Q. What is the meaning of the “goodly fruit” of Lev. 23:40? Does it really refer to the citron as the rabbis teach? I have friend who is a Horticulture at Southern Florida College, who doubts this association.
“The “etrog” of the Jews, used in the Feast of Tabernacles, is not mentioned in the Bible. It probably did not reach Palestine until after the time of Alexander the Great, and was not used by the Jews in fulfilling the prescriptions as given in Lev. 23:40. One historian, Immanuel Löwe stated that its use had been recorded from the time of Alexander Jannaeus (107-78 BCE).”
So, its use is quite old, but not nearly as old as the passage in Leviticus. Is he correct?
A. Great question. For those who are unfamiliar with the subject, here is the biblical verse in question:
“On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (Lev. 23.40)
Your scholarly friend is most likely correct. The association of the “goodly fruit” with the citron (Citrus medica) is of a relatively late origin. The Mishnah, the Talmud and Onkelos, as you know, assumes the citron is was one of four species of plants used in the Feast of Tabernacles. (TB Sukkah 35a) Josephus Ant. xiii.13.5  recorded that infuriated Jews threw citrons at Alexander Janneus while he served at the altar during this feast. A similar tradition is mentioned in the Tosefta of Tractate Sukkot 4:9;. The reference is probably to the Citrus medica var lageriformis Roem., which may have been imported from Babylon by returning exiles.
Interestingly, the word “etrog” is derived from the Persian word “torong”. Now in Hebrew, the prosthetic aleph is often added to many words to make it easier to pronounce. Y. Felix suggests that it may also come from the Sanskrit word “suranga,” meaning “beautifully colored.” The shrub-like citron tree is only about ten feet in height with thick, straggly branches. Although a native of India, the citron tree has been cultivated in ancient Judea for approximately 2200 years.
Contrarian traditions to the traditional rabbinical view of the above, can be clearly seen in the Book of Jubilees. . In chapter 16 of that book, Abraham is said to observe the very first Feast of Tabernacles at Beersheba. As part of his observance, he took “branches of leaves and willow from the stream …… branches of palm trees and fruit of good trees” (Jub. 16:30––31). Thus, the author of Jubilees understood at least one and perhaps two of the elements of the “four kinds” differently from rabbinic Judaism. The “citron” is conspicuous by its absence, being replaced by “fruit of good trees”
My good Karaite friend Chacham Avraham Qani, argues that the rabbinite interpretation is based on a grammatical misreading of the verse. Instead of translating the verse as the fruit of the “Hadar trees”, he translates it instead as “the produce of the majestic tree (for similar use of peri as produce, see Isa 3:10 Jer 17:10 21:14 32:19 Mic 7:13; Amos 6:12 passim) e.g., which is defined the verse i.e., “branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook.”
Any produce can be referred to as “pri”, leaves, fruits, vegetables, pri does not necessarily the seed-bearing part of the plant. That is one type, but not the only type. It is ironic in a sense that Chachm’s Quani’s explanation makes use of one of the rabbinical methods of interpretation, K’llal and preat a specific inference which is derived from a general inference. Majestic tree that is full of leaves which is used for s’chach. How could you cover a Sukkah with fruit. At any rate, from this perspective, the Torah actually speaks of the Three types ” minim,” and not “four” as is maintained by the rabbinical tradition. In addition, the verses in the Book of Nehemiah 8:15 ,also seem to suggest that these species were used for the construction of the Sukkah itself.
They found it written in the law prescribed by the LORD through Moses that the Israelites must dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month; and that they should have this proclamation made throughout their cities and in Jerusalem: “Go out into the hill country and bring in branches of olive trees, oleasters, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees, to make booths, as the law prescribes.” – Neh. 8:14-15
Whether this reading is any more compelling, I leave this to you to decide. Personally, I think once something is defined by Tradition, the identification of the “goodly fruit” becomes as if it were taught explicitly in the Torah. Traditions may not always be rational or even logical, but there is a degree of canonicity that must be respected by the faith community that embraces it.
Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel