This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Waving at the Winds*

In the agricultural environment of ancient Israel, the significance of the festivals was often defined in terms of hopes and prayers for a bountiful agricultural yield. Because the sustenance of the Land of Israel is so dependent on the arrival of generous rainfall or dew in their proper seasons, it was natural that the religious observances associated with the annual holidays should be interpreted as requests for rain in the winter and dew in the summer.

A typical example of this kind of symbolic exegesis may be found in a statement by Rabbi Yosé bar Hanina concerning the rituals of Shavu'ot, when the Torah stipulates (Leviticus 23:17) that two loaves of bread are to be waved in the Temple. The act of waving was understood to involve moving of the bread back and forth, and then up and down. Rabbi Yosé explained this procedure metaphorically. The horizontal waving of the loaves was intended to avert harsh winds, while the lifting and lowering was in order to fend off "harmful dew" (perhaps an ancient precursor of acid rain?).

The Babylonian sage Rava extended the same rationale to the waving of the lulav on Sukkot, which is performed in a similar manner.

A later rabbi derived from this statement a profound lesson about the power inherent even in relatively insignificant precepts. According to rabbinic law, the waving is not an indispensable condition for the fulfilment of the respective biblical commandments, and its omission does not disqualify the ritual. Nevertheless, it has the capability of influencing the forces of nature.

The Talmud reports that Rav Aha bar Jacob, as he waved his lulav back and forth, used to announce "This is an arrow in Satan's eye."

Rashi interpreted this proclamation as a flaunting of the fact that Jews cannot be dissuaded from their determination to observe God's commandments, even when tempted by the seductions of the "evil inclination," which is often identified with Satan.

The Talmud, however, rejects Rav Aha's practice as being a bit too brash in provoking the forces of evil. As Rashi suggests, the personified evil inclination might view such taunting as a challenge to lead the person into temptations that he ultimately cannot resist.

Following this line of reasoning, some commentators, especially those who were influenced by the esoteric doctrines of the Kabbalah, explained the Talmud's statements about winds and dew as allegorical allusions to metaphysical evils. Accordingly, the waving should have the power to ward off the threats from Satan and the sinful urges. Nevertheless, those malevolent forces were still regarded as so dangerous that it was prudent not to provoke them unnecessarily.

As the Rabbi Solomon Eidels (Maharsha) suggested, even if you are thinking about defying Satan, it is safer not to speak such thoughts out loud.

Other authors faulted Rav Aha's practice for the fact that he was claiming complete credit for the ability to resist Satan, when in reality it is only by means of divine assistance that we can remain steadfast in our religious commitment.

On the other hand, some commentators pointed out that Rav Aha bar Jacob had a unique right to issue an open challenge to Satan, since he was a saintly man renowned for his personal piety, and had even been deemed worthy to have miracles performed on his behalf. Lesser mortals, however, should refrain from speaking with such self-assurance.

In fact, the Talmud is not as clear as we might have hoped in describing the correct manner of waving the lulav. While the text initially refers only to bi-directional frontward and backward movements, it goes on to connect them to the imagery of the four winds. This ambiguity is reflected in the testimonies of various medieval writers, who describe differing customs for performing the precept. While some communities waved their lulavs only in two horizontal directions, others added sideways motions as well.

A careful study of the rabbinic discussions reveals that there was more at stake than a technical question of talmudic interpretation. This can be deduced from the impatient tone with which Rabbi Isaac ben Abba Mari of Marseilles dismissed the arguments of people who sought to give literal expression to God's mastery over the four winds by waving their lulavs in four different directions.

Rabbi Isaac sardonically reminded those people that the same God who rules over two directions also rules over four directions! "Furthermore," he added, "a person who is punctilious about waving to the north and south [in addition to east and west] has been infected by heretical ideas."

"Heretical"? This is very strong language to describe what seems to be a legitimate variant in custom. On first hearing, it seems as if Rabbi Isaac is overreacting.

On further reflection, however, it does not take much ingenuity to figure out what was bothering him: The practice of waving to the front and back, and then to the right and left, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the Christian manner of making the sign of the cross. This association was just too suggestive for some Jews who dwelled in Christian lands; and they were prompted to redefine their practice in order to avoid possible misunderstandings.

There were, however, some rabbis who viewed the matter in a completely different way. Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel (the "Rosh") spoke dismissively about people who were so obtuse that they could not tell the difference between a Christian trinitarian symbol and the Jewish proclamation of God's universal sovereignty.

Furthermore, the Rosh observed pointedly, the addition of up-and-down waving to the ritual makes all the difference in the world. As long as Jews are waving their lulavs in six directions, there is no serious danger of their action being mistaken for the four directions of the cross gesture. On the contrary, it is those who confine themselves to two horizontal and two vertical movements who really appear to be making the Christian sign

If I may allow myself to take Rabbi Asher's argument a step further, I might point out that we ought to be paying more attention to the positive values of our own traditions, rather than negating those of others.

Nevertheless, underlying all these controversies is an important insight that can apply to all appeals for assistance: Whenever we find ourselves in need of blessings, whether of an earthly or supernatural kind, we should be very careful which directions we turn to for help.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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