The Stolen Lulav

I’ve often been intrigued by the third chapter of Tractate Sukkah in the Talmud. This chapter begins לולב הגזול, the stolen lulav. The first Mishnah teaches, “A stolen lulav…is invalid (to fulfill the Mitzvah of waving the four species.)[1] Why the emphasis on a stolen lulav? The Mishnah continues to say that a lulav is invalid if it is dried out, comes from an אשרה, a tree used for idolatry, or an עיר הנדחת, a condemned city. In other words, a lulav that is the product of something idolatrous or immoral cannot be used to fulfill the Mitzvah of ארבעה מינים, the four species which we shake on Sukkot.

In daily minyan we are fortunate to have extra sets of Tefillan. In the past I have been part of minyanim that did not have extra sets and I forgot mine. In order to use someone else’s Tefillan, they had to gift it to me, and afterwards I had to gift it back, so that it would not appear to be stolen or misappropriate. The Gemara says that a stolen lulav is problematic on the first day of Sukkot because the Torah teaches that on the first day of Sukkot each person should acquire a lulav for him/herself, which this person has not done.[2] Why then would it be problematic to steal a lulav the rest of Sukkot? Because it is a מצוה הבאה בעברה, a commandment that emanates from sin, and one who does so has not truly fulfilled the commandment.[3]

The Gemara gives an example of a מצוה הבאה בעברה of offering a sacrifice on an altar which was not yours.[4] In the words of Kohelet, this is a מעוות לא יכול לתקון,[5] something for which there is no תקון, no fixing it by doing the right thing later. In accordance with this text, stolen property or money used for a Mitzvah does not fulfill its intended purpose-instead it needs to be returned to the rightful owner with a penalty imposed.

Is this something we follow today? One of the key questions that people ask in rabbinical school interviews is what would you do if a congregant who acquired wealth through illegitimate means makes a significant donation to your synagogue. On the one hand, it’s a Mitzvah to donate to Jewish institutions. On the other, is it still a Mitzvah if the money had been stolen from others? In other words, can tainted money be used for good?

We hear too many stories of people who evade taxes by not reporting accurately or having offshore bank accounts. We have too many questions about candidates for office who acquire contributions through illicit means. What happens when some of these people are among our most philanthropic? Is this the case of a stolen lulav, one who acquires something through illicit means but uses it in the performance of a mitzvah? I would argue yes and that such money cannot be used for good, for it was acquired through unjust means.

I think that the lulav is of key note here because it is a simple object, a date palm, one which could be easily acquired. Someone who would go out and steal one of such a plentiful object is one who has no shame, especially when s/he could easily fulfill the Mitzvah by borrowing from another the entire holiday except the first day of Sukkot. Sukkot is a holiday about turning away from our material possessions. We leave our homes and dwell 7 days in a simple booth. As we do so, we recognize our gratitude for the bounty we have in life. The example of the stolen lulav teaches us that one needs to acquire an object through legitimate means and that it’s our responsibility, if we suspect otherwise, to thoroughly investigate. That does not mean going on witch hunts after people; rather it means striving to have all our business dealings done with integrity and legitimacy. This is why the first question one will be asked when s/he goes to heaven, in accordance with our tradition, is “were you honest in your business dealings?”[6]

Let us also learn from the example of the stolen lulav not to be embarrassed when we don’t have or forgot to acquire a ritual item. That is why the Jericho Jewish Center provides lulavim and etrogim for people to borrow during the Hallel and Hoshanot, as long as they get returned. Our job is to enhance the experience of people striving to perform Mitzvot and to enable them to preform them through legitimate means. Let us continue to do so as a welcoming congregation on this Zman Simhateinu, our festive holiday of Sukkot.

[1] Mishnah Sukkah 3:1

[2] Leviticus 23:40

[3] Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 30a

[4] Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 30a

[5] Ecclesiastes 1:15

[6] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a

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