by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek
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On the week of Succos we are commanded to live (eat our meals spend our free time & sleep) in the Succah for seven days. We also take the four species which are the Esrog, the Willow branch, Palm branch & Myrtle branch.
Three of these four are mentioned explicitly in the Torah (Leviticus 23) while the Esrog is referred to obliquely as "Pre eitz hadar" (translated as a citrus fruit or "the fruit of a beautiful tree" "the beautiful fruit of a tree").
This seemingly incidental fact is, in fact, an amazing testimony to the antiquity and robustness of the Oral Law (Laws not written in the Written Torah but derived from its words by the Talmudic Rabbis).
Skeptics (sometimes mistakenly referred to as "scholars") have claimed that the Oral law was a latter invention of the Rabbis. The Orthodox view is that the Oral laws were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai by G-d. Moses then transmitted them to the Israelites which were then handed down from generation to generation. The Talmudic Rabbis, more than a thousand years later were the ones who discovered and recorded the Scriptural basis for these laws, but they did not "invent" them. Who is right? The skeptics or the Rabbis?
The Estrog bears witness to the antiquity of the Oral law. Only through the Oral law do we know that the Torah's words "Pre eitz hadar" refer to the Esrog. Well, you say, maybe that interpretation was a relatively recent idea (only 2000 years ago, the time of the Talmud and not 3,300 year ago, the time of receiving the Torah at Sinai! ). The proof that it was an ancient idea long before the Talmud comes from the fact that no Jewish community anywhere in the world has a different fruit than the Esrog as the fourth fruit. Jewish communities were far flung. Jews in China go back thousands of years and in Afghanistan and in Yemen. These communities had no communication between them and no way to know what other Jews understood as "Pre eitz hadar". If any community understood the words "Pre eitz hadar" to mean any other fruit, we would have expected that to be known by the time of the Talmud. But there is no other tradition or history of any other community ever having used any other fruit. We would have expected to see at least one Jewish community or tradition using that fruit and not the Esrog. But there has not been any competing fruit over the thousands of years that have passed since Sinai. This fact testifies to the existence and sturdiness of the Oral law from earliest times. As far back as Sinai G-d had told Moses (in the Oral Law) that the fruit referred to here is an Esrog.
Let us now look at the verse in Leviticus which mentions the "Pre eitz hadar."
Leviticus 23: 40
And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree ("Pre eitz hadar"), and branches of palm-trees and bough of the avos tree and willows of the brook and you shall rejoice before Hashem, your G-d, seven days.
The fruit of a beautiful tree: Rashi: a tree, whose wood and fruit have the same taste.
Some questions should come to mind as you read this comment. One question is that this comment seems to contradict a previous Rashi-comment. The other question comes from common sense.
Some questions: In parashas Bereishis (Genesis 1:11) Rashi says that in the week of Creation the earth was commanded to make trees whose wood and fruit have the same taste. But they didn't follow G-d's command to make trees whose wood & fruit tasted the same, and the earth was punished because of this.
So how does Rashi say here (based on the Talmud: Succah 35a) that the wood and fruit of the Esrog have the same taste?
Another Question: Do the wood and the Esrog fruit actually taste the same? Not really! What does Rashi mean when he says that they do?
Difficult questions, certainly.
Can you suggest answers?
An Answer: Some explain the contradiction by saying "there is an exception to every rule." So while most trees do not have their wood tasting like their fruit, the Esrog tree is an exception and it does have this unusual quality.
Regarding the second, factual, question, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the chemical essences that give the Esrog its special taste are also contained within its wood. Another view is that the very young and still soft, green branches of the Esrog tree do have a similar taste to that of the Esrog fruit.
As we said, the questions were difficult and the answers may not be as satisfying as the aromatic smell of the Esrog; this only means that there's still an opportunity for others to try to explain this Rashi comment.
Best wishes for a Chag Somayach.
"What's Bothering Rashi?" is produced by the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. The five volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" is available at all Judaica bookstores.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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