The Origins of the Jewish Etrog

Tu BiShvat has come and gone. One of the customs of the day is to pray that one will find a beautiful etrog – a citron – to be used during the upcoming holiday of Sukkot, the feast of Tabernacles. The Torah commands us to take the fruit of a “tree of splendor” (Leviticus 23:40), together with the lulav and other items needed to fulfill the mitzvah of the “four species.” The Talmud (Succah 35a) defines this “tree of splendor”: One opinion is that the wood of this tree must taste like its fruit. Another opinion is that the tree grows new fruits while full-grown fruits are still attached to its branches. A third opinion is that the fruit must remain on the tree even into its second and third year. These criteria put the etrog in a class by itself.

When was the etrog first used by the Jewish people? This question has piqued the curiosity of many. For a believing Jew, the answer is obvious – the mitzvah of using the etrog on Sukkot was commanded to the Jews at Sinai, along with all the other mitzvot. However, some secular scholars maintain that the etrog tree – along with its name – reached the Land of Israel only during the Second Temple period, when it was brought to Greece from its native land, India, after the campaigns of Alexander the Great. Proponents of this theory believe that the national use of the etrog was implemented by Shimon Bar Kochva (132 C.E.-136 C.E.). As evidence, they cite the fact that Shimon minted a coin that featured a representation of an etrog. They rationalize that since this is one of the oldest representation of an etrog among Jewish artifacts that archeologists have found, and that since he was in a position of authority, it must be that he made the custom of using an etrog on Sukkot widespread. It should be noted that there were etrog coins minted earlier during the time of the Great Revolt (66 C.E.-70 C.E.), and both the Talmud and Josephus mention Alexander Yannai (103 B.C.E. – 76 B.C.E.) being pelted by Pharisee’s during a purposely botched water libation of the Sukkot Festival.

This assumption does not take in to account Jewish tradition, nor does it recognize older archeological evidence from Egypt. In 1891 archeologist Victor Loret found what appears to be etrogs depicted on the walls of a botanical garden in the Temple of Karnak, dated to the time of Pharaoh Thutmosis III (1479 B.C.E.-1425 B.C.E.), who, according to Josephus, was most likely the pharaoh of the Exodus.

This evidence found in the Temple of Karnak shows that it is altogether logical that the Jewish use of the etrog originated at Sinai, as Jewish tradition tells us.

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About The Torah Tour Guide

Yosef Back, a.k.a. “The Torah Tour Guide” has been a tour guide for over five years. Yosef seamlessly meshes together his yeshiva experience and his professional training to provide what he calls “Torah Tours”, which brings the Torah to life by experiencing the Land of Israel and thereby gaining an understanding of our traditions. He is thoroughly versed in Jewish history and sources relevant to the land of Israel, and has led numerous tours for institutions such as: Aish HaTorah, JLE, Hamercaz, PERI, Pisgah, Ohr Samayach Center Program, Beis Yaakov, and JEWEL. A graduate of the Ner Le’Elef Jewish Leadership Institute, Yosef received his rabbinical ordination from Yeshivas Aish HaTorah and from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg of Jerusalem. His study of Judaism sparked his interest in Biblical archaeology that finds expression in his work as a tour guide and in his upcoming book “Abrahams Shard: A Jewish Perspective on Biblical Archeology.” Originally from Los Angeles, Yosef moved to Israel in 2001 he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children.
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