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The Time and Place for Netilat Lulav

Is it better to do netilat lulav in the sukka before one goes to shul or during tefilla (before Hallel)?
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Question: Is it better to do netilat lulav (=nl) in the sukka before one goes to shul or during tefilla (before Hallel)?

Answer: The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 644:1) describes nl as being done before Hallel. One could have claimed that this is due to time concerns. Although b’di’eved one can fulfill nl from alot hashachar, it, like other mitzvot of daytime, should be done after sunrise (ibid. 652:1). Since it is best to do Shacharit as vatikin, one will be in between Kri’at Shema and Shemoneh Esrei at that point (ibid. 58:1) and cannot stop for other things. However, in 652:1, he explains it positively: the main mitzva of nl is at the time of Hallel. The Mishna Berura (652:4) explains that it is connected to the na’anuim (shaking) done at points within Hallel. (It might therefore be correct not to talk between the beracha on nl and Hallel so that the beracha will go on those na’anuim without interruption (see discussion in Mikraei Kodesh (Frank) Sukkot II:16.)

Acharonim cite the Arizal as saying that one should make the beracha on an earlier nl before shul. However, different presentations stress different elements of the practice. The Shelah, cited by the Magen Avraham (652:3), mentions specifically that it is done in the sukka, and the Seder Hayom (Seder Netilat Lulav) mentions those who would daven at home to maximize the spiritual power the sukka provides for other elements of the day. We do not have insights into the Kabbalistic connection between sukka and lulav, but Talmudic indications of a connection also exist (see Sukka 36b). The Seder Hayom rejects not going to shul but says that if the tzibbur is going slowly and it is already after sunrise, it is good to get nl in early to be diligent. The Bikurei Yaakov (644:1) prefers the Arizal’s approach, also on the grounds of diligence.

Diligence is a two-edged sword, as several Acharonim raise the issue that more common mitzvot should precede less common ones, and Kri’at Shema and tefilla are more regular than nl. This can be another reason to prefer the Shulchan Aruch’s approach to that of the Arizal (Rav Moshe Feinstein, cited in Az Nidberu IV:48; this is also Rav Ovadia’s minhag – see Chazon Ovadia, Sukkot p. 371-6). Different ideas are raised to justify the Arizal’s approach, as lulav might have special sanctity, and doing it in the sukka and/or as early as possible may be worth it.

Some attempt to get the best of both worlds. The Kaf Hachayim (OC 644:3) praises the minhag to have a sukka near shul so people can go to do nl there before Hallel. Ostensibly, those who take the time advantage approach would do best by davening vatikin, as Kri’at Shema is done before it is proper to do nl, and nl will be only a few minutes after its earliest time. Nobody says that these ideas are required.

Let us put this background into practice. Most people have a family minhag, which they should continue to keep under normal circumstances. (The various minhagim do not seem to create lo titgodedu problems.). The minhag to do nl in the sukka is not an absolute obligation. Therefore, if doing so will cause one to be (significantly) late to the minyan he is going to (people should be sensitive to the problems of coming late), he should pass on nl in the sukka. While some time should be given for people to get out their lulav and etrog before Hallel plus a little time for people to perform nl then, it is an unreasonable tircha d’tzibbura to wait for people to go to the shul’s sukka to fulfill the "in sukka during davening" approach. Of course, if a shul has many people with that minhag and decide to make that standard, that is the tzibbur’s prerogative.

For those who do nl in the sukka before shul, the Bikuerei Yaakov (ibid.) instructs that one should do birkat haTorah first. Many cogently argue that this is unnecessary, but on the other hand, one does not lose by doing so. While there is some logic to recite Kri’at Shema first (see above), there is also good reason not to, and I did not find any posek to suggest doing so.
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