. According to the Shulchan Arukh, to shake the Four Species you hold them at the heart, extend them forward once to arm’s length and shake slightly three times, then bring them back once to the heart and shake slightly three times, and repeat in all six directions. This is basic Sefardic custom. According to Rabbi Moshe Iserles, the Four Species are waved out and back three times in each direction, rattling them slightly at each extension and return. This is basic Ashkenazic custom (Shulchan Arukh O.H. 651:9).
Various reasons are offered for this shaking in the Gemara and the kabbalistic tradition. In the Gemara Sukkah (37b) it says:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוכה דף לז עמוד ב
אמר רבי יוחנן: מוליך ומביא – למי שהארבע רוחות שלו, מעלה ומוריד – למי שהשמים והארץ שלו. במערבא מתנו הכי, אמר רבי חמא בר עוקבא אמר רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא: מוליך ומביא – כדי לעצור רוחות רעות, מעלה ומוריד – כדי לעצור טללים רעים.
Rabbi Yochanan said: wave out and bring back in – to Him to Whom belongs the four directions, wave up and down — to Him to Whom Heaven and earth belong. In the West (Israel) they taught this way: Rabbi Hamah bar Ukva said that Rabbi Yosi be-Rabbi Hanina said: wave out and bring in – in order to stop the bad winds, wave up and down – in order to stop the bad dews.
Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky, Rosh Bet Din of the London Bet Din who studied with Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik of Brisk, harmonizes these two rationales. He says it’s not the action of shaking in a direction that magically prevents harmful winds or dews. Rather:
When a person shakes the lulav to a specific side he acknowledges and praises the Holy One, blessed be He, for all the love and goodness He grants His world from that direction. The recognition of the good and the thankfulness to HaShem is such a high level that by its merit harmful winds and harmful dews are prevented from coming to the world, and instead only good and love is bestowed upon the world from HaShem, the Source of blessing. It turns out that it is not the action of shaking in itself that causes this, but the thought and intention that accompanies the action. And if the matter depends on thought and intent, there is no great or better intention than awareness and thankfulness to HaShem, blessed be He. (Peninei Rabbenu Yehezkel).
Rabbi Abramsky’s point is that the essential meaning of shaking the Four Species in all the cardinal directions is to affirm God’s beneficent control of all reality in all dimensions, as Rabbi Yochanan says, and it is this awareness itself that earns divine favor that removes harmful influences, as Rabbi Yosi be-Rabbi Hanina says. This rationale corresponds to the mental intent recommended in the Gemara Berakhot (13b) for saying the Shema, affirming the oneness of God. The Rabbis teach that the first verse of the Shema, “Hear, Israel, HaShem our God, HaShem is One,” must be said with focused intent. The Gemara continues:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף יג עמוד ב
רבי ירמיה הוה יתיב קמיה דרבי [חייא בר אבא] חזייה דהוה מאריך טובא. אמר ליה: כיון דאמליכתיה למעלה ולמטה ולארבע רוחות השמים, תו לא צריכת.
Rabbi Yirmiyah was sitting before Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba. He saw that he was extending [his recitation of the Shema] considerably. [Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba] said to [Rabbi Yirmiyah]: once you have proclaimed God as King above and below and to the four directions, more is not necessary.
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba is explaining the essential intention of the Shema: an aspect of affirming God’s oneness is to affirm that His oneness encompasses all of reality in all directions and dimensions. Similarly, the pointing of the Four Species in all the cardinal directions makes a similar affirmation, it’s a Yichud, an awareness of the oneness of God.
But still we can ask: why shake the Four Species in all directions? Just pointing should be enough. Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri in his commentary on the Gemara Sukkah (37b) explains that “the shaking is to arouse joy.” Rabbenu Asher comments in a similar vein, citing a source for shaking the Four Species of trees from the verse
דברי הימים א פרק טז
(לג) אז ירננו עצי היער מלפני יקוק כי בא לשפוט את הארץ:
Then shall the trees of the forest sing before HaShem, Who comes to judge the earth.
This gets to the very heart of the meaning of Sukkot as a whole: it’s all about shaking things up to arouse and to wake us up. The mitzvot of Sukkot are designed to shake us out of our habits and rote patterns. The mitzvah to spend seven days out in the world in a temporary, permeable Sukkah as our primary residence displaces us from our houses and the comfortable routines we’ve gotten used. On Pesach we turn our kitchens upside down and inside out, and that’s pretty disruptive. On Sukkot we leave the house entirely, and that’s completely disruptive. And the unification we enact by shaking the Four Species of trees is not a fixed concept, it’s a dynamic engagement with all of reality. God’s oneness is not realized in a trance-like static vision, but in shaking up the world around us to recognize unity everywhere.
This Sukkot promises to shake us up even more, as here in Israel and in many places in the States, Europe, and Australia, we will be spending it in some form of lockdown. In Israel the pandemic is soaring out of control due to mass misbehavior in numerous social sectors, and that’s landed us in lockdown as a crude last resort. It’s pathetic and worse to see many people in the religious and secular communities ignoring the somewhat uncomfortable, inconvenient but manageable health guidelines, and endangering their lives and the lives and health of others by trying instead to hold on desperately to their routines and patterns and rituals enforced by social pressure and group-think. They even regard this immoral behavior as some kind of virtue. They are paying a terrible price and inflicting harm on the entire society. It’s way past time to wake up and realize they have lost the true path of Torah. If there is a God-given lesson in this pandemic, and there are many, it’s about learning what is essential and what is not, letting the inessential drop and flexibly improvising and finding ways to do what is essential and protect life. Traveling overseas to a gather around a grave and endangering other people’s lives as well as one’s own: not essential. Sitting crowded in stuffy buildings and without masks to pray or to learn: not essential. Protesting in huddled masses yearning to be free of all restraint: not essential. Praying meaningfully yourself or at a reasonable distance from others, or out the natural world, in the fresh open air: essential. Learning Torah meaningfully yourself: essential. Protecting the lives and health of others: supremely essential. On Sukkot God is pushing us out into world, as it were, to realize that He is not limited to Beit HaKnesset or the Beit Midrash — we need to find God and should look for God everywhere.
Shaking the Four Species in the open Sukkah comes to get us up and out into the real, natural world. In the process we come to realize that the health and security and honesty of our lives comes not from hiding from life and from truth but from energetically engaging with the world around us, with hearts and minds open to seeking God’s Torah, Wisdom and Will, to fix and to heal and to trust in truth that we are all shaken, but that’s okay — we’re shaken securely in God’s Hands.