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The Etrog and the Tree of Knowledge

Author: Rachel Adelman, Tishrei 5766 Sukkot תשס"ו/Oct 2005

The four species form the centerpiece of the Sukkot holiday, and the etrog their focal point, yet the verse concerned with this precept in VaYikra never identifies the fruit; it is called simply called "pri etz hadar" (Lev. 23:40). The phrase has been translated as "the fruit of the citrus-tree" (RSV trans.), or etrog (in Hebrew). Rashi, on this verse, spells that out clearly for us, "פרי עץ הדר...זהו אתרוג. Yet "hadar" is not a botanical term at all, identifying a particular species of tree. Rather, hadar is used synonymously, throughout the Tanakh, with adjectives such as majesty, beauty and splendour (hod, kavodtiferet). In the Tanakh, hadar may function even as a verb meaning "to bestow favour or honour"1. The JPS, closer to the peshat, translates "etz pri hadar" as "the fruit of the goodly trees". Imbedded in this translation is a principle about the aesthetic: that "good" is somehow linked with the "beautiful". Unfortunately, these days, the beauty of appearances often masks an internal crumbling, a vacuous inner being. Perhaps the understanding of hadar as "good", gestures at an aesthetic ideal where the outer and the inner beauty are in harmony. Rashi hints at this in his characterization of "pri etz hadar" as a tree whose wood has the same taste as its fruit. I don’t think the great sage is suggesting new recipes for Sukkot. We do not normally cook up etrog-bark stew. We are, rather, in the realm of metaphor. To speak of the tree and the fruit as both being edible, the rabbis are implying that the product is consonant with the process. The workings of the xylem and phloem, the process of chlorophyll, transforming sunlight into sugars, is one with its apotheosis: the fruit. In short, the etrog is the ultimate "tree of integrity". When we take the etrog, along with the other three species, we engage in a Tikun, a reparation for that moment back in the Garden of Eden, when external and internal beauty became disengaged from one another. We reclaim the integrity that was lost upon eating from the Tree-of-Knowing-Good-and-Evil. How is this possible?

Ramban, following an opinion in Bershit Rabbah (15:7), claims that the etz ha’da’at was the etrog treeDrawing on the Targum, he links the word "hadar", with the Aramaic "rogeg", meaning "to desire", as in Onkelos’ translation of ‘nehmad le’mareh’ (דמרגג למיחזי, desirable to look upon, Gen. 2:9). Similarly, the injunction "Do not covet" (lo tahmod) is translated as לא תרוג (Deut. 5:17). The Aramaic "Etrog" means simply "hadar" in Hebrew, or חמדה, desire; "pri etz hadar" should then be translated as "the fruit of the tree of desire". Yet how do we know the etrog, the fruit of desire, is Tree of Knowledge? It states: "The woman saw the tree as good to eat, and that is was a delight to the eyes and desirable as a source of wisdom וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה הוּאלָעֵינַיִם וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל (Gen. 3:6). Ramban then claims, "though the sin happened through it [the etrog] alone, we are only able to make appeasement along with the other species." This is a cryptic comment that requires unpacking.

When Eve first saw the external aspect of the tree, after the Serpent’s seductive words, it suddenly held secrets it never had before. First, its beauty struck her—not the beauty of the fruit, but the promises of the tree itself, "and she saw the tree as good". The ‘eating’ of the etz ha’daat begins as a visual experience, תַאֲוָה הוּא לָעֵינַיִם, a delight to the eyes. That is a gap between the external and internal, the aesthetic beauty of the tree and the effect of its fruit, internally, is forged even before eating the fruit. The Serpent had promised, "On the Day that you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:4). Well their eyes were opened even before ingestion, yet access to the knowledge of good and evil would, at best, always be partial and remain in the realm of the coveted, ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished’, וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל, desirable as a source of wisdom. Immediately, the consequences of eating the fruit were felt as the need to cover up, Adam and Eve sewing loincloths for themselves out of fig leaves (Gen. 3:7). The gap between the outer and inner reality widens, and we have lived the dance of masks ever since. Ironically, the integrity between the external and internal beauty of things was lost as a result of tasting that "fruit of integrity", the etrog.

How then could the etrog, the very cause of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, constitute a source of tikun? Only as a complement to the other three species! There is a famous midrash about the Four Species, which likens them to four different types of Jews. It is a midrash told from kindergarten through grade school, but then passed off as mere homiletics in later years. I would like to look at it afresh, in the light of the characterization of the etrog as "the fruit of integrity":

In another comment on the verse, "Take for your own sake [u’lakahtem lakhem]the fruit of the goodly trees…" (Lev. 23:40), "the fruit of the goodly trees pri etz hadar" [the etrog] stands for a type of person in Israel: just as etrog has an aroma and taste [re’ah and ta’am], that is edible fruit, so too Israel has those who have Torah and also good deeds. "And the branches of palm trees" [kapot tamarim] also stand for a type of person in Israel: just as the palm tree has edible fruit (the date) but no aroma, so Israel has people who have knowledge of Torah but no good deeds. "And the boughs of leafy trees" [the hadas, or myrtle], also stand for a type in Israel: just as the myrtle has aroma but no edible fruit, so Israel has those who do good deeds but have no Torah. "And willows of the brook" [the arava], stand for a type in Israel: just as the willow has neither edible fruit nor aroma, so Israel have those who have neither Torah nor good deeds. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do for them? It is impossible to destroy them, rather He said, "May all of them be bound together in one cluster, such they might atone for one another" [VaYikra Rabbah 30:12, also Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 27:9].

Why is "taste" [ta’am] associated with Torah, and "aroma" [re’ah] with good deeds? We speak of "ta’amei mitzvot", the reasoning behind the precepts, and "ta’amei mikra", the cantillation marks over the letters of the Torah. The "ta’am" contains the meaning, the internal principle, metaphorically what would make the fruit edible or digestible, able to be internalized. The "re’ah", aroma, on the other hand, would be that which reaches others and leaves impressions in its wake, the external manifestation. That is, the effect of one who does good deeds ripples through a community; the reputation of a ba’al hesed spreads far and wide. The etrog offers both the internal, ta’am, and external, re’ah; that is the tree (the internal process involved producing the fruit) and the fruit itself (the product) are one and the same. This would be like a person who has internalized the teachings of the Torah so well, that all of his or her intellectual endeavours would radiate out in kindness towards others. A rare personality indeed! Now the only way that the etrog serves as a source of kapara, atonement, is if it acts in harmony with the other three. The only way such a righteous person has true impact in the world is if he or she serves as a complement to the others. Perfection, having both Torah and good deeds, "taste" and "aroma", cannot be an end in itself. The command was not to take only the "pri etz hadar" but all four species. Why?

Let me illustrate by way of a Hassidic tale, re-told by Shai Agnon, called " The Tzaddik’s Etrog":2

Rav Mikheleh, the Holy Maggid of Zloczow was very poor and his house was empty. Often he had nothing but a crust of bread, which he would stash in his hat, so that if some beggar should pass by he would not be ashamed [by not having anything to give], for he was so devoted to his Creator that he would completely neglect his own needs, and attended to the Shekhina alone, through Torah, prayer and good deeds….One year, on the eve of Sukkot, the Maggid’s wife approached him. (Now she was a compassionate woman who understood the soul of her righteous husband, and tried to spare him distractions). Nevertheless, she felt compelled to tell him the cupboard was bare and they had nothing to eat for the festive meal. He raised himself from his chair, and poked his head out from his tallit, placed his hand on his teffilin, and said, "You are worried about meat and fish, and I am worried about the etrog that I still don’t have." She kissed the mezuzah and left in despair.

He began ruminating to himself. I have nothing in the house to sell, but these tefillin. They’ll fetch a good price, since they were written by a holy man of God. The festival is approaching and I won’t need the teffilin for nine days, but the etrog I need for the week of Sukkot. He went to the Beit Midrash, and called out, "Who would like to buy my tefillin?" A man offered him a gold coin for them, and the tzaddik took the coin immediately and ran out to buy himself an etrog. He found a fine specimen, deemed it kosher and beautiful, hadar. He heard that its asking price was one gold coin. He did not haggle, reasoning, "A true tzaddik when he takes something for a mitzvah does not haggle, how much more so with respect to an etrog, as it says, ‘And take for yourselves [u’lakakhtem lakhem]…and rejoice in the presence of the Lord your God [u’samah’tem lefnei HaShem…]’ (Lev. 23:40)."

He returned home, happy with his etrog. His wife, hearing that he had returned from the market, came to his room. She saw the glow in his face and the ecstasy emanating from his entire being, and thought he must have bought them food for the festival. She asked him for the provisions so that she could prepare the meal, since it was only a few hours before sunset. But he explained that he had been privileged to buy an etrog instead. "And how could you afford an etrog?" she asked. "I sold my tefillin for a gold coin and bought one." She then asked him for the change. "They didn’t give me any change." He then began to expound on all the virtues of the etrog. She swallowed her tears and said, "I want to see this great find of yours." He unwrapped it, and took out the etrog. It radiated beauty and emitted its fragrance, a feast for the eyes and truly fit for the blessing (תאוה לעיניים ונמחד לברכה)

She reached out and picked up the etrog. And as she fondled it in her lap, she thought about the pitiful state of her house and the distress of her children who had nothing to eat, and how the festival of Sukkot was nearly here and she had nothing with which to make it joyous. Grief drove the strength from her hands and the etrog slipped and fell. And having fallen, its pitom broke. And thepitom having broken, the etrog was no longer kosher.

The Tzaddik saw that his etrog was now unfit for the blessing. He stretched out his two holy hands in despair and said, "Tefillin I have not, and etrog I have not; all I have left is anger. But I will not be angry, I will not be angry."

This is a very disturbing story but it comes to serve as a particular lesson about the seductions of the etrog if it stand on its own, as an end in itself, even if it is for the sake of fulfilling the mitzvah. The tzaddik allowed the command to "take for yourself a fruit of the goodly tree pri etz hadar…" to override, "and rejoice in the presence of God" (Lev. 23:40). He had spent what money he had on the purely aesthetic, the hidur mitzvah, sacrificing what he should have done to enhance the joy of his own family in the festive meal. In fact, he had committed the same sin as Eve had, in partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; he had allowed thesight of the etrog to seduce him. The external, the principal of hidur mitzvah, came to overwhelm the internal principal, of radiance from within. It was a beautiful fruit but, alone, its perfection was bound to be spoiled. The etrog should have served as a compliment to others, the palm leaves, willow and myrtle, just as the tzaddik should have enhanced the lives of those around him, who may have lacked Torah and goods deeds; together they might have rejoiced in the presence of God.

This Sukkot I would like to bless you all, with the hope that you find the most beautiful etrog, but use its perfection to complement others. Find within yourselves the inner beauty that radiates outward, bringing together all of Am Yisrael. Hag Sameah!


1 Lev. 19:32 מפני שיבה תקום והדרת פני זקן, Ex. 23:3 ודל לא תהדר בריבו, Lev. 19:15 לא תהדר פני גדול, Eicha 5:12 פני שקנים לא נהדרו, Prov. 25:6: אל תתהדר לפני מלך ובמקום גדולים לא תעמוד.

2 I present, here, a paraphrase of the story: "The Tzaddik’s Etrog" by Shai Agnon in "A Book that was Lost and Other Stories", ed. Alan Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman, Schocken Books, New York, 1995.

"אתרוג של אותו צדיק", עגנון, ש"י, האש והעצים, הוצאת שוקן, ירושלים תל אביב, תשנ"ח (1998), עמ' 96-98.