The Citron’s Journey from China to Israel, Where It Became an Integral Part of the Sukkot Holiday

Sept. 21 2018

The book of Leviticus commands that the fall festival of Sukkot, which begins Sunday night, should be celebrated by taking palm, myrtle, and willow branches along with a pri ets hadar—usually translated as the “fruit of goodly trees”—and “rejoicing before the Lord.” By the 1st century CE, most Jews seem to have accepted that the fourth, ambiguous item was a citron (an etrog in Hebrew), which is used in the Sukkot ritual to this day. Rachel Scheinerman presents a brief history of this fruit, which was the first in the citrus family to make the journey from eastern to western Asia:

The etrog is indigenous not to the Land of Israel but to China. Several millennia ago it grew most abundantly in Yunnan, a southwestern Chinese province, where it is still used, to this day, in traditional Chinese medicine. . . . From there, it traveled to northeastern India and westward across the subcontinent, . . . and became a component of traditional Ayurvedic medicines used to treat everything from stomach complaints to hemorrhoids to infertility. One of the Buddhist gods, Jambhala (the etrog was sometimes called jambhila), was often depicted holding an etrog as a symbol of fertility because of its high density of seeds. (One is reminded of the medieval Ashkenazi custom for a pregnant woman to bite off the tip of the etrog at the end of the holiday.)

When Darius I conquered India in 518 BCE, the fruit spread to Persia. Now it was called wādrang, which seems to be the linguistic precursor to the Aramaic word etrog (and also the English word orange). . . . [T]he etrog was regarded in Persia as a prized exotic species and carried from province to province. Throughout their vast empire, [which included the Land of Israel], the Persians built royal outposts bedizened with generously irrigated ornamental gardens called pairidaeza or “paradises.” . . .

One of these paradises was constructed after the Babylonian exile and before the conquests of Alexander the Great—that is, sometime between 538 BCE and 332 BCE—in Ramat Raḥel, which sits on the outskirts of present-day Jerusalem and is today home to a kibbutz. Archaeologists have recently positively identified (based on an analysis of fossilized pollen trapped in the plaster of one of its pools) the presence of eleven native and foreign species in that paradise, including the etrog. . . .

Once Leviticus 23:40 was understood by Jews as a description . . . of three bound boughs, known collectively as a lulav, and an etrog, this combination became an important Jewish symbol—alongside other symbols of Temple ritual like the menorah, shofar, firepan, and ark—found on synagogue walls, coins, and tombstones. In fact, the presence of a lulav-and-etrog icon signals to archaeologists that an ancient synagogue is Jewish rather than Samaritan, [since] the Samaritans [interpret the verse differently] and therefore have not incorporated this symbol.

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More about: Ancient Persia, China, Etrog, History & Ideas, Leviticus, Religion & Holidays

For Israelis, Anti-Zionism Kills

Dec. 14 2018

This week alone, anti-Zionists have killed multiple Israelis in a series of attacks; these follow the revelations that Hizballah succeeded in digging multiple attack tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel. Simultaneously, some recent news stories in the U.S. have occasioned pious reminders that anti-Zionism should not be conflated with anti-Semitism. Bret Stephens notes that it is anti-Zionists, not defenders of Israel, who do the most to blur that distinction:

Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way from, say, readers of the New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. . . . Anti-Zionism might have been a respectable point of view before 1948, when the question of Israel’s existence was in the future and up for debate. Today, anti-Zionism is a call for the elimination of a state—details to follow regarding the fate befalling those who currently live in it. . . .

Anti-Zionism is ideologically unique in insisting that one state, and one state only, doesn’t just have to change. It has to go. By a coincidence that its adherents insist is entirely innocent, this happens to be the Jewish state, making anti-Zionists either the most disingenuous of ideologues or the most obtuse. When then-CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill called last month for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” and later claimed to be ignorant of what the slogan really meant, it was hard to tell in which category he fell.

Does this make someone with Hill’s views an anti-Semite? It’s like asking whether a person who believes in [the principle of] separate-but-equal must necessarily be a racist. In theory, no. In reality, another story. The typical aim of the anti-Semite is legal or social discrimination against some set of Jews. The explicit aim of the anti-Zionist is political or physical dispossession.

What’s worse: to be denied membership in a country club because you’re Jewish, or driven from your ancestral homeland and sovereign state for the same reason? If anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are meaningfully distinct (I think they are not), the human consequences of the latter are direr.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Palestinian terror