Social science and pomocultural perspectives on Jewish ritual objects for Sukkot, the Feast of Booths (Leviticus 23:33 Deuternonomy 16:13) or the Feast of the Ingathering (Exodus 23:16 & 34:22).
Can you imagine needing a product that is produced far away, especially if you care about the process by which it is produced, perhaps for ethical reasons, and where you are uncertain whether the producers share your standards for proper processing? Of course you can, as nowadays you can buy tuna that is “dolphin safe” and lumber that is certified as not coming from rainforests, and of course, foods that are organic, gluten free, non-GMO, etc. The modern production and transportation chain of kosher foods also offers an obvious example.
One of the earliest examples of certification of production processes for a product traded from far away is the etrog for Sukkot. The etrog, a type of citrus fruit, can be grown only in very mild climates, such as those around the Mediterranean. Yet as centers of Jewish population moved northward in Europe, communities faced the challenge of ensuring that the etrogim they were purchasing met ritual standards.
Chief among the standards, as set by Ashkenazi rabbis, was that the fruit not come from grafted trees. Grafting was seen as a violation of the ban in Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:9 on sowing one’s vineyard with a second kind of seed. (Sephardic rabbis have traditionally been less concerned about grafting.) When a fruit tree is grafted, a small branch from a tree that produces a desired variety of fruit is inserted into the stem of a different but closely related “rootstock”. Grafting thereby ensures that the fruit to be produced by the grafted tree is an exact genetic replica, preserving standards of quality and consistency from tree to tree. Almost all of our commercially available fruit, as well as the great majority of backyard fruit, come from grafted trees.
However, if one wants fruit of an ungrafted tree for ritual reasons, one faces a problem: it is impossible to look at the fruit and tell whether it came from a grafted or ungrafted tree. One can identify a grafted tree if one journeys to the orchard, but the fruit carries no evidence of its parent tree having been grafted. Therefore, by about the 14th century, there arose a process of supervision and certification of citron groves. At one time this was under the monoploy of the Ottoman authorities, who ensured quality to the satisfaction of the Ashkenazi rabbis. But when the monopoly was ended in 1843, European rabbis argued that local certification of etrogim from Corfu–previously a prized source– was meaningless because of fears that the self-interest of the locals meant they had incentives to cheat and send northward the fruit of grafted trees.
It was only after the First Aliyah in what was then Ottoman Palestine that most of our etrogim were again grown under direct Jewish supervision. The Jewish communities of Palestine were then able to publicize in Europe and America which groves in the Land of Israel contained grafted, and which ungrafted, trees. Thereby they solved the previous problem of supervision and certification of the practices of far-away producers whose own standards were uncertain.
So, we have seen that this fruit from far away posed challenges to communities seeking to maintain the proper ritual standards for observing Sukkot. But why the etrog in the first place?
In the Torah, we are simply commanded to take “p’ri eitz hadar” (Leviticus 23:40). “Hadar” is usually translated as “goodly” as is the case in the lectionary of Conservative Judaism (and most bible translations, it seems). Everret Fox translates it as “beautiful” and Plaut does not translate it at all, indicating in a footnote that “goodly” is an unacceptable translation!
So there is disagreement about what a “hadar tree” is. It likely was not standardized as etrog until at least the Babylonian exile, where Jews likely encountered the fruit for the first time. In fact, documentary evidence for the citron as “eitz hadar” does not exist earlier than the second century, B.C.E.
Unlike the other species used in Sukkot, the citron is not native to the Eastern Mediterranean or the surrounding region. The other three species would have been known to the Israelites from wandering in Sinai and early settlement of the land…
The palm fronds recall the date trees, prevalent in Sinai, and also evoke the fronds we put on top of the sukkah, which is itself probably originally the shelter used in Sinai during the date harvest season.
The willow of the brook reminds us of the importance of water–a critical theme of Sukkot at the turning of the season in the Land of Israel from dry to rainy. Willows grow along the Jordan river, thus evoking the memory of crossing into the Promised Land.
The “leafy branches” of the myrtle are prevalent in the drier hill country where the Israelites first settled in the time of Joshua. Myrtle leaves remain fresher than most after cutting, and are seen in many cultures as symbols of immortality.
Thus three of the four species for Sukkot have direct connections to either our wandering, or our settlement in the Holy Land.
But why is the etrog the “hadar” fruit? As I mentioned previously, it likely could not have been known to the Israelites until centuries after settling the Land. It is probably native to the southeast coast of China, and was brought westward towards Persia and Media (hence its botanical name, citrus medica) some time after the sixth century, B.C.E. (Some sources say it is native to Yemen or East Africa, although this is not likely, given the known origin of other citrus from China and southeast Asia, and the fact that botanists consider the citron older than other citrus.)
So why would this Asian fruit have been adopted as the hadar fruit of Sukkot? We can turn for clues to the first known writing about any citrus fruit by a European, the Greek historian Theophrastus. In 310 B.C.E., he described properties of the fruit:
Thus one sees in Media and Persia… the tree called Persian or Median apple. Its fruit is not edible but it has exquisite odor… A decoction of the pulp is thought to be an antidote to poison, and will sweeten the breath… The citron bears fruit continuously…
And, finally, he continues with perhaps the most important point for our purposes:
Fruit is given only by the flowers which have in the middle a sort of straight spindle; those which do not have this fall off, producing nothing.
This “straight spindle” is the pitom, the delicate blossom-end protrusion that exists in no other fruit (clearly visible in the photo above), and which must remain intact for the etrog to be kosher. This feature, combined with the everbearing nature of the tree, makes it a symbol of unusual fertility. It thus is an especially fitting fruit for use in a harvest festival of thanksgiving for the bounty of God’s gifts of the natural world. And, for this reason, Jews have literally gone to great lengths to acquire the fruit from distant lands and to ensure certification of its quality and proper growing process.
The quotation from Theophrastus and other basic information about the etrog come from Richard Ray and Lance Walheim, Citrus: How to Select, Grow and Enjoy. Los Angeles: HP Books, 1980.
Information on historic trade in etrogim comes from: Erich Isaac, “The citron in the Mediterranean: A study of religious influence,” Economic Geography 35, 1 (Jan., 1959), pp. 71-78; and Erich and Rael Isaac, “A goodly tree: Sacred and profane history”, Commentary 26:4 (Oct., 1958), pp. 300-307.
Also essential is Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in our Biblical Heritage. Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim, 1980.