Talmudic pages

Sukkah 32

Lulav from hell.

The mishnah with which we have been concerned for the past three days concerns various defects which render a lulav unfit for ritual use, including being stolen, dried out, topless, fanned out and too darned short. In the mishnah, a question is raised: Is a lulav taken from the palm of the Iron Mountain, a species of tree known for particularly diminutive leaves, kosher? The mishnah answers in the affirmative. Today’s daf tells us where to find these unusual palm fronds:

Rabbi Marion said that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said (and some say that Rabba bar Mari taught in the name of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai): There are two date palms in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, and smoke arises from between them. And this is the place about which we learned in the mishnah: “A lulav from the palms of the Iron Mountain is fit.” And that site is the entrance of hell (Gehinnom).

So, although a stolen lulav is invalidand it is unthinkable to shake with a lulav taken from a tree worshipped in idolatry, a lulav plucked from the very gates of hell is, apparently, kosher.

Where or what was Gehinnom (sometimes translated as “hell”)? The single word is a contraction of the phrase Gei Ben Hinnom, the Valley of Ben Hinnom (Joshua 15:8), which lies on the border of the original territory of Judah (also mentioned in Nehemiah 11:30). There is good reason it was despised — or feared. The Jebusites from whom King David took Jerusalem were said to practice child sacrifice there; a ghastly practice revived by King Ahaz of Judah, and his great-grandson, the wicked King Menashe (2 Chronicles 28 and 33). The Chronicler is aghast at the practice; the prophet Jeremiah tells us that God is also horrified. To the Jewish mind, there could be no hell worse than the place where children are brutally slaughtered. Centuries later, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s teaching, found on today’s page, carries an echo of the horror in a wisp of smoke that rises between the two palms that guard its entrance.

Although child sacrifice was firmly in the rear view mirror even centuries before the rabbis, Gehinnom lived on in rabbinic imagination as a scary place — a place where people go after death to receive punishment for crimes committed in life. In Rosh Hashanah 16b-17b, Beit Shammai, in typical austere fashion, explains that certain classes of irredeemably wicked Jews and non-Jews can expect to burn in Gehinnom forever, whereas ordinary middling people can expect to expiate their sins for twelve months and then be redeemed for eternal life. Today, Jews generally say Kaddish for a loved one eleven months — implying that they were not so wicked they needed a full twelve month course of punishment.

The Talmud does not shy away from describing the torments of Gehinnom. The Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 53a) explains how the wicked will scream in blasts of light for six months of searing heat and another six of freezing snow. (“Ah,” say my colleagues, “A year in Chicago. I remember it well.”) In Midrash Rabbah and Midrash Tanchuma we find the more classical descriptions of flames, sulfur and pitch as in Sodom, darkness and chaos as in Tehom, the pit of Korah, the icy blasts of Tzalmon and the screams of the doomed as they writhe in agony.

So how can Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai say that a lulav from the trees at the entrance to Gehinnom is kosher? Who would not be terrified of such a lulav? Who would say Hallel and shake hoshanot on Sukkot while waving palm fronds of sulphurous retribution for all but the most righteous among us?

My colleague Rabbi Daniel Vaisrub holds out for the rationalist approach: The issue is not whence the lulav came, but how it came to your hand. You neither stole the leaves nor allowed other thieves to profit from them, so why does it matter whence they came? But realistically, could any of us shake with the four species, the arba minimplucked from a gateway over which was inscribed Arbeit Macht Frei? Most of us will answer in the resounding negative.

By the time of the Talmud, Gei Ben Hinnom was a place where the horrors of the past were confined to that past. Thankfully, Jews and their neighbors from Second Temple times onward had moved beyond the sins of child sacrifice. This made the valley a kind of monument to atrocity — and the practice of going there to harvest a lulav a way of engaging with that history.

I would argue that an active and painful struggle to face the mistakes of our past is how a lulav from the gateway to Gehinnom can be kosher. How powerful it would be to grasp it, stand up and say, in the traditional refrain recited on Sukkot: Anah Hashem hoshia na, ana Hashem hatzlicha na! (Please, God, redeem us. Please, God, save us.) God, save us from perpetuating the hellish cruelties of our ancestors! God, make our attempts to change the world successful!

Read all of Sukkah 32 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 8th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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