The Tisch: Hold the etrog

It's typical to see people holding the Four Species during the service, but not to see people traversing the streets armed with a lulav and etrog.

Etrog 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
Etrog 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
On Succot, the Four Species – lulav (palm frond), etrog (citron), hadas (myrtle) and arava (willow) – are taken each day except Shabbat. The species are gripped together each morning as well as during certain portions of the service. Jewish law goes further, noting that those who are meticulous should hold the lulav – presumably together with the other species – when going from home to the synagogue, during the entire prayer service and when returning home from the synagogue.
This demonstrates dedication and love for the mitzva of taking the Four Species (Rama OH 652:1).
While it is typical to see people holding the Four Species during the service, it is less common to see people traversing the streets armed with a lulav, an etrog, three hadasim and two aravot.
In a volume published in 1930, one hassidic master – Rabbi Hayim Elazar Shapiro of Munkacs (Minhas Eluzar, 1871-1937) – commented that he had seen and heard it said in the name of greats that there was a practice to only hold the lulav during the service. Presumably the Munkatcher Rebbe meant that the three species that were bound together – lulav, hadasim and aravot – were held during the service and the etrog was not.
The Minhas Eluzar decried this practice, calling it a “mistaken custom” and adding that it had no basis. The Munkatcher Rebbe went further, warning that such conduct would lead innocent bystanders to the erroneous conclusion that it was possible to discharge the obligation of taking the Four Species without the etrog – the most difficult to obtain and the most expensive of the Four Species.
Notwithstanding this clear critique, the Minhas Eluzar did not reveal the identity of who had adopted this flawed practice.
RABBI YOSEF Yitzhak Schneersohn of Lubavitch (Rayatz, 1880-1950) suffered from multiple sclerosis and in 1936 at the age of 56 he suffered a heart attack and stroke. His hands shook and he was physically weak. As a result, Rayatz chose to avoid holding the etrog, lest he blemish it. During the Hallel prayer he would only hold the bundle of the lulav, hadasim and aravot. When it came time to shake the Species he would pick up the etrog. Each time after he held the Four Species together, Rayatz would fastidiously check the etrog to ensure that it remained flawless.
Almost 40 years after Rayatz died, in 1987, his son-in-law and successor – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch (Ramash, 1902-1994) – explained that the hassidim had seen Rayatz’s conduct and chosen to copy their master. The occasion for the explanation was that Ramash himself, who had copied Rayatz’s custom over the years, unexpectedly acted differently in 1987: he held the etrog with the other Species for the entire Hallel service.
What happened in 1987? According to the Bible, every seven years a Hakhel ceremony was held in the Temple. On this occasion, all Jewish men, women and children assembled to hear the king read from the Torah. This gathering occurred during Succot in the year following a shmita (sabbatical) year (Deuteronomy 31:10-13). 1987 was a year following shmita.
On the fifth night of Succot 1987, Ramash explained that he had changed what had become his own custom in an attempt to personally experience the uniqueness of Hakhel – a time of ingathering of all Jews – and to inculcate his followers in this vein.
Ramash died in 1994, about half a year before the next Hakhel, so we do not know whether this was a one-time event or something Ramash intended to do every seven years.
GOING BACK to the origins of the practice: it is difficult to say whether or not the Minhas Eluzar knew about the conduct of the Rayatz. The two hassidic masters had definitely met and they shared various opinions, including an outspoken aversion to all forms of Zionism. It is unclear, however, when Rayatz began his practice and whether the Munkatcher Rebbe was aware of it.
Either way, the Munkatcher Rebbe’s warning of the folly of such a custom was only partially realized: never in Lubavitch circles was there a suggestion that one could fulfill the commandment of the Four Species without an etrog. Nevertheless, hassidic bystanders – including Ramash – sought to mimic the conduct of their leader and they adopted the Rayatz’s custom. This practice became codified Lubavitch practice as recorded in the official Lubavitch anthology of customs.
To this day Lubavitch Hassidim do not hold the etrog while saying Hallel, picking it up briefly for the sections that the Four Species are to be waved in different directions and religiously examining the etrog before placing it down and continuing with the Hallel service.

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.