Regarding the mitzvah of lulav–a positive Torah commandment – the Mishna (Sukkah 3a) states:
"When the first day of Sukkot falls on Shabbat all of the Jews bring their lulavim to synagogue (on Erev Shabbat because of the prohibition of carrying from one domain to another); and (the next day) everybody identifies his lulav and takes it. And this is because it was said: 'One may not fulfil one's obligation on the first day of Sukkot with the lulav of his fellow.'"
In the following chapter, the Mishna (Sukkah 4a) goes on to state:
"The lulav and the aravah (willow), six and seven….how is the lulav seven? When the first day of Sukkot falls on Shabbat one waves the lulav seven days; on other days, six."
Thus we see that the Mishna unequivocally states that we should perform the mitzvah of waving the lulav on the first day of Sukkot, even if the first day of the holiday falls on Shabbat. So naturally, the question must be asked: why do most Jews not hold by this practice today?
Between Israel and the Diaspora
In my humble opinion, the answer is related to the competition and rivalry which prevailed between the centre of Torah in Eretz Yisrael and the centre of Torah in Babylon some 1,400 years ago. Without this perspective it is extremely difficult to understand why the Talmud states one thing and then contradicts itself on the very same page.
At the beginning of the deliberation (Sukka 43a), the Talmud states simply that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael - who know which day was declared to be Rosh Chodesh and are therefore in no doubt as to the date on which the holiday begins - perform the mitzvah of waving the lulav on Shabbat as per the Mishna.
The Jews of Babylon on the other hand - who are in doubt as to whether the first day of Sukkot falls on Shabbat or Sunday - do not perform the mitzvah of waving the lulav.
However, as the discussion continues (43b) the Talmud suddenly changes its position and surprisingly declares:
"Since we in Bavel do not override Shabbat, they in Eretz Yisrael do not also. But what of the first day when we in Bavel do not override the Shabbat and they in Eretz Yisrael do? They answered: Lulav will not override Shabbat for them either!"
An entirely new claim is made here that contradicts the previous conclusion: Since the Jews of Bavel do not override Shabbat by performing the mitzvah of waving the lulav, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael must also act accordingly, and must therefore refrain from waving the lulav on Shabbat.
This latter claim is quite astonishing: on what basis can one claim that when one person can not fulfil a mitzvah that his neighbor must also refrain from so doing?
Change of heart
This change of heart did not go unnoticed by the mepharshim (commentators) of the Talmud. Rashi comments that this was decreed “so that Israel would not be fragmented and the Torah would appear to be two Torahs” (44a). The Rambam, too, explains the matter in a similar fashion (Hilchoth Lulav, 7, 16; in the Vilna edition 17). This interpretation, however, is difficult to accept.
Would this be the only case in which the appearance of “two Torahs” is created? Do residents of the Diaspora not observe every Yom Tov (festival) for two days, while the residents of Eretz Yisrael observe only one? One group observes the Sukkot holiday for eight days, and the other nine. And on Passover one group makes one seder while the other makes two? Etc. etc…
Furthermore, the Talmud’s language does not readily lend itself to this explanation of Rashi and the Rambam; if the Talmud had wanted all Jews to observe one custom, it would have said so explicitly. The declaration that “Since we in Bavel do not override Shabbat, they in Eretz Yisrael do not also” suggests that the explanation lies elsewhere.
And indeed the Netziv (in his commentary Meromei Sadeh) rejects Rashi’s rationale and suggests another reason which appears more in line with the Talmud’s original intention: After the destruction of the Temple, writes the Netziv, the bulk of the Jewish nation was transplanted to the Exile.
In this new reality the Jews of Eretz Yisrael who are considered after the destruction as “negligible” must fall in line with “the custom of Am Yisrael”.
But even this insightful elucidation requires further examination. The truth is that we do not possess sufficient historical data regarding the condition and numbers of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael as compared to the Jews of Bavel during the period immediately following the destruction of the Temple.
In addition, as far as we know the process that the Netziv describes - the transformation of the Exile into the center of the Jewish world - took place over hundreds of years.
Moreover, the Babylonian sage Abbaye, who lived 250 years after the destruction of the Temple, is quoted in the Talmud (Pesahim, 51a, Hulin 18b) as having said “we are subservient to them” regarding the way the Jews of Bavel viewed themselves vis-a-vis the Jews of Eretz Yisrael.
Having said this, the Netziv’s understanding of the matter seems basically correct; it might, however, be formulated somewhat differently.
As previously noted, the process described by the Netziv did not occur immediately after the destruction of the Temple. During the periods of the Tannaim (70-200 CE) and the Amora’im (200 to 500 CE) until at least the time of Abbaye (d. 337 CE), the Jews of Bavel recognized the lofty status and the birthright of the Jews and Sages of Eretz Yisrael.
Center of Jewish life shifted
During this period, it was completely acceptable in their eyes that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael would perform the mitzvah of waving the lulav when the first day of Sukkot fell on Shabbat even though they themselves did not. This period is reflected in the first deliberation of the Talmud (43a) cited above.
However, with the passage of time the center of Torah and the Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael was steadily weakened due to the persecutions of the Romans and the Byzantines, and later in the aftermath of the Arab/Muslim occupation.
Thus, little by little, a new reality came into being: The center of Jewish life shifted to Bavel—as pointed out by the Netziv—and the worldview of Babylonian Jewry was shaped by this fact.
To this we must add that it is well known, as found in many sources including statements of the Sages, that an atmosphere of competition and rivalry prevailed between the Jewish centers in Bavel and Eretz Yisrael.
The sages of Bavel were not at ease with the fact that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael were fulfilling the mitzvah of lulav at a time that the Jews of Bavel were not doing so; this would have been seen to imply that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael were of a higher status and order.
It seems that once the Babylonians felt that they were in a position to do so, they adopted the principle reflected in the summation of the second deliberation (43b): "The Jews of Eretz Yisrael must accept the authority of the Jews of Bavel and act in accordance with their customs."
What about now?
Bearing all this in mind, one might well ask whether today we are required to continue to view the custom of the Jews of the Exile as the “custom of Klal Yisrael”? Is this appropriate when, thank G-d, at least 50 percent of the world’s Jews live in Eretz Yisrael and when the largest and most significant Torah center in the world is located in Eretz Yisrael?
Perhaps the time has come to take seriously the words of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi:
“One should always run to the Mishna more than to the Talmud” (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metziah, 33a), and conduct ourselves here in Eretz Yisrael in accordance with the Mishna. Thus might we begin the process of redefining centrality and marginality in our lives as a nation and as individuals, and get ourselves collectively back on track.
Courtesy of Machon Shilo - Torah La'am VeLaaretz