Watercolor of an etrog by Amanda Almira Newton, 1916, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Watercolor of an etrog by Amanda Almira Newton, 1916, U.S. Department of Agriculture

It’s splendorous. It’s packed with meaning. It’s the etrog.

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Sukkot is referred to as “the holiday of our joy” in our liturgy (see the silent Amidah for festivals). It is the time when the farmers of ancient Israel would gather in all the produce that had been harvested in the spring and left to dry in the fields. The feeling of bounty was palpable and the rituals that are commanded in the Torah certainly lend themselves to a colorful and meaningful national experience.

“For seven days you shall dwell in booths” (Leviticus 23:42). The Torah asks us to leave our homes and take up residence in booths. While it was not uncommon for people to leave their homes to escape the heat and sit in huts in the summer, it was peculiar to do so in the fall, when the rains were expected to begin.

Another “odd” ritual that is commanded during this festival is to take the four species and wave them in six directions. The species also point to bounty and our appreciation of the vegetation that we are provided in the Holy Land.

Rabbi Yisroel Gordon, formerly of the Palo Alto–based Jewish Study Network, once shared an insight into one of the four species that is worth contemplating during the holiday. The etrog, or citron, is the only fruit that makes the cut. The Torah describes the fruit as “the fruit of a splendorous tree.” (Leviticus 23:40)

The word for splendorous in Hebrew is hadar. Rashi, the foremost medieval commentator, suggested that there are two suggestions hinted at with the usage of that word. The first is that it is a splendorous fruit because the taste of the fruit is the same as the taste of the wood of its tree. The second is that it lives in its tree from year to year — hadar can also mean “to live.”

There is a fascinating midrash that is also brought by Rashi in the beginning of the Torah that discusses the history of trees (Genesis 1:11). It seems that when the trees were commanded to come into existence, they were supposed to be fruit trees that bear fruit. In other words, the trees themselves were supposed to have the same taste as the very fruits that they produced.

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According to the midrash, the trees rebelled and appeared with tasteless wood and bark. Why would the trees not listen to the command? It seems like it was a matter of self-preservation on their part. If the trees would taste like their fruit, they would be consumed and enjoyed by animals and people (just as much as the fruit is enjoyed).

The etrog tree is the only tree that obeyed the order and arrived on the scene as a tree that actually has a taste that matches its fruit.

But that is not the only quality that we glean from this species. The Hebrew descriptor has another message, as well. It is the fruit that lives in its tree from year to year. In other words, it does not detach itself from its source. Other fruits fall to the ground eventually, but this fruit remains connected.

Not only did the etrog tree distinguish itself by following instructions, but it does not disconnect from its source. That can represent an intense sense of commitment and loyalty.

By contrast, the material that is used for the covering of our booths has to come specifically from vegetation that is not connected to its source.

The schach (roofing material) cannot be made into an object of utility. It must remain in its natural form. However, it has to be unattached from the tree from which it came.

The message of the sukkah is that we have to rely completely on God for our protection in this world. There has to be a sense of impermanence for that period so that we can ingrain a reliance on our Creator. If the branches were still connected to trees, they would offer a greater sense of security and would not allow us the vulnerability that we seek in building our relationship with God.

Whether it is through our grasping of the one fruit that decries loyalty to our Creator, or by way of entering the sukkah, the holiday message is clearly about connecting to our true source. May we all merit finding that connection.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto. Rabbi Felsen is also on the board of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.