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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Michael Barclay

The Lulav, the Etrog, the Medicine Pipe

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

For many years, I used to have long talks with Anselmo Valencia, the Chief of the Yaqui Indian Nation, about the similarities and distinctions between the beliefs and practices of Native American cultures and Judaism. Similar discussions have taken place over the last 10 years between numerous rabbis and Grandfather Wallace Black Elk, a Lakota Elder. But the link between these cultures was all brought home to me a few years ago when my neighbors saw me blessing my Sukkah with the Four Species, and thought I was doing an “Indian” ritual. Suddenly, I realized the amazing similarities between the prayers of a chanupa, or medicine pipe (filled only with tobacco, let’s be clear on that issue early on), and the waving of the lulav and etrog. Both practices are so incredibly important to their respective cultures, and both are so beautiful. But what is amazing in some ways is how similar the understandings, intentions and practices are surrounding these ritual objects.

The Sukkot liturgy specifically tells us that our intention is to be the “unification of the name of the Holy One.” Similarly, Nicholas Black Elk (Lakota Elder of the early 20th century) spoke of how the ceremony of the chanupa unifies the “four spirits” that “are only one spirit after all.” While Rabbi Noson (Rebbe Nachman’s disciple) taught that the waving of the Four Species is to “reveal God’s kingship to all humanity,” Native peoples around the country set their intention on the chanupa as being “Mitakuye Oyasin”… “for all relations.” As Black Elk prays with his pipe, he shouts to God, “This is my prayer; hear me!” How often do we Jews hear that phrase throughout our services?

The construction of the chanupa and Four Species is nearly identical in many ways as well. There are many symbolic meanings for the lulav and etrog among Jews, and it is commonly accepted that among other things they represent the “four worlds,” the letters of God’s sacred four letter name, and the backbone, eyes, lips, and heart of a human being. Native Elders teach of the chanupa as being composed of the “four worlds” of mineral (the bowl is made of stone), plant (the wooden stem), animal (the stem is usually wrapped in animal skin) and human (it is the human’s mouth which physically touches the pipe). The chanupa is considered a symbol of all aspects of Creation.

The lulav is traditionally considered “masculine” with the etrog being “feminine,” and the Bahir teaches that the unification of them is symbolic of the unification between the male “brooks” and the female “sea.” When a pipe-carrier places his pipe together, it is with the understanding that he is unifying the feminine energies of the bowl with the masculine energies of the stem. Both “female” objects of bowl and etrog are held in the left hand, and both the lulav and the pipe stem are held in the right hand as the unification takes place. Both cultures place great value on the “integrity” of the objects, and in both spiritual traditions the items cannot be used if they are stolen from another or if they are physically damaged in any way.

Even the ways the objects are used are consonant with each other. We wave the Four Species in six directions — right, left, ahead, up, down and back. Many tribal traditions teach that the smoke of the chanupa must be blown three times to the four directions, and then above “to Grandfather Sky” and down “to Grandmother Earth.” Both the Jew and the Native American become the catalyst that combines all the elements into all the directions, and both individuals are more centered within themselves and in harmony with all of Life around them as a result of their spiritual practice with these ritual objects.

Even internal “discussions” about the practices are similar. Talmud tells us that the School of Shammai prohibits the carrying out of the lulav into the public domain, while the School of Hillel allows it (Betzah 1:5). Similarly, there are some tribal traditions that allow the use of the chanupa in large public gatherings of prayer, while others believe it is a tool only to be used privately or with the immediate family.

Does the great number of similarities between the two spiritual practices mean that they have the same historical root, and that the traditions are connected in some way? Probably not. More likely, they are both a reflection of authentic beliefs, experiences, and awareness translated into rituals that actively affect the individual user and culture. Different cultures have found similar ways of accessing the same truths and teachings about life and God, and both are incredibly powerful and awakening.

Many Native Elders teach that each individual should learn to pray with the chanupa. As Jews, it might be beneficial on every level if we all performed the mitzvah of waving the lulav and etrog, for our own personal benefit and for the sanctification of the Name.

Shanah Tovah.

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