The Etrog's Special place in Sukkat Ritual

Friday, September 24, 2021

In the early 18th century, there was a German Jew by the name of Mordechai Gomferekhet ben Shlomo, who was a staunch follower of the failed messiah, Shabtai Tsvi. This, and likely other factors, led him to renounce his Judaism, converting to Christianity and taking the name Paul Christian Kirchner in the year 1713. Not content to disrupt his own life, Kirchner went on to publish a book entitled “Jüdisches Ceremoniel” (Ceremonies of the Jews) whose goal was to ridicule and disparage the customs and rituals of which he was once an avid practitioner, and bring to others the same “enlightenment” Kirchner had attained.

Pictured here is a selection from his chapter on Sukkot. It is from the updated edition published in 1724 with the noticeable influence of Sebastian Jakob Jugendres, who intended to soften Kirchner’s critical tone and also included charming illustrations to accompany the descriptive (and now more mild) text. In the last picture below, the authors describe the Hallel ceremony, when the four species are gathered. The Etrog, or citron, is here referred to as the Adam’s Apple.

Just as the Jewish customs were interpreted negatively by Kirchner and then adjusted by later editors, the understanding of Etrog’s use in our holiday rituals is less than straightforward. The earliest textual reference (from this region) to a citron is the 4th century BCE Greek botanist Theophrastus’ Enquiry into Plants, which describes the anatomy of the citron fruit. While the Oral Tradition of the Tanaaitic sages of the 2nd century CE (400-500 years later) establishes that the reference in Leviticus to the “Pri Ets Hadar” (fruit of the goodly tree) is definitively referring to the Etrog, this requires further discussion.

Archeological evidence in Ramat Rahel, near Jerusalem, reveals the fossilized remains of various plant species. These pollen samples were embedded in the water pools of an elaborate Persian garden from 4th-5th centuries BCE (possibly contemporary to the writings of Theophrastus, if not earlier). The Etrog, along with species like the myrtle and willow, were identified among the imported and exotic plants grown in this outpost of the Persian empire.

Darius the Great, the Perisan king who conquered many lands including and surrounding the Holy Land, had expanded his empire significantly. Among the conquered lands was India, the likely origin of the citron fruit, whose genetic material is most similar to Mediterranean citrons and is mentioned in Indian texts from the 8th century BCE, the earliest references to this fruit. Persian rulers, with their expansive empires and gardens, were the likely vehicles for the journey of the citron from the far reaches of India, to their established place in the Holy Land and surrounding areas, including nearby Greece.

While both the Mishnah and Josephus recount the use of citrons during Sukkot a few hundred years later in the first century CE, we are still left to wonder what fruit would have been used by the Jews as a “Pri Ets Hadar” until the citron became widely available with the Persian expansion. David Z. Moster, in his book Etrog: How a Chinese Fruit Became a Jewish Symbol suggests that until the Rabbinic period, Sukkot was celebrated as a more undefined harvest holiday. As such, any attractive fruit could have been used as “fruit of the goodly tree,” a phrase perhaps left purposefully vague in the scripture to make allowances for whatever were the most beautiful fruit available to the Israelites. By the time the Tanaaim of the Mishnah were defining the parameters of Jewish practice after the Second Temple period, the most beautiful and suitable fruit was the Etrog.

The rituals and customs as we practice them today have as much meaning and beauty as they did in earlier times. Sukkot, a harvest festival, both in our agricultural beginnings and in more modern times, is about connecting to the land entrusted to us by God, where we can grow beautiful fruit and appreciate the efforts our people make to sustain growth, both physical and spiritual. On a more metaphysical level, the “harvest” we celebrate can be seen as the rewards for all our labors; the good deeds and merits we recounted to God over the High Holidays, and the internal work we completed as we committed to improve ourselves in the coming year.

Wishing you a Chag Ha-Asif Sameach! A Happy Harvest Festival!

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