Etrog: How a Chi­nese Fruit Became a Jew­ish Symbol

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By – March 29, 2018

How has it hap­pened that Sukkot, a hol­i­day based on the beau­ti­ful fruit of trees” (Leviti­cus 23:40), has also pro­duced the phe­nom­e­non of a $345 etrog for sale in con­tem­po­rary Brooklyn?

Inves­ti­gat­ing the transna­tion­al, con­tro­ver­sial, and sym­bol­ic his­to­ry of Judais­m’s most famous cit­rus fruit, Moster, a recent­ly mint­ed PhD from Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty and founder of the Insti­tute for Bib­li­cal Cul­ture, pro­vides the answer.

Through a mix­ture of arche­ol­o­gy, bib­li­cal inter­pre­ta­tion, and com­par­a­tive reli­gion, along­side some good old-fash­ioned sleuthing, Moster traces the fruit’s roots from Yun­nan in Chi­na, through India, Per­sia, and even­tu­al­ly, the land of Israel. Build­ing off pre­vi­ous the­o­ries as to how the etrog emerged as one of the Four Species rit­u­al­is­ti­cal­ly waved dur­ing the hol­i­day of Sukkot, Moster pro­vides a schol­ar­ly yet acces­si­ble take on the under­ly­ing ambi­gu­i­ty of the Leviti­cus verse. He launch­es a quest to define how exact­ly to ful­fill this com­mand­ment (even the trans­la­tion above is sub­ject to dis­agree­ment — does the orig­i­nal Hebrew trans­late to fruit of beau­ti­ful trees,” beau­ti­ful fruit of trees,” or maybe even beau­ti­ful fruit of beau­ti­ful trees”?). The Bible itself does­n’t even men­tion the phrase beau­ti­ful fruit of trees.” It also por­trays the ancient Israelites as attempt­ing to ful­fill this com­mand­ment by build­ing their sukkah out of the species, not wav­ing it.

Moster guides his read­ers through the inves­tiga­tive process, even pro­vid­ing a board game-like chart with inter­pre­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties, includ­ing San­skrit and Akka­di­an, as well as sug­ges­tions from schol­ars both ancient and mod­ern. The author takes his read­ers on a fas­ci­nat­ing jour­ney replete with pic­tures of etrogs of all shapes and sizes (includ­ing the afore­men­tioned $345 one), Egypt­ian hiero­glyph­ics, coinage from the Bar Koch­ba revolt, and even Hin­du stat­ues. One emerges from this work with a clear and con­vinc­ing under­stand­ing of how the etrog came to be a sym­bol­ic enti­ty beloved by Jews world­wide — who, whether they know it or not, have the ancient Chi­nese to thank for one of con­tem­po­rary Judais­m’s most beloved rituals.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

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