The incredible journey of etrog, a most religious fruit

Etrog: How a Chinese fruit became a Jewish symbol by David Moster 2018. Palgrave Pivot.

It is fair to say that Etrog: How a Chinese fruit became a Jewish symbol [hereafter referred to as Etrog] by Dr Rabbi David Moster is not a book I would have selected for scrutiny – unprompted. That’s not because it’s in any way inappropriate reading matter for a botanist (read on to see why it is appropriate…). It’s because, being listed by its publisher under the topic of ‘Judaism’, it would ordinarily have passed me by; that’s not a category of book titles on my ‘plant-and-people radar’. And that would have been a great shame. For, without doubt, Etrog is a quintessential plants-and-people tome. Indeed, it’s right up there with the likes of du Bois’ The Story of Soy, Harris’ Sunflowers, Grey’s Palm and Drori’s Around the World in 80 Trees. So, I am grateful to Etrog’s author for not only making me aware of the book’s existence (in view of my interests in matters of a plants and people nature), but also for giving me the opportunity to review it for the Annals of Botany blog site.

Simply put, Etrog tells the tale of a citrus fruit that has great significance to those of the Jewish faith and is particularly prominent in the Jewish harvest celebration known as Sukkot or the Feast of the Tabernacles, which takes place in late September.  But there is also a marked duality about Etrog. On the one hand it’s a very erudite, academic-focused study of Hebrew scriptural text (hence its publisher’s categorisation); on the other, it’s an exemplary exploration of the relevance and significance to humanity of the fruit of a tree (hence my ‘plants-and-people’ categorisation…).

And, even though one could argue that this slim volume – which is only 144 pages long – gets mired in the minutiae of the interpretation of arcane religious texts and the meaning of Hebrew phrases in one chapter, there is something rather special in witnessing the scholarly endeavours of one for whom this subject is a speciality, and being suitably impressed by his researches and conclusions. The remainder of Etrog is great plants-and-people story-telling.

What is the story of Etrog?

Etrog (or citron) (Citrus medica *) – a fruit that’s typically yellow or green in colour, ovoid, thick-peeled with little pulp, and ranging from the size of a lemon to a spectacular 5 kg – has achieved high status in Judaism. So much so that individual etrogs (etrogim in Hebrew) sell for as little as US$12 to over many thousands of dollars when used in the annual Jewish celebration of Sukkot (but have very little value once the feast is over – they’re generally not even eaten **).  The journey taken by this idiosyncratic member of the citrus family of flowering plants is the subject of Etrog. Originally, from the Yunnan area of China, the plant known as etrog was unknown to the Jews in the historical land of Israel until introduced there after the Persian conquest of that territory in 539 BCE.

But, once brought to Israel, so popular did the etrog become that ancient Hebrew Biblical texts have been (re)interpreted in terms of the etrog being the botanical that was intended by a particular phrase in Leviticus [a book of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament], and which relates to the Jewish feast of Sukkot. That this is at best an ‘optimistic’ – at worst a ’forced and flawed’ – interpretation is pointed out by Moster who reminds us that the Jewish people had no knowledge of etrog until centuries after the text in Leviticus was penned. But, because of etrog’s religious significance, a major part of Etrog is devoted to the correct interpretation of the three word phrase peri ‘eṣ hadar (Leviticus 23:40).

Etrog is in part a detective story…

Accordingly, Chapter 3 is a very serious examination of the meaning of the Hebrew phrase peri ‘eṣ hadar, which text concerns the celebration of the feast of Sukkot. Although this may seem like a rather dull and abstract consideration, correct interpretation of those three words is key to unlocking which botanical item is intended and subsequently looms large in the Jewish celebration of Sukkot. Chapter 3 is therefore devoted to Moster’s forensically detailed investigation of that ‘three noun construct chain’, and his conclusion [spoiler alert!] that it means ‘beautiful’ or ‘choice tree-fruit’. It’s therefore neither poplar nor cedar cone ***, nor any specific fruit, all of which interpretations have previously been proposed by other scholars and interested parties. In building his case, Moster’s evidence draws upon “a statistical analysis of biblical Hebrew grammar, the agricultural context of Leviticus 23, and the difficulties with the other interpretations”. This most academic part of Etrog is a fascinating piece of linguistic scholarship that includes Hebrew Biblical texts, ancient Jewish texts, the Septaguint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible ****), Theophrastus’ Enquiry into Plants, the Aramaic language, The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, Sanskrit, and the Middle Persian word for etrog.

Does this matter? Isn’t this just a dull, ponderous academic section? Yes, it does matter, and far from being ‘dull’ and uninteresting, Chapter 3 is important, and actually reminiscent of a detective story. Furthermore, it’s a tale that illustrates very well the problems and issues inherent in interpretation of ancient texts. It therefore makes an important point that has relevance further and wider than the restricted phytoreligious context of Etrog: Even though something is written down – and the author may have been clear what s/he intended, it will always be open to interpretation by others, especially hundreds of years later. But this problem is not restricted to ancient writings, otherwise why would lawyers continue to make a good living about alternative interpretations of legal statutes penned but a short time ago? Having demystified that ancient text, which doesn’t specifically refer to etrog, how is it that etrog is so uniquely associated with the feast of Sukkot? Why, out of all the candidate fruits of the land of Israel at harvest time (e.g. grapes, olives, figs, dates, pomegranates…), has etrog been accorded such privileged status? And what justifies this exalted association with Sukkot?

Why does etrog – of all the fruits of Israel – get such special status?

Moster suggests it’s largely down to etrog’s ‘differentness’. Unknown in Israel, until introduced there by the Persian invaders in the 6th century BCE, when it was associated with the powerful ruling class, it has the cachet of being rare, privileged and mysterious. Furthermore, etrog was one of the very few symbols not ‘appropriated’ by other religious groups such as the Samaritans: Etrog therefore is, and remains, uniquely Jewish. Increasingly, during the Byzantine and Roman Period (70 – 636/7 CE *****), etrog became specifically associated with the feast of Sukkot as the choicest of choice tree-fruits. This represents a remarkable elevation for – and highly significant cultural ‘adoption’ of – a botanical that began its journey 6500 km away as a rather humble and unremarkable fruit, amongst many other – and arguably more remarkable – citrus fruits, in China several centuries earlier.

I cannot assess how compelling is Moster’s ‘forensic linguistics’ case in respect of his Hebrew textual analysis and interpretation. But, that doesn’t really matter; that’s not the major point of the book as far as I’m concerned. What is more important is the fascinating human insights into this seemingly unlikely member of the citrus family – which was previously unknown to me – that the book provides. For that reason Etrog is another text to add to the growing 2018/19 reading list for my Plants and People module. What a golden summer of ‘humanitarian botany’ reading 2018 has turned out to be.

Summary

As the author tells us, this book is “the culmination of years of ritualistic, agricultural, and grammatical/historical fascination”. Declaredly, Etrog is a product of one man’s obsession. But, how refreshing (which is rather apt given its citrus subject matter) to have such an insight into the mind of a true enthusiast and to be able to recommend this book to all who are interested in humans and their plant associations.

Etrog is in part Moster’s detailed interpretation of the meaning of three words of Hebrew text that appear in Leviticus. Etrog is also the story of how a particular botanical entity has become intimately associated with the religion of Judaism over the course of hundreds of years. It’s therefore an example par excellence of what plants-and-people scholarship is all about. Thank you, Rabbi Moster!

* The specific epithet medica refers to the plant’s connection with the area of Media in the ancient Persian Empire, and reflects the Greek spelling of that place. Contrary to what one might have presumed, it has nothing to do with any medical uses or associations of the fruit (e.g. Navnidhi Chhikara et al., Citrus medica: nutritional, phytochemical composition and health benefits – a review, Food and Function 9(4): 1978-1992, 2018. doi: 10.1039/c7fo02035j).

** Although etrog does have a long history of gastronomic uses (e.g. Jean-Paul Brigand and Peter Nahon, Gastronomy and the citron tree (Citrus medica L.), International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science 3: 12-16, 2016; doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijgfs.2016.03.001).

*** One here has to point out that the cone shown in Fig. 3.10 looks remarkably like pine to me, but is labelled as cedar. One trusts that this gymnosperm naming issue is an uncharacteristic ‘blip’ and doesn’t undermine the botanical – angiosperm… – credibility of the rest of the book.

**** Moster explains that the Septaguint is the creation of 72 rabbis, hence its name, which means 70 in Greek.

***** Why here shown ending in 636 or 637 CE? Because there is an unfortunate inconsistency in the end date for this period in Etrog, it’s 637 CE on p. 106 and 636 CE on p. 108. For completeness, I should add that the only ‘typo’ I found in the entirety of Etrog was Nehemniah (in the footnote at the bottom of p. 52), which presumably should be Nehemiah.