| Sukkah

It was not long ago that it was hard to find a minyan of people with a lulav and etrog in shul. Following on the heels of the High Holidays, Sukkot was a much-neglected holiday. Even among those who did come to shul, few actually bought their own lulav and etrog. They may have made a bracha on the shul-owned lulav, or just missed out on the mitzvah altogether. 

But it was not only lack of commitment that accounted for the lack of lulavim. In pre-war Europe, many people simply could not afford a lulav and etrog; and even for those who could, lulavim were not always available. They generally had to be imported and the supply often could not meet the demand, further pricing many out of the market. It is no coincidence that the kashrut of certain etrogim was subject to fierce debate as religious, economic, and political factors merged, creating a dangerous mix[1]. While there is much to discuss regarding the retail prices of etrogim today, the unprecedented wealth we have here and now, the increased commitment of those who do attend shul[2], and ease of transport means that there is generally nowhere near enough room to accommodate all who want to march with their lulav. But it is the lack of lulavim that has been the norm for much of our history. 

Maaseh, a story involving Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, and Rabbi Akiva, who were traveling on a ship during the festival of Sukkot; and only Rabban Gamliel had a lulav, which he had bought for one thousand zuz. Rabban Gamliel took it and fulfilled his obligation with it” (Sukkah 41b).

Rabban Gamliel was a very wealthy man. So much so that he truly had no idea how the average person lived—a problem not unique to Rabban Gamliel. Travelling to the home of Rabbi Yehoshua to apologize for humiliating him in public, the first words out of his mouth were, “From the walls of your house, it is apparent that you are a blacksmith” (Brachot 28a). Rabban Gamliel was oblivious to the financial struggles even of his own rabbinic colleagues. Rabbi Yehoshua wryly replied, “Woe unto a generation that you are its leader, as you are unaware of the difficulties of Torah scholars, how they make a living and how they feed themselves”.

With his wealth, Rabban Gamliel could and would pay any price to acquire a lulav. And he paid a whopping 1,000 zuz for his set of arba minim. To put that in perspective, the average yearly wage was 200 zuz. Translating that to today’s dollars, he paid in the vicinity of $200,000 for a lulav set. Either he did not know or he ignored the halacha that forbids[3] one from spending more than 20% of one’s income to perform a mitzvah[4]; but it is clear that Rabban Gamliel was, at the very least, a multimillionaire.

It is also clear that there were few, if any, lulavim available that year, enabling a lucky (and greedy) merchant to charge the price he did [5]. We understand why none of the other rabbis had their own lulav. But the exorbitant price did not deter Rabban Gamliel. “Why do I need to say that Rabban Gamliel bought this lulav for one thousand zuz? It is to inform you how beloved mitzvot were to them.”

How beloved the mitzvah of lulav was goes beyond the price paid and the person of Rabban Gamliel. The story continues with Rabban Gamliel giving the lulav to Rabbi Yehoshua, so he could fulfil the mitzvah of lulav. It is the rare person who would let someone else handle an expensive and fragile piece of equipment. Look, perhaps, but not touch. When one considers how easy it is to, say, accidentally tear off the pitom and invalidate the etrog, the fact that he gave Rabbi Yehoshua the arba minim is quite remarkable. But not only did Rabbi Yehoshua touch, we must presume he shook the lulav, too. While it is not absolutely necessary, that is the proper way to fulfil the mitzvah and hence, Rabbi Yehoshua surely would have done so. 

Moreover, Rabban Gamliel did not just lend Rabbi Yehoshua the etrog, he gave it to him as a gift. This story immediately follows the teaching—one we discussed in our last post—that one cannot fulfil the mitzvah of the arba minim with a borrowed lulav[6]. Rabbi Yehoshua would have to own the etrog in order to fulfil the mitzvah. Hence, Rabban Gamliel literally gave away this lulav worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite the fact that there was no obligation to do so. Those who cannot afford a lulav—and no one aside from Rabban Gamliel could—are exempt from the mitzvah. 

Rabbi Yehoshua, the new owner of the lulav, fulfilled the mitzvah, then gave the lulav as a gift to Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria who—after fulfilling the mitzvah himself—gave the lulav to Rabbi Akiva. Upon fulfilling his obligation with his lulav, the Gemara notes that Rabbi Akiva gave the lulav back to Rabban Gamliel. Each was given a most valuable gift, and each was happy to gift it to others.  

The Gemara wonders, of what relevance is it that Rabbi Akiva returned the lulav to Rabban Gamliel? It was his to do with as he pleased, and the Gemara could have just as well said that Rabbi Akiva, having been cut out of his father-in-law’s estate, and perhaps still quite impoverished, sold the lulav to raise some needed money. 

The Gemara answers, milta agav orcha, it is to teach a peripheral point; namely, that a gift is still considered a gift even if it is given on condition that one returns the gift. One may give a lulav to a friend as a gift, thereby enabling the person to fulfil their obligation, and yet stipulate that the gift must be returned. After all, it will be needed for seven days. We would expect that Rabban Gamliel would have insisted that the lulav be returned to him.  

Yet that is not what Rabban Gamliel actually did. The Gemara is clear that he—and each of his colleagues—transferred the lulav as a gift, and yet nowhere does it say that it was a gift that had to be returned, something the Talmud could easily have noted. And it was only because the gift was unconditional that the other Sages could pass it around amongst themselves, without first returning it to Rabban Gamliel. Rabban Gamliel was willing to part with his lulav and let Rabbi Yehoshua keep it, despite the price he paid—or perhaps, because of the price he paid. He was all too happy to have others join in the mitzvah, and whether or not he got back his lulav meant little. Rabbi Akiva’s returning the lulav was not because he had to, but rather to teach milta agav orcha, a peripheral general point of halacha. 

Because each could have theoretically kept the lulav but did not, the Gemara could say that this story teaches that “mitzvot were beloved to them”. I understand how beloved it was to Rabban Gamliel, but this story seemingly tells us little about the other rabbis. Unless they, too, willingly gave away something most valuable that they had.

How beautiful when wealth is used to bring people together, and thereby bring glory to G-d.  

[1] See here for a brief discussion on the fierce debate about the etrogim from Corfu.

[2] While Orthodox shuls are much more vibrant today than they were a couple generations ago, tragically, the rest of the Jewish community is becoming less and less observant, with rates of assimilation much higher than in the past. 

[3] The language of the Gemara—“In Usha, the Sages instituted that one who dispenses his money [to charity] should not dispense more than one-fifth” (Ketuvot 50a)—implies that it is forbidden to spend more than 20% of one’s income in order to fulfil a mitzvah. Nonetheless, the RaMaH (Orach Chaim 656:1) writes that one “need not” spend more than one-fifth, implying that one may, if one so desires. And the Gemara’s note—that this teaches “how beloved mitzvot were to them”—does seem to indicate that they spent above and beyond what the law demanded. In any event, it is known from many sources that Rabban Gamliel was very wealthy, and that even for the very wealthy, spending 1,000 zuz on a lulav is an exorbitant amount.  

[4] Modern day authorities have ruled that the very wealthy may and should spend more than 20% on mitzvot. It would be wonderful if more followed the example of Warren Buffet and gave away 99% of their wealth. For the non-multi billionaires signing The Giving Pledge would be a great start.

[5] While exorbitant, this likely was not a technical violation of the laws of ona’ah, price fraud, but rather taking advantage of the laws of supply and demand. 

[6] Let us not forget that this story took place on a boat, a vehicle that was often used on Shabbat and holidays. Already by the seventh siman of hilchot Shabbat, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim # 248) discusses the laws of going on a boat on Shabbat, testifying to its great relevance in the ancient and medieval world.