On the week of Sukkot we are commanded to live (eat our meals, spend our free time and sleep) in the Sukkah for seven days. We also take the four species which are the etrog, the willow branch, palm branch and myrtle branch.
Three of these four are mentioned explicitly in the Torah (Leviticus 23) while the etrog is referred to obliquely as "pri eitz hadar" (translated as a citrus fruit, "the fruit of a beautiful tree" or "the beautiful fruit of a tree").
This seemingly incidental fact is, in reality, 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 God. Moses then transmitted them to the Israelites, who then handed them 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 etrog bears witness to the antiquity of the Oral Law. Only through the Oral Law do we know that the Torah's words "pri eitz hadar" refer to the etrog. Well, you say, maybe that interpretation was a relatively recent idea (only 2,000 years ago, during the time of the Talmud and not 3,300 year ago, at 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 etrog as the fourth fruit. Jewish communities were far flung. Jews in China go back thousands of years, as well as those in Afghanistan and in Yemen. These communities had no communication between them and no way to know what other Jews understood as "pri eitz hadar." If any community understood the words "pri 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 etrog. 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, God had told Moses (in the Oral Law) that the fruit referred to here is an etrog.
Let us now look at the verse in Leviticus which mentions the "pri eitz hadar."
"And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree (pri 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 God, 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 parshat Bereishit (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 God's command to make trees whose wood and fruit tasted the same, and the earth was punished because of this.
So how does Rashi say here (based on the Talmud - Sukkah 35a) that the wood and fruit of the etrog have the same taste?
Another Question: Do the wood and the etrog 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 etrog 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 etrog its special taste are also contained within its wood. Another view is that the very young, and still soft, green branches of the etrog tree do have a similar taste to that of the etrog fruit.
As we said, the questions were difficult and the answers may not be as satisfying as the aromatic smell of the etrog; this only means that there's still an opportunity for others to try to explain this Rashi comment.
Shabbat Shalom and
best wishes for a Chag Somayach,