When Birnam Wood Comes to Dunsinane 

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Thank you, Dear Bard, for that eloquent description of apparently moving forests in the Scottish Play. But just as Macbeth found that image horrifying, we find a similar sight gratifying every Sukkot. 

Most of us have experienced the traffic jam of Lulav bearers vying to encircle the shul during the Hoshana prayers. However, it wasn’t always like that in American synagogues. 

The Cincinnati Jewish Messenger, writing for the Reform Jews of that city wrote back in 1875:

If you have no etrog, oranges, grapes, pears and apples will do, not to be shaken, but to be gratefully enjoyed as God’s blessing bestowed upon our beautiful land.

It seemed to these Reform Jews that America had replaced Eretz Yisrael.

That wasn’t the attitude in New York, where the situation improved dramatically in the 1880’s. Here’s what Prof. Zev Eleff wrote about the change: 

In 1887, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger of New York reported that the “number of merchants selling etrogim” had “increased greatly in recent years, and the competition is now exceedingly great.” Here are Rabbi Weinberger’s observations translated by my teacher, Jonathan Sarna: In New York, any Jew can now easily observe these mitzvot in the strictest possible fashion, without worrying about spending more than he can afford. Only a few years ago, a poor man in New York could not buy a lulav and etrog of his own. In many synagogues, especially the small ones, there are as many etrogim as worshippers. 

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Two things happened to change the situation. First, from 1881 on, there was a huge influx of Jews from Eastern Europe coming to America. Secondly, there was Zionism. Suddenly, there were Jewish farmers producing Etrogim in the Yishuv and sending them to America. Sadly, that didn’t last long.  

By the end of World War I, the sources of Etrogim dried up. There had been some Etrogim coming from California, but a drought destroyed most of that crop in 1913. Then the War came and ended trade with the Holy Land, because we were at war with the Ottoman Turks who ruled Eretz Yisrael. 

So, from the first World War until the 60’s sets of Lulav and Etrog existed in relatively low numbers around America.   

I remember Marcia Lieberman OB”M, mother of Sen. Joe Lieberman, telling me that when she was a young girl in the 1920’s, a peddler would take the train from New York City, then go door to door in Stamford, CT, charging a nickel per person to bentch Lulav. 

This scarcity continued for decades. As I was becoming observant in the 60’s, the six shuls in my suburb of Boston all had the same situation. There were 2 or 3 sets of Lulav and Etrog, Before Hallel, we would line up at the reader’s table to take turns reciting the blessing and shaking the set in the six directions. Honestly, we were relieved that there weren’t too many people in shul, so the line wasn’t very long. 

The Hoshanot march around the shul wasn’t very impressive. 

In 1968, I came home from Yeshiva University for Sukkot with my own set. It was very exciting for me. I had gone on a field trip (like an anthropologist) to the Lower East Side with a few classmates to be instructed by our Rebbe on what to look for in a Lulav and Etrog. 

My bubble was quickly burst, by a curmudgeonly congregant, who came over to me and said: That’s not the Minhag (custom). The Minhag is to use the shul Lulav! 

As a newbie at being religious I was abashed, and confused. Sets were available, and most of these people weren’t poor. I knew that the verse seemed very clear: 

And you shall take for YOUSELVES on the first day, the fruit of the HADAR (beautiful) tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven-day period (Leviticus 23:40). 

Our Sages understand the word LACHEM (for yourselves) to require everyone to own their own set. 

I asked the great Jewish sociologist, Dr. Chaim Waxman, to explain why I was greeted with that negative approach; he responded: 

Most of the residually Orthodox Jews (the Non-observant Orthodox) in the 50’s and 60’s were keeping the traditions out of nostalgia for the past. This older gentleman was expressing his memories of how he remembered the observance from his younger days when the sets weren’t available, either in America or Eastern Europe. It’s what Rav Chaim Soloveitchik referred to as the Mimetic Tradition. 

That last reference is to a famous article written a quarter century ago in Tradition Magazine called: RUPTURE AND RECONSTRUCTION: THE TRANSFORMATION OF CONTEMPORARY ORTHODOXY. 

In other words, the older generation was living out their memories of Jewish behavior, but the new generation was trying to find its way to observance. The former is found in the memory; the latter in a book. 

In any case, by the mid-70’s Hoshanot in most synagogues looked like an awesome forest on the move, with hundreds of Lulavim reaching for the ceiling. Enough to scare Macbeth, but put a smile on the Lulav and Etrog importers.  

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Next time we’ll turn from the Etrog to the Pomegranate 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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