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When Etrogs are Exclusive

Sukkot has traditionally been one of the easiest Jewish holidays to relate to current environmental concerns. The ritual of voluntarily “living” or eating meals in temporary, intentionally fragile huts reminds us of the cycles of the earth by placing us in physical contact with the elements. Putting up and decorating a sukkah to make it comfortable and cozy enables us to evaluate what and how much we really need to live with or consume. As another way of connecting with the environment and our ancestors we also engage with and say blessings over four plant species delineated in the Torah, the lulav and etrog. These messages seem applicable and forward-thinking; they bring our observance of ancient laws into the present.

Though the values that we read into the Torah are not always present in the ways we might hope, I find that the above messages are part of what keep sukkot relevant and meaningful. Thus the laws surrounding the lulav and etrog seem incongruous, even problematic. In order to complete the mitzvah of the lulav and etrog it is not enough that one say the appropriate blessings; the mitzvah of the lulav requires that it belong to you. In Midrash Tanhuma, Rabbi Hiya explicates: And you shall acquire. Through purchase, and not through theft. Through purchase, and not for free. This comes to exclude the borrowed and the stolen [lulav]. It is clear why one would want to acquire one to avoid doing a mitzvah with a stolen item. But why the rabbis forbade sharing, even with mutual consent, is less apparent. The rabbis in the Talmud, in their discussion of this ruling, suggest that it affords an opportunity for communities to actively avoid stealing. By establishing a communal expectation that each person has their own lulav, there is no confusion over to whom the lulav belongs, or whether permission to borrow is needed. The rabbis present a story of a king paying a toll: despite the fact that all the money collected from the toll goes to him it the end, he pays to demonstrate that no one is above a system that applies to everyone.

Here the rabbis establish an important message of equality and respect for all. Yet they fail to address a number of substantial issues. Though the king could clearly afford to pay this toll, the costs of Jewish ritual practice are not always similarly accessible. Like sustainable (organic, free-range) kosher meat, pricing can quickly create a division among who can and cannot afford emblematic aspects of Jewish life. Lulavs, generally shipped from Israel and sold only in specific places, accumulate hefty price tags along with significant carbon footprints, both in their travel to the U.S. and buyers’ treks to acquire them. Furthermore, etrogs can easily become pasul (waste, or unkosher) in transport by losing their stem, and thus necessitate lots of disposable and quickly discarded packaging. For an item that is made from something that is not an unlimited resource, requires extra production and packaging to guarantee kashrut, and is used only once a day before becoming obsolete after one week, it seems absurd that we should ignore the amount we produce, the way we acquire it, and the ability for everyone in the Jewish community to have equal access to it. Since the question of why we should each buy our own has been addressed and concerns persist, the next question is: how else can we understand “acquire?” How have others dealt with this issue in the past?

Thankfully, halachic authorities have provided further interpretation, probably intended for people who came to discover, after purchasing a lulav and etrog, that it was not kosher. The rabbis allow people to borrow from their neighbors after the first day, and, if necessary, to have their friend “gift” it to them for use on the first day, such that they can use it and then re-gift the plants back to their original owner.

Though my approach would be to have a communal buy-in whereby everyone can contribute to paying for a few lulavs and etrogs and therefore everyone can “own” one, or simply to follow the rabbis’ rulings regarding gifting the plants, other communities, including Adamah and Wilderness Torah, have taken a different approach to addressing these questions of access to resources and sustainability. In past years they have found a new way to take ownership over this ritual by designing their own locally sourced lulavs. On the East Coast they have suggested species such as pine cones, lemon palms, willow leaves, and apples instead of the traditional date palm, myrtle, willow, and etrog. These local lulavs pay homage to the environment in which one lives, as well as make the mitzvah of owning and using one’s own lulav more affordable.

Check out more ideas on how to incorporate sustainability into your Sukkot experience. Chag Sameach, and may your holiday be both financially and environmentally sustainable in accordance with your lifestyle!

Lauren Greenberg graduated from Tufts University with a degree in English and is now a Program Fellow at Hazon. She feels invested in grey-water systems, the intersection of women’s issues and food, and keeping up with the most recent Modern Love column in the New York Times.


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