The fruit of the goodly tree – the curious case of the etrog: or “what does the Etrog have to do with the Jewish people and land.

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals – the shalosh regalim – where the bible (Leviticus 23) tells us that the people must come to Jerusalem with their harvested produce, to give thanks to God.

We read “The fifteenth of this seventh month shall be the feast of booths for seven days to the Lord… Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep a feast to the eternal seven days: on the first day shall be a Sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a Sabbath. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree hadar, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook… You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”  Lev 23:33ff

Fascinatingly, this text about Sukkot gives us two reasons for its celebration – both an agricultural one with the celebration of the harvest, and a theological one, reminding us of our dependence on God during (and after) the exodus from Egypt.

In fact Sukkot is referenced in bible in a number of different ways. The book of Exodus repeatedly calls it “Chag haAsif – the Festival of Ingathering”; In Leviticus and Deuteronomy it is referred to as Chag HaSukkot – the Festival of Booths/Sukkot; In the Books of Kings, Chronicles and Ezekiel it is called simply “HeChag” –THE Festival; and in Leviticus in the text quoted above it is called “Chag Adonai” – the Festival of God. The first two names are clearly agricultural in origin – they reference the acts of harvesting and of living in small booths in the fields during the harvesting/birthing of animals. The second two are clearly more theological/national in origin. It remains for the rabbinic tradition simply “HeChag” The festival par excellence. And the rabbis have one more name for it, again deriving from the Leviticus piece quoted – it is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing.

What is this joy about? Is it because we have an abundance in the Autumn, before the harshness of the winter sets in? Is it because we not only are faced with out vulnerability as we live on and work the land, but because we also are secure in God’s protection?

In the Talmud (Sukkah 11b) there is a debate – Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva are trying to understand the verse “That your generations will know that I made the Children of Israel live in booths [sukkot] when I brought them from the land of Egypt..” Rabbi Akiva understands these to be literal physical booths, while Rabbi Eliezer understands them as metaphor – these booths are the clouds of glory that descended from God to protect the wandering Israelites in the desert.  If we were to follow Rabbi Eliezer we would understand that the mercy of God protects us, and in particular if we would see the context of Sukkot as part of the set of Autumn Festivals, then these clouds continue to hide our sinfulness and give us even longer to repent and return to a merciful God. Given that there is a tradition that one can continue to do the work of Elul/Rosh Hashanah/ Yom Kippur right up to the last day of Sukkot – Hoshanah Rabbah, this metaphorical understanding of the Sukkah is a way to give us extra time with a patient and merciful God waiting to offer us protection – something surely to be joyful about.

The text in Leviticus, besides telling us both the agricultural and the theological/peoplehood reasons for this festival, and giving us the command to rejoice before God (no other festival has this commandment), tells us to take four different plants – only two of which, the palm and the willows of the brook, are named. The others- the fruit of goodly trees, and the branches of leafy trees, require some interpretation.

The Book of Nehemiah describes an event that occurred on the date of Rosh Hashanah during the early Second Temple period. We are told that all the people gathered themselves together as one into the broad place that was before the water gate in Jerusalem; that they spoke to Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which God had commanded to Israel.  Later in the same chapter we find: “Now they found written in the Law, how that the Eternal had commanded that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month; and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: “Go forth to the mountain, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim. And all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness (Neh. 8:14-17).

This is clearly a description of Sukkot, yet there is no etrog, rather the branches of olives and wild olives, and the leafy tree is named here as the myrtle. There is also no mention – unlike the passage in Leviticus – of putting the four species together and enacting a ritual with them. Indeed, it is clear to the people of Nehemiah’s time that these branches are for the creating of the booths/sukkot, and this is also reflected in a Talmudic discussion (BT Sukkah 36b – 37a), that Rabbi Meir says a sukkah can be built of any material, whereas Rabbi Judah, basing himself on the description in the Book of Nehemiah, says it can only be built with the woods of the four species.

It seems also, that the fruit of the goodly tree should, by rights, be the olive. It was and it remains a staple in the agriculture of the region, the oil used as both food and fuel for lighting, for medicine and for religious ritual. The olive also is harvested around this time. When you factor in the statement by Jeremiah (11:16) “16 The Eternal called your name a leafy olive-tree, fair with goodly fruit”, it seems a bit of a no-brainer that the fruit of the goodly tree would be the olive

Yet we have instead, the rather ambiguous fruit – the etrog. Why?

The earliest text probably is that of 1st -2nd century Targum Onkelos, the first translation of the bible (into Aramaic), which has a habit of also interpreting the text, and which clearly writes “the fruit of the etrog tree”. Josephus (1st century Romano-Jewish writer) also describes the use of the Etrog when he writes about the festival. The Talmud (TB Sukkot 34a) tells the story of the Hasmonean king and High Priest Alexander Yanneus (103-76 BCE) who was not respectful of the ritual of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (the ceremony of the water libation) and was pelted with etrogim by the angry worshippers.  The Hasmonean coins of the period show etrogim, and it was clearly an important symbol of the nation at that time.

I wonder if the etrog came to be one of the four species (arba’a minim) because it had a particular quality that the rabbis wanted to add to the ritual – and what that quality might be.

By the time of the Mishnah (2nd Century CE) the etrog is part of the group of the four species. While it is practically inedible in its raw state, it does have a particularly lovely smell should you scratch the skin a little with your nail. The old joke usually told about Israelis being like the sabra fruit, that they might be prickly and unedifying on the bush, but deliciously sweet when opened, is maybe better designed for the etrog – they appear to be firm dense and unyielding, but the smell of them when touched is exquisite. They also have another quality – leave most fruits and they will soften and rot. The etrog will generally wither and harden, but not rot, and the smell continues for a long time – not for nothing are they a favourite to make as the spice box for havdalah.

There are midrashim that talk about the four species describing the different people in a community – the date palm has taste but no smell, and describes the one who knows much torah but does not do good deeds. The myrtle has smell but no taste, the one who does good deeds but knows little Torah. The willow has no taste or smell – denoting the person who neither learns Torah nor does good deeds; and the Etrog has both taste  and smell – the ideal. We put them together in our sukkot ritual waving of the arba’a minim – because every community has people of each kind, and every community needs people of each kind.

There is a midrash that the four species resemble a whole person – the willow leaves look like lips, the myrtle leaves look like eyes, the palm is the spine and the etrog – the etrog is the heart. Again, we need to use our  whole bodies when we worship.

But the midrash I like best, and the one I have the feeling was the reason for the Etrog joining the branches of the other trees, is that each of the four species is a distinct botanical type, each quite different from the other.

The palm trees love hot and dry climatic conditions – they don’t fruit well in the humid coastal areas, but like to be in dryer, desert conditions. And so the palm branch represents the desert areas of the Land of Israel.

The myrtle thrives best in the colder and mountainous regions of the northern parts of the Land, and the willow needs to be in the areas close to the yearlong streams of water ; The etrog does best in the irrigated land of the lower coastal areas and the valleys.

The Land of Israel, small as it is, is a land of micro climates, and each one of the arba’a minim represents a different climate and so a different part of the Land. Sukkot is par excellence the festival of agriculture, of the awareness of the need for rain to fall appropriately and in timely fashion. The three trees named are, to a gardener’s eye, representative of three quite different climates. The olive is no such sensitive plant, so a different plant should be chosen to represent the carefully farmed areas of the land.

The shaking of the Lulav, the connection with harvest and agriculture, the pouring of water at Simchat Beit HaSho’eva – this is a festival both of thanksgiving and of request for the coming year. The shivering of the palm leaves as one shakes the lulav sound like the rain pattering onto the ground. What good would it be if one part of the land is well irrigated if another part suffers drought or floods?

As we become ever more aware about the problems of the changing climate – the hurricanes, the floods, the delayed monsoons, the scorching drying sun which allows fires to spread so quickly – we begin to realise what an interconnected world we live in, that what happens in one part of the world impacts upon us all.

So when we pick up the four species, let’s focus on the lesson it give us, in particular the substation of the etrog for the olive, to remind us that we are all inhabitants of the same earth, all individual parts of a greater whole, and lets do what we can to protect the earth, the crops, the rivers and the deserts, the frozen areas of the poles and on the mountains, the glaciers and the seas… Sukkot is all about how we respect water, Mayim Hayim, the giver and supporter of life.. and how we respect the world and its Creator.

Sukkot: the people, the land, the relationships that connect us

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals mandated in Bible, forming a particular cycle of harvest celebrations with Pesach and Shavuot, yet unlike them in the passage in Leviticus which details the festivals, Sukkot is given an extra dimension – it is not only an agricultural celebration but also one that reminds us of the foundational story of our people.  “The fifteenth day of this seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you will keep the feast of the Eternal seven days …And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree (hadar), branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook and rejoice before the Eternal .. You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”  Lev 23:34-43

This explicit link to the exodus, to the people’s vulnerability and dependence on God, brings a powerful richness to our celebration. Unlike the Spring/Summer celebrations of Pesach and Shavuot, with hope and new life bursting forth, the autumnal setting of Sukkot brings intimations of the dark, hard winter days ahead, the leafless trees, the sleeping earth, a quasi-death experience. Sukkot comes six months after Pesach, and it builds and develops the themes of that festival. Unlike the intense dramatic ‘high’ of the plagues and our leaving slavery in Egypt that Pesach provides, Sukkot marks the “ordinary and everyday” struggle to stay alive and safe. It reminds us that our freedoms are fragile, that even basic necessities are not automatically given to us, that life is made up of routine hard graft and of effortful striving. And in this quotidian mundane activity, God is also present, even if less obvious to us.

Sukkot is a festival of autumnal abundance in preparation for months of wintertime scarcity. But at the same time it draws our attention to our two most basic frailties, our need for water (for ourselves and our crops) and for shelter.  The sukkah itself represents the fragility of our homes, with the “s’chach” open to the skies even as the abundant fruit is hanging from it, and the arba’a minim shaken as an almost magical ceremonial to bring rain in the right season.

The four components, held together as they are shaken, are a fascinating concatenation of concepts. Biblically mandated, the palm, myrtle, willow and etrog can represent such a complexity of characteristics. One midrash suggests that together they represent the whole community, all of whom have value and are included in the ritual – the hadar fruit, the etrog, has taste (Torah) and aroma (Mitzvot); the palm has tasty fruit but no smell, (ie represents those who have torah but no good deeds); the myrtle leaves smell wonderful but it has no fruit (mitzvot but no torah), and the willow has neither taste nor smell (no torah and no mitzvot). Every community has people with each of these categories. When we pray before God, each person is important.

Another view is that each one represents a different part of the land of Israel- so the palm tree which loves a hot dry climate grows well in desert areas, the myrtle thrives in the cooler mountains regions, the willows grow only near the streams and waterways that flow all year, and the etrog is most comfortable in the lower coastal areas and the valleys. Israel has a series of microclimates, each represented here.

Or one can understand the arba minim to represent our history from Egypt to settlement: so the lulav would represent wandering in the desert, the willow- crossing the Jordan, the myrtle our settling in the mountains and the etrog the establishment of orchards.

And there is also a midrash that the arba’a minim represents each human being – the palm being the spine, the myrtle the eyes, the willow the lips and the etrog the heart, and we come in supplication to God because we understand how fragile our existence truly is.

Whichever symbolism resonates, the core truth is the same. We are in this world together, our survival is not guaranteed, we need to work together and support each other even as we celebrate a plentiful harvest.  We need to be aware of scarcity, that we can all be affected, that only by sharing and by working together can we create a more harmonious world.

Sukkot is given four names in bible: “Chag ha’Asif”[i] – the festival of ingathering; “Chag ha’Sukkot”[ii] – the Festival of Booths; He’Chag[iii] – THE festival; and “Chag l’Adonai”[iv] the Festival of the Eternal. Of these, the third name – the festival par excellence – gives us most pause for thought, for it reminds us that Sukkot is the most important festival.

Why is this? The symbols of the festival remind us that EVERY person in our society is important; each one needs the dignity of their own home and the security of knowing that basic needs will be met; (Talmud Berachot 57b tells us a home of one’s own increases self-esteem and dignity). They remind us that we are all journeying, that while we may have the illusion of a stable rooted existence, the world turns and our fortunes can turn with it. They remind us that we all have responsibility for the environment and for how we treat our world, that damage to our environment and changes to our climate affects us all. They remind us that we are dependent on factors that are beyond our control. Yet with all of this unsettling symbolism, the rabbis call this festival “z’man simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing, based upon the verses in Leviticus.  Why does Sukkot make us so happy, this festival of wandering and of fragility? I think because it reminds us of our human commonality and the power of human community. We are connected to God and we are connected to our land, we are connected to our foundational stories and to our historic experiences, but for any of this to truly matter, we must be connected to each other.

[i] Exodus 23:16; exodus 34:22

[ii] Leviticus 23.34; Deuteronomy 16:13,16

[iii] Ezekiel 45, 25, 1 Kings 8, 2, Ezekiel 45, 25 and 2 Chronicles 7, 8

[iv] Leviticus 23:39

(written for the “Judaism in 1000 words” section of Movement for Reform Judaism website)