The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

for the week ending of 24 September 2022/ 28 Elul 5782

The Beautiful Citron

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

The Beautiful Citron

The Torah (Lev. 23:4) commands that on the first day of Sukkot one must take Four Species, including something deemed a pri eitz hadar (translated as “a beautiful fruit of a tree” or “a fruit of a beautiful tree”). As we will explain in this essay, this term refers to the citron fruit, also known more technically as the Citrus medica. Besides hadar, other Hebrew/Aramaic terms that refer to this fruit include etrog, etronga, trunga, and tapuach. In this essay, we will examine these various synonyms for the citron and show how they differ from one another.

The best outside confirmation we have of the citron identification is archeological evidence from the Royal Garden in Ramat Rachel (southern Jerusalem), where archeologists analyzed fossilized pollen that proves that citron trees already grew in the Holy Land in the time of the Persian rule (that is, during the Babylonian Exile and the early decades of the Second Temple period). Dr. Zohar Amar (of Bar Ilan University) clarifies that the fact that scholars have not yet found any evidence that citrons grew in the Holy Land before the Persian Period does not prove that it was only imported then, because the sporadic nature of Archaeobotany cannot give us a complete picture of the Holy Land’s entire floral oeuvre.

Moreover, according to one Tannaic opinion, the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge refers to a citron (see Bereishit Rabbah §15:7, Brachot 40a). About that fruit, the Torah says, “the woman [Eve] saw that the tree is good for eating, and that it is enticing for the eyes...” (Gen. 3:6). Rabbi David Kochavi of Estelle (who in the 1300’s in Provencal France) infers from this passage that the fruit in question only looks like it tastes good, but in practice the fruit has very little flesh to it—an apt description of the citron.

Despite all of this, it remains true that the word hadar in Biblical Hebrew literally means “glory/beauty.” So, simply referring to a fruit or fruit-tree as hadar is ambiguous and tells us nothing about which fruit is being referenced. How then do we know that the phrase pri eitz hadar refers specifically to the citron? [For a discussion of hadar as “beauty” and “returning,” see my earlier essays “The Beauty of Adar” (Feb. 2018) and “Return to Sender” (Oct. 2019).]

The rabbis (Talmud Bavli Sukkah 35a, Talmud Yerushalmi Sukkah 3:5, Sifra to Lev. 23:40) offer several avenues for explaining this:

  • The first explanation uses the textual ambiguity of Lev. 23:40 to presume that the fruit in question must come from a tree that tastes like the fruit, such that the adjective hadar modifies both the fruit and the tree. Accordingly, since the citron fruit somehow tastes like the citron tree, it must be referring to the citron.

  • Alternatively, the Talmud interprets hadar as related to the Hebrew word dir (“corral”), which appears several times in the Mishnah (Eruvin 2:3, 4:1, Shekalim 6:1, Bava Kamma 6:1, Eduyot 8:5, Bechorot 1:4, 9:4, 9:7). According to this explanation, just as animals within a corral reflect a certain degree of diversity (because some are big, some are small, some are unblemished, and some are unblemished), so do the fruits on the hadar tree reflect such diversity, because small citrons often begin to blossom while large citrons are already sitting on the same tree.

  • Some rabbis read the letter HEY of hadar as the definite article (“the”), parsing the word as ha’dar (“the one that dwells”) — an allusion to the citron, whose development takes a long time and “dwells” on the tree from one year to another.

  • Finally, the Talmud interprets hadar as related to the Greek word hydro (“water”), explaining it as a reference to the citron tree which requires extra water in order to flourish.

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah §30:15, Midrash Tanchuma Emor §20) relates that King Solomon, despite all his superlative wisdom, was unable to explain how pri eitz hadar refers to the citron, without simply appealing to a tradition passed down through the sages.

Indeed, Ibn Ezra (to Lev. 23:4) explains that the rabbis knew via the tradition of the Oral Torah that the term hadar is a reference to the citron, even if the literal meaning of the word does not necessarily have anything to do with the citron. Moreover, notes Ibn Ezra, it is also true that the citron is the most beautiful fruit, so the appellation pri eitz hadar befits that fruit in particular. Maimonides echoes both of Ibn Ezra’s points, writing in the introduction to his commentary to the Mishnah that the meaning of pri eitz hadar as citron stems from a undisputed Mosaic tradition, and writing in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:43) that the citron is the most beautiful fruit. Both Ibn Ezra and Maimonides also note that all these exegeses aimed at proving that hadar refers to the citron are simply exegetical allusions, but do not engage with the literal plane of explication.

In Modern Hebrew, the term hadar was redefined to refer to the entire citrus genus, that includes all sorts of citrus fruits (like oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes, tangerines, pomelos, kumquats, mandarins, clementines, and more). The closest fruit to the citron is known as Buddha's Hand because of its shape resembles fingers protruding from a hand. Interestingly, Rabbi Avraham Yishaya Karelitz (1878–1953) in Chazon Ish discusses whether Halacha recognizes all these citrus fruits as related to each other when it comes to the prohibition of intermixing different species.

The Hebrew word etrog appears multiple times in the Mishnah (Maasrot 1:4, Bikkurim 2:6, Sukkah 3:4–7, 4:7, 4:9, and Meilah 6:4) and is used by Targum Onkelos (to Lev. 23:40) in translating the Biblical phrase pri eitz hadar into Aramaic. But in other rabbinic sources, the Aramaic word for the “citron” is something slightly different: trunga (see Yerushalmi Sukkah 3:10, Gittin 2:3) or trugin (Targum Yonatan and Targum Neofiti to Lev. 23:40).

The Talmud (Kiddushin 70a) relates a humorous anecdote in which the Amoraic sage Rav Nachman once offered his colleague Rav Yehuda to eat a citron, using the word etronga in his speech. Rav Yehuda replied by citing the early Amoraic sage Shmuel who said that anybody who uses the word etronga ought to be suspected of haughtiness, and instead one should use either the word etrog (like the rabbis) or etroga (like the plebs). All of these sources spell the word in question with a TAV (hence, the Ashkenazi pronunciation esrog), but the Peshitta (to Lev. 23:40), which is a translation of the Bible into Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic) spells the word with a TET. This variant spelling suggests that perhaps etrog and its related variants are not native Hebrew words (or that the authors of the Peshitta did not know how to spell).

According to linguist Dr. Michael Sokoloff (from Bar Ilan University), all these different variations are actually related to the Modern Persian word turunj/toranj and the Middle Persian word wadrang. These Persian words, in turn, seem to be related to the Sanskrit word narangam (“orange”), although the actual Sanskrit word for “citron” is matulunga. Interestingly, the Sanskrit narangam begat the Persian/Arabic word naranj, which is the etymon of the Spanish naranja, Portuguese laranja, and the English and French orange. It also seems to be related to the Spanish toronja (“grapefruit”).

For those wondering, there are three main theories as to how naranj became orange in English. One theory argues that people confused the original word with the place-name Orange, a town in Provence (Southern France). Alternatively, linguist theorize a misdivision led to the creation of this word: people may mistakenly understood the n-sound at the beginning of norange to be part of the indefinite article (mistakenly understanding the term as "an orange"), and because of this mistake, that n-sound was eventually dropped, and the word became orange. A third theory argues that the formation of the English word orange was influenced by the French word or (“gold,” derived from the Latin aurum), on account of the fruit’s golden color. Either way, after the fruit started being called orange, its yellowish-reddish hue gave way to the English word orange for that color. After that, ironically, the famous House of Orange (whose descendants include the royal family of the Netherlands) adopted the color orange for their coat of arms.

By the way, I once thought that the word tangerine is related to the word orange by way of metathesis (because they mostly have the same consonants, but in a different order). However, after doing some basic research I found out that the name tangerine derives from the Moroccan port city Tangier, from where this variant of oranges were often imported to West.

Another interesting point is that Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews (Book XVII §10:7) and The War of the Jews (Book II §4:3) mentions a person named Athronges/Athrongeus, who helped lead the Jewish rebellion against the Romans. Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) sees this personal name as related to the Hebrew/Aramaic name for the citron.

Among the later commentators, there are two ways to explain the connection between the Biblical phrase pri eitz hadar and the rabbinic term etrog. One way involves finding semantic commonalty between the meaning of hadar and the meaning of etrog, while the other way appeals to the more esoteric notion of gematria (“numeric value”).

The first approach goes like this: It is customary for a groom to write in a marriage document that his bride may collect her Ketubah from “all the better arag of my property.” Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel (1140–1225), known as the Raavyah, explains that the word arag is an expression of "desirable," because Targum Onkelos (to Gen. 2:9, 3:6, Prov. 21:20) translates the word nechmad (and taavah in Deut. 5:18) as ragig, and arag is a cognate of that term.

Based on this, Nachmanides (1194–1270), who was Raavyah’s younger contemporary, adds that the word etrog is also a cognate ragig and arag, which leads him to explain that etrog can rightfully be translated as “the desirable fruit.” In light of this, Nachmanides argues that the term pri eitz hadar must refer to the etrog, because hadar and nechmad mean essentially the same thing.

Nachmanides even goes as far as to say that hadar is simply the Hebrew word for what is called etrog in Aramaic—making the two terms totally synonymous.

Parts of Nachmanides’ explanation are also cited by Rabbi Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona (1235–1300), Rabi Yom Tov Ashveli (1260–1330), Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249–1315), Rabbeinu Bachaya Ibn Chalava (1255–1340), Rabbi Shimon b. Tzemach Duran (1361–1444), Rabbi Moshe Mintz (1415–1480).

Parenthetically, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) and Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) trace various Hebrew words/roots to the core biliteral root REISH-GIMMEL (“ravishing/subduing/cancelling”), but they never think of relating the Mishnaic term etrog relates to that root.

The other way of connecting etrog to the Biblical phrase involves gematria: The Baal HaTurim (to Lev. 23:40) notes that the gematria of the Biblical phrase pri eitz hadar (=659) equals that of the word etrogim (=660). Rabbi Meir Mazuz similarly notes that the word trung (=659) also equals that phrase in gematria.

In Song of Songs (2:3), the Jews’ place amongst the other nations of the world is compared to a lone tapuach (typically translated as “apple”) growing in a forest. Rabbeinu Tam (1110–1171) explains that in this context, the word tapuach refers to a citron (see Tosafot to Shabbat 88a and Taanit 29b). Perhaps Rabbeinu Tam may have somehow understood this as related to the fact that in Old French (which was spoken in his time and place), the term for “orange” was pomme d'orenge (literally, “the apple of the orange”). That said, it is unclear whether Rabbeinu Tam means that all instances of tapuach in the Bible refer to the citron, or only that one verse. Besides that verse, tapuach as a fruit appears three more times in Song of Songs (8:5, 2:5, 7:9), twice more in the Bible (Joel 1:12, Prov. 25:11), several more times as the name of a Canaanite city that the Jews conquered (Josh. 12:17, 15:34, 17:8, 16:8), and once as the personal name of a descendant of Caleb (I Chon. 2:43).

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