Sukkah 35

Why do we use an etrog?

Let’s be honest — if you had to rank the four species in order of awesomeness, the etrog would clearly be number one: It smells great. It looks beautiful. It fits neatly in the palm of your hand. And in the days before etrogs were soaked with pesticides to make them look flawless, they made the best jam.

But why is the etrog one of the four species at all? After all, the Torah lists the palm branch, myrtle and willow specifically, but when it comes to the fourth species, it only states “the fruit of a beautiful tree.” (Leviticus 23:40) What made the rabbis think that the fruit of a beautiful tree had to be an etrog? 

Today’s daf explains: 

Fruit of a beautiful tree,” meaning a tree that the taste of its trunk and the taste of its fruit are alike. You must therefore say it is the etrog tree.

But must we? The Gemara raises another possibility:

Say that it is the pepper tree!

Now, before you picture holding a beautiful red bell pepper together with your lulav on Sukkot, it must be duly noted that bell peppers are native to the Americas and the rabbis didn’t know about them. This isn’t that kind of pepper. In the Gemara, the word is being used to describe the peppercorn. So picture instead holding a tiny peppercorn together with your large lulav.  How would that work? Well, the Gemara insists that it wouldn’t. 

There (with regard to the four species, it is clear that the Torah is not referring to peppers) due to the fact that it is not possible (to use peppers for this purpose). How shall we proceed? If we take one pepper, its taking is not noticeable due to its small size. If we take two or three peppers, the Torah said one fruit and not two or three fruits. Therefore, it is impossible. 

It’s also worth noting, though the Gemara doesn’t, that peppercorn doesn’t actually grow on trees, it grows on vines. So it would be hard to call the plant a “beautiful tree” at all. The Gemara continues by offering even more proofs that the fruit in question must be the etrog. 

Interestingly, while the palm tree, willow and myrtle are all native to the land of Israel, neither the peppercorn nor the etrog are native to the land of Israel. Peppercorns originate in India. And as for the etrog, David Z. Moster traces its spread from Yunan, China, through India and then Persia into the land of Israel in the Second Temple period. This fruit of distant origins became central to Jewish ritual life and to Jewish identity. The etrog appears on Jewish coins minted during the Bar Kochba Revolt, and in the floor mosaics that decorated numerous synagogues across the first centuries of the common era.

So the Gemara is essentially insisting that at least one of the four species — and I’d argue the best one — must have foreign origins. This means that Jewish symbols are inextricably linked to the wider world in which Jews live. In consequence, Jews must take advantage of the agricultural beauty and deliciousness that can be found across the globe. Now that really is the fruit of a beautiful tree!

Read all of Sukkah 35 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 11th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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