The Case of the Stolen Lulav: A Lesson in Ethical Consumerism

An ethical consumer is somebody who doesn’t just see the objects in front of them, but tries to understand their ethical and social significance.

Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens
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lulav, sukkot
Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens

In honor of the festival of Sukkot, I want to talk about the strange ritual of gathering the four species central to the observance of the holiday, and shaking them around – a commandment known as taking the lulav and etrog; the lulav being the long palm branch, and the etrog being the bumpy citrus fruit. The rabbis of the Midrash found in this ritual, and in its associated laws, a very forward thinking ethic concerning ethical consumerism.

Before introducing the four different species by name, the Torah uses the phrase: ‘And you shall take for yourself’ (Leviticus 23:40). In the Midrash (Vayikra Raba, 30:3), playing with this phrase, Rabbi Chiya taught that the lulav, ‘must be rightfully purchased and not stolen.' The notion that this commandment cannot be fulfilled with a stolen lulav is straightforward, and is the subject of a Talmudic discussion too.

But, the Midrash goes on to develop a parable. ‘Somebody who uses a stolen lulav, to what can the situation be compared?’ A story is told of a highwayman who waits at a cross-road in order to accost passers-by. One time, an official of the king comes by to collect taxes from the province. The highwayman accosted him and stole everything that he had.

After some time, the highwayman was apprehended, and thrown into prison, waiting for his day in court before the king. In the meantime, the king’s official, the one who had been the victim of the crime, heard that his robber had been caught. He decides to visit the accused, saying, ‘Give me back what you stole from me, and I will provide you with a positive character reference before the king.’

Despondently, the highwayman responds, ‘from all that I stole from you, nothing remains but this mat that I sit upon.’ I wish I could give it all back to you, but I can’t.
‘Well, at least give me back the mat that you stole from me,’ said the official, ‘and I will provide you with a positive character reference before the king.’

The next day, the highwayman was brought before the king for judgement and sentencing. The king asked whether the defendant had somebody willing to offer a positive character reference. The bandit said, ‘Yes, your own trusted official will provide me with a positive character reference.’

Up stands the official, in the witness stand, before the king. The king turns to the official and asks: ‘You are a wise man, knowledgeable in the laws of the land, what should the verdict be?’

The official responded, ‘Your majesty sent me to collect taxes in this province, and I was accosted by a highwayman who stole everything I had. And this mat, which was stolen from me and then given back to me yesterday by the accused, proves that the defendant is guilty. It was he who accosted me and robbed me.’
The audience at the trial gasped and exclaimed: ‘Woe unto this man who has turned his defence council into a prosecution council;' whose so-called positive character reference choses to condemn him in public!

Unto now, I have been paraphrasing the Midrash, but here, in its own words, is the conclusion we’re supposed to draw from this parable: “So too, a person takes a lulav to earn merit, but if it is stolen, it screams out before the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘I am stolen! I am plundered! And the angels gasp and exclaim, ‘Woe unto this man who has turned his defence council into a prosecution council.'

In the parable there are the following five characters:

1. The king
2. The highwayman (the criminal)
3. The king’s official (the victim of the crime)
4. The official’s mat [I’m using the phrase ‘character’ very loosely here!]
5. The audience in court

But, in the end of the Midrash, there are only four characters:
1. God
2. The person who stole the lulav (the criminal)
3. The lulav
4. The angels

The king corresponds to God. The highwayman corresponds to the person who stole the lulav. The angels correspond to the audience in court. But the official and the mat get merged into the character of the lulav; a character that both gets stolen and then screams out in protest before the King of Kings.

Merging the King's official and the official's mat into one character, the Midrash doesn’t want to distinguish between the item that was stolen and the person from whom it was stolen; the lulav itself, and its rightful owner. When you look at an object, do you just see the object, or do you ‘see’, in some broader sense of the word, what that object stands for?

The rabbis are encouraging us, through reflection upon the laws of the four species, which cannot be stolen, and must be rightfully owned, that there is more to an object than initially meets the eye. A thief might just see a piece of silver, but he doesn’t see that it might be a family heir-loom passed down by generations of a family, absorbing in each generation of that chain, new layers of significance for its inheritors.

An ethical consumer is somebody who doesn’t just see the objects in front of them, but tries to understand their ethical and social significance. A stolen lulav and a rightfully owned lulav look the same from the outside, but, according to the rabbis, they are not the same. One of them accrues merit for its owner, while the other one is screaming out for justice.

Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens is a Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

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