Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Upside-Down Lulav

If you import a lulav or esrog from Australia, do you have to hold it upside-down?

This was a halachic question that was seriously discussed back in the nineteenth century (see the discussion at this link). There is a halachic requirement that the arba minim be held derech gedelason, "in the way that they grow," which is why we must hold them pointing upwards. What, then, do we do with arba minim that come from countries on the other side of the world? Perhaps they should be held upside-down?

No less an authority than Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, famed author of Aruch LaNer and a university graduate, discussed this question. He suggested that it was more reasonable that they should be held in the normal position. Others, however, apparently disagreed.

To the modern reader, this sounds ludicrous. Australians are not "upside-down"! There is no absolute frame of reference!

This case exemplifies the challenge that I have faced many times in teaching the rationalist approach to Chazal. Very few people are able to appreciate that errors made by people in very different eras and cultures do not reflect any sort of stupidity. Most people think that if someone is alleged to have believed something that we today consider "obviously" wrong, then that person is being alleged to have been foolish. This can have two types of harmful consequences. Some will simply refuse to believe that people could have made such errors - and thus err. Others will accept that such errors were made, and will look down on those who made them - which is unjustified.

I always try to give examples of how intelligent people today can be wrong about things without it reflecting badly upon them. For example, I show people that they would believe certain incorrect things about animals, for the best of reasons. But in this particular case of the upside-down lulav, I can think of a better way to make my point. Take a look at the following map of the world (you can click on it to make it fill the window):

Most people will have part of their brain screaming that it's wrong, even though another part of their brain acknowledges that there's nothing objectively wrong with it. "North" is not "up"! Yet, despite the fact that we've been educated since children to know this, and we've seen pictures of the earth from space, it's still hard to come to terms with it sometimes. All the more so in times past would it have been challenging for people to internalize the idea that north is not up.

In earlier times, it was not foolish to believe that insects spontaneously generate, that the heavens are a solid dome, that the heart is the seat of the mind, or that God is corporeal. There is no reason whatsoever to look down on people who possessed such beliefs. If we can internalize that idea, then we can be more objective in our analysis of which such beliefs were actually held, and by whom.

(Hat-tip: Yaakov Yehuda)


  1. Couldn't the question have been asked before the discovery of Australia or the Americas, if a lulav is imported from a different latitude or longitude, such that the difference between "up" where it was grown and the local "up" is noticeable, does it need to be held at an angle? The knowledge that "up" isn't the same everywhere on earth is part of how Eratosthenes tried to measure the Earth's circumference, using two cities in Egypt.

  2. Your analogy is mixing up two very different scenarios. In some, the positions are arbitrary (e.g. which of Earth's poles is "up"). Neither position is wrong. In other one side is wrong, albeit not obviously so in the past (e.g. spontaneous generation of insects.) In those cases, there really is a wrong position.

    Mixing together these two types of arguments is slapdash, not conducive to clear thinking, and a poor defense of a rationalist approach to Chazal.

  3. "...north is not up."
    Residents of Flatland (by Edwin Abbot) would disagree. (Fans of the book might remember that part.)

  4. SQ - First of all, it is wrong to think that there is an objective "up" to the world.

    Second, even if that were not to be the case, it's irrelevant. The point is that even where this is something that is truly wrong, there is often no reason to look down on the person making the error.

  5. Yay! New Zealand is finally in its rightful place on top of the world.
    That looks right to me. (And does a New Zealander have to hold a Northern Hemisphere Etrog upside down? And since when is Pesach in Spring, instead of its 'normal' time of Autumn)??

  6. The question is not based on a lack of knowledge. The rule is that the lulav must be held "in the direction that it grows." The issue is whether that is determined as "up" away from the center of the earth, or the actual direction that it grew, i.e., the direction of that locality.

  7. RNS: To the modern reader, this sounds ludicrous. Australians are not "upside-down"! There is no absolute frame of reference!

    I think you misunderstood the halachic question. This is not the reason why it was suggested that an Australian lulav should be held upside down. The hlachic question is whether the lulav should be held according to how it actually grew or according to how it grows in the place you are holding it. In other words, an australian lulav imported to the united states actually grew pointing toward what in the Northern hemisphere is down (of course it grew pointing up to the sky, but when you want to point in the direction of the Australian sky when you are up north, you point down וד"ל). The same question will apply to any lulav that is imported from one side to the opposite side of the world.

  8. I didn't misunderstand it. That's exactly how I understood it.

  9. Israel isn't exactly at the North Pole. Should an Israeli esrog be held sideways?

    Honestly, I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around this absurdity.

  10. If that's how you understood it, what's the connection with there not being an absolute frame of reference? I don't thin this bears any relevence to the halachic discussion.

  11. That map is completely wrong. The equator isn't positioned in the center :)

  12. Per Yeedle, I don't see why the question posed in R. Ettlinger's responsum is ludicrous. Also per Yeedle, his responsum should be equally applicable to a lulav grown in Israel and held (waved) in North America.

  13. To the modern reader, this sounds ludicrous. Australians are not "upside-down"! There is no absolute frame of reference!

    For science there is no absolute frame of reference but for halacha there very well may be--the individual who is executing the mitzvah.
    This is how Rav Dessler resolves the lice/SG problem (combining with the Chazon Ish that we freeze halacha with the reality that Chazal experienced).

    But instead of teaching how one can logically defend those who opposed Rav Ettlinger and held the lulav should be grasped facing downward, you go on to explain how we should be respectful of what is to our minds an obvious "error".

    To paraphrase your wording with intent to mock:
    This post exemplifies the challenge that your opponents have in teaching the traditional approach to Chazal to modern minds overwhelmed by science. Very few people are able to appreciate that the Torah (as interpreted by Chazal, at least) has its own first principles, epistemology, and its own frames of reference which are in no way "objective".

    Your brand of rationalism is imposing a foreign system and foreign frames of reference onto an autonomous, self-consistent, and self justifying approach to the world.

  14. I don't know everything. You don't know everything. Even Moshe Rabbenu only knew what the Almighty told him. It doesn't reflect badly on someone to have incorrect or incomplete information. There's a saying still told to medical students that by the time they retire a third of what they learned will be wrong. The problem is, you don't know which third.

    It's an invitation to make learning a lifetime endeavor and to avoid complacency.

    They were doing the best they had with the what was available at the time. It doesn't make us any wiser or them foolish to say we have access to more accurate information.

    I know the third step from the landing in my house is loose, so I step over it. My father doesn't live in my house, so he wouldn't avoid that part of the staircase. It doesn't mean I'm wiser than he, which I'm certainly not. It just means I have access to a fact he doesn't.

    What is foolish is saying now we must believe in spontaneous generation (or tread on that third stair) because people then did.

  15. Pliny, but if you read the updated, post-Newtonian sequel Sphereland you'll be back in the groove or at least the Reimannian manifold again.

    Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night:
    God said, "Let Newton be! and all was light."

    -- Alexander Pope

    It did not last, the devil a howling, "Ho,
    let Einstein be!", restored the status-quo."

    -- J.C.Squire

  16. Yeedle, it the lulav did not grow upside down relative to one grown in the Northern Hemisphere. Taking Cairo (30° N) and Adelaide (34° S) you would properly hold the Australian one at a 60° Southerly angle compared to the Egyptian one, modified by the latitude both were grown at relative to your position, accounting for the position of the Earth relative to where it was when the lulav was harvested taking into account the proper motion of the Sun relative to other stars in the spiral arm and so on and so forth.

    Boje Moi.

    Or you could realize that when we say "up" we mean "away from the center of the Earth". Lulavs grow up no matter where they are.

  17. I can understand people believing in spontaneous generation or corporeality, but to seriously consider holding a lulav upside down shows a complete detachment from reality and common sense! This is ridiculous! It's a bittere gelechter.

  18. I think you're mischaracterising the original discussion, but in any event they weren't wrong: they didn't assume an absolute frame of reference; they simply discussed the use of different relative frames of reference. There are halachic things that we do relative to Jerusalem and there are things we do relative to our present position. The arba minim have a requirement that they be oriented according to the way they grow, and it's not at all silly to consider whether this relates to their place of origin (or Jerusalem, which would amount to the same thing) or to their present location.

    I always try to give examples of how intelligent people today can be wrong about things without it reflecting badly upon them.

    I suppose it depends whether they were simply wrong, or whether they use their misunderstanding as an excuse for a rant about their intellectual opponents.

  19. Some people seem to be (mis)understanding me to be saying that Rav Ettlinger thought that people in Australia were upside-down. That's not what I was saying at all. The point is that today, nobody would assume that the frame of reference vis-a-vis the direction of growth is taken from the opposite side of the world.

  20. True, nobody today would assume that. But there is nothing inherently illogical or ignorant about assuming it.

  21. Joe said:
    'The arba minim have a requirement that they be oriented according to the way they grow, and it's not at all silly to consider whether this relates to their place of origin (or Jerusalem, which would amount to the same thing) or to their present location.'

    If you have a lulav from Morocco but everything else from Australia, your lulav would have to point down in Australia but the rest of the arba minim would point up. In Helem your lulav would point down and the rest of the minim up. This is how you would daven Hallel with the rest of the tzibur? This isn't silly? Torah cannot command us to act like morons, you know. The fifth Shulchan Oruch is the correct frame of reference in cases like this.

  22. True, nobody today would assume that. But there is nothing inherently illogical or ignorant about assuming it.

    See my new post in which I attempt to clear this up.

  23. I agree with Carol. While the issue of absolute or relative orientation in space might be an interesting academic exercise in an halachic discussion, it is irrelevant to practical application for the various reasons given. While halacha and common sense aren't not synonymous, it is inappropriate to make halacha appear nonsensical. Those who appear to translate such hypotheticals into practical advice are, indeed, worthy of ridicule.

  24. In the fourth perek of Kiddushin, Rashi outlines geographical landmarks of Bavel that make it clear that he thought the Tigris/Euphrates flowed north instead of south.

  25. Greg, here we have the difference between the rationalist and irrationalist approaches.

    The rationalist would say "Rashi was mistaken."

    The irrationalist will say
    a) When Rashi wrote this the river flowed in the opposite direction

    b) In these degenerate times we must believe he was right no matter what the evidence suggests

    c) He was wiser and more holy than you. Therefore it had to be the way he said

    d) We will throw you out of the community, execute you and sentence you to an eternity of torment on the Almighty's behalf for suggesting otherwise.

    The facts don't matter. What matters is obedience.

  26. Greg, out of curiosity, where in the 4th perek of kiddushin does Rashi imply that the Mesopotamian rivers flowed northward? Of course some rivers do flow northward - the Nile being the most prominent. As you implied, the Tigris/Euphrates rivers do flow southward from their origin in the mountainous regions in Eastern Turkey.

  27. Y. Aharon - 71b (see for a detailed explication.

    In this case, Rashi was wrong because he was interpreting reality using psukim, not maps.


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