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26.09.2017 11:51    Comments: 0    Categories: Holidays      Tags: torah  holidays  sukkot  etrog  lulav  harava  hadass  

The Etrog: Torah and Science

Where Torah meets science we note a considerable difference:  in the Torah we rely first and foremost on received tradition and reject other possibilities, as Maimonides put it: “Received tradition and practice are great pillars and we ought to rely on them” (Mishneh TorahShemitah ve-Yovel 10.6).  Science, however, does not make do with tradition as it has been passed down to us, rather it raises questions and demands proof, evidence and findings.  This conflict also pertains to the Etrog (= citron).

Scripture’s expression, pri etz hadar, or “fruit of goodly trees” (Lev. 23:40), can be interpreted in a general way, not limiting it to a specific species,[1] but in the Sages’ halakhic tradition this expression refers to the Etrog alone.  This identification of the “fruit of goodly trees” in the Torah with the Etrog was accepted as far as we know without reservation and even acknowledged by the Sadducees.[2] Maimonides viewed this as an example of accepted interpretation handed down since Moses and never challenged by a soul,[3]and thus it remains to this day.

However, in recent generations an increasing number of rabbis and scholars have expressed doubts about the original identification of the biblical “fruit of goodly[4] trees” with the Etrog.[5] Especially, it has been questioned whether the Etrog was actually to be found in the land of Israel and its environs as far back as the giving of the Torah and the First Temple Period.

The reason for this uncertainty is that all citrus fruit originated in southeast Asia, India and China, and migrated westward from there to Asia Minor and the countries of the Mediterranean basin.  Experts on the history of citrus trees generally concur that the Etrog was the first of the citrus fruits to reach our region, but it is not clear exactly when this happened.  If the Etrog did not reach our area until the Persian or Hellenistic period [see below], we would have to say that by “fruit of goodly trees” the Torah did not mean the Etrog.  Then the question arises how and when the Etrog nevertheless came to be accepted in the Halakhah as the fruit to be used in performing the Torah’s commandment to take “fruit of goodly trees” as one of the Four Species.

What we know about the Etrog in our region can be summed up as follows:  the Etrog is not one of the fruits for which the Land of Israel was known, and it is not mentioned in Scripture (save for the expression, “fruit of goodly trees”).  Indeed, there are some homilies by the Sages identifying the apple (Heb. tapu’ah) in Song of Songs with the Etrog,[6] and according to one view expressed by the Sages the Etrog is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden.[7] It is hard, however, to view these homilies as actual evidence attesting to an ancient presence of the Etrog in our region.  As Felix[8] rightly mentions, however, the fact that a given fruit tree is not mentioned in Scripture does proof it did not exist.  According to most scholars,[5] the archaeological evidence attesting to the presence of the Etrogin ancient Egypt is not convincing.  The first botanic description of the Etroggrowing in Persia and Media, with its special, aromatic and medicinally beneficial fruit, was provided by the Greek botanist Theophrastus (287-371 B.C.E.), from whom we have the name Persian Apple [tapu’ah Medi] which gave birth to the scientific name of the EtrogCitrus medica.

Scientific, literary, and archaeological testimony to the existence of the Etrog in the Land of Israel becomes more numerous towards the end of the Second Temple Period.  Josephus mentions the Etrog in relation to the Feast of Tabernacles.[9] The Etrog appears as a Jewish emblem on coins and in mosaic synagogue floors, and is also mentioned in the Bar Kokhba letters.  Important scientific evidence has recently emerged testifying to the presence of the Etrog in the Land of Israel, as early as Persian rule in the land (4-7 centuries, B.C.E.), close to the return from the first exile.  Among grains of pollen that were found embedded in the floor of a Persian palace uncovered at Ramat Rachel, to the south of Jerusalem, positive identification was also made of Etrog pollen in large quantity, thus attesting to the presence of Etrog trees [and not only Etrog fruit] among many other trees in the palace garden.[10] Nevertheless, in my humble opinion, there is justification for the scientific claim that the Etrog did not penetrate into our region before the end of the First Temple Period.

Tolkowsky [5] cites the views of botanists preceding him, according to which the Jews’ first acquaintance with the Etrog was during the Babylonian exile.[11] He surmises that the Jews still observed the commandment of the Feast of Tabernacles using the cone of a cedar tree (which he believes to have been the original meaning of “etz hadar” or a “goodly tree”), and did not begin to use the Etrog until the religious revolution of the Hasmoneans.  I recall arguing against Tolkowsky’s idea with my late mentor, Prof. Shaul Monselise, fifty years ago.  To the best of my understanding, during the Hasmonean period the Halakhah was quite well-formed, and we have no inkling in our sources of any such bold change.[12]

I would like to present a possible scenario for the Etrog establishing its place in the Halakhah as the “fruit of goodly trees.”  Perhaps this expression was understood for many generations as a commandment to take an especially fine fruit, without identifying a specific kind of tree.  During the Babylonian exile, when the Jews made their first encounter with the Etrog, an especially grand fruit, it may have become customary to take an Etrog in fulfillment of the commandment of Sukkot.  This custom became firmly rooted and over the generations became an established and binding halakhic practice, until ultimately the “fruit of goodly trees” became definitely defined as the Etrog.[13]

Be that as it may, the last word has yet to be said about the Etrog.  Botanical, archaeological and literary findings yet to be discovered are likely to bring us closer to resolving doubts and narrowing the gap between halakhic tradition and scientific views.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

 
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