On the first day [of Sukkot] you shall take a peri etz hadar, palm fronds, branches of leafy trees, and river willows, and you shall be happy before the Lord your God for seven days. (Leviticus 23:40)
The verse above directs one to take a peri etz hadar on Sukkot. There is a consensus in Rabbinic literature that peri etz hadar refers to the etrog, but how do we get from the actual words peri etz hadar to the etrog? Although the question might seem straightforward, there are actually multiple approaches to this question, as seen in disagreements about how to translate this phrase. There are two keys to understanding these differences that will guide us as we analyze Rabbinic texts from different time periods, different geographies, and different languages. I will offer my own interpretation at the end.
The first key is a grammatical ambiguity inherent to the phrase peri etz hadar. In Biblical Hebrew, there is no preposition corresponding to the English word “of.” The of-relationship is expressed by juxtaposing two nouns in what is called a construct chain in English, or semikhut in Hebrew. For example, when “fruit” (peri) is juxtaposed with “womb” (beten) we get “fruit of the womb” (peri beten). In some instances, three nouns are juxtaposed, such as our own “fruit” (peri) + “tree” (etz) + “beauty” (hadar). The ambiguity is whether the third noun (hadar) is modifying the first noun (peri) or the second noun (etz). If hadar modifies peri, the fruit is meant to be beautiful (“beautiful fruit from a tree”). If hadar modifies etz, the tree is meant to be beautiful (“fruit from a beautiful tree”). A similar phenomenon, albeit backwards, occurs in the English phrase “big etrog tree.” If the tree is meant to be big (a “big tree of etrogim”), one would expect a large tree with many etrogim on it. If the etrog is meant to be big (a “tree of big etrogim”), one would expect a tree with Yemenite etrogim, which can be larger than footballs and weigh more than ten pounds. Both scenarios match a “big etrog tree.”
The second key to understanding peri etz hadar in Rabbinic texts regards a historical-halakhic matter. Some aspects of Jewish life are so ancient and well-established it is difficult to imagine them not being biblical. The etrog is one of these cases. Everyone agrees the words peri etz hadar refer to the etrog, but do the they literally mean etrog? In other words, is the etrog mentioned explicitly in the Torah or is the identity of the fruit known from a tradition passed down from Moses on Sinai? Those who are content with it being a tradition translate hadar according to its plain-sense meaning as “beauty” or “majesty,” but those who are not content with it being a tradition translate it as “etrog.” Translating hadar as “etrog” makes the fruit just as biblical as the Sabbath, Passover, Menorah, etc.
We are now ready to analyze each and every interpretation in light of (1) the grammatical ambiguity of “hadar tree” versus “hadar fruit” and (2) the historical/halakhic matter of Sinai tradition versus Torah law. We will use the grammatical ambiguity as a framework for organizing these interpretations.
I. Hadar Tree
This approach understands the tree to be hadar but not the fruit. The Bavli attributes the following interpretation to Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, the redactor of the Mishnah:
Do not read the word hadar (beauty), rather read the word ha-dir (the animal pen). Just as an animal pen contains large and small ones, perfect and blemished, so too [the etrog tree has] large and small [fruit on it], perfect and blemished. (Sukkah 35a)
Rabbi Yehudah is pointing to a unique characteristic of the etrog tree, namely, the tree’s year-round production of fruit. Most trees produce their fruit all at once, meaning all the fruits are roughly the same size as they mature. The etrog tree, which is continually producing new fruit, has large and small fruits at the same time. This is like an animal pen, which has large animals together with their offspring. The emphasis of hadar/ha-dir is not on the fruit but on the tree, which is the “animal pen.” Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi’s understanding is “fruit of the hadar tree,” which he interprets midrashically to mean “fruit of the animal pen tree.”
This approach can also be found in Targumim such as Neofiti, Pseudo-Jonathan, and the Targum fragments from the Cairo Genizah. In these texts, peri etz hadar is translated into Aramaic as “fruits of a praiseworthy tree, etrogim” (peirei ilan mishabbah trugin). The word “praiseworthy” (mishabbah), which is singular, must be modifying “tree” (ilan), which is also singular. It cannot be modifying “fruits” (perei), which is in the plural. For these Targumim, the tree is praiseworthy (ilan mishabah), not the fruit.
This approach was taken by a number of subsequent interpreters. Saadia Gaon (882 – 942) translated peri etz hadar into Judeo-Arabic as “fruit of the etrog tree” (thamar shajar alatraj). For Saadia Gaon, the etrog tree (etz hadar) is mentioned by name in the Torah itself. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) interpreted etz hadar as “a tree whose external appearance and unique features distinguish it above others, a tree of exceptional beauty.” The tree is hadar, not the fruit. Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann (1843 – 1921), who had a PhD in Near Eastern languages, wrote: “Therefore, beyond any doubt, [the Rabbis] had an accepted tradition that the ‘beautiful tree’ (etz hadar) is the tree which is called etrog in Aramaic.” Again, the focus is on the tree. Rabbi Joseph Hertz (1872 – 1946), the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom from 1913-1946, took a tree-focused approach when he translated peri etz hadar as “fruit of goodly trees.” In 1981, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934 – 1983) translated peri etz hadar as “fruit of the citron tree,” and in 1996, the translators of the Artscroll Tanach did the same, translating peri etz hadar as the “fruit of a citron tree.” For these last two translations, the etrog tree (etz hadar) is not merely a tradition but is literally mentioned in the Torah.
II. Hadar Fruit
The second approach understands the fruit to be hadar but not the tree. According to Targum Onkelos (ca. 2nd to 5th centuries), the translation of peri etz hadar is “the fruits of the tree, etrogim” (perei ilana etrogin). Here Onkelos translates hadar as etrog, meaning the etrog is sourced biblically and not in an oral tradition. He also separates the tree (etz) from hadar by translating etz in the determined state (ilana). This means hadar is not modifying tree (etz) but is in apposition to peri. This grammatical nuance means the fruits are hadar but not the tree. The translation of peri etz hadar is “the fruits of the tree, etrogim” (peri ilana, etrogin).
This hadar-fruit approach was attributed to Ben Azzai (2nd century):
Hadar means “the dweller” [ha-dar] on its tree all year round. (Sifra, Emor to Leviticus 23:40; cf. B. Sukkah 35a, Y. Sukkah 3:5)
Ben Azzai is pointing to the same botanical trait as Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi above, that the etrog fruit stays on its tree all year round. Whereas Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi focused on the tree, Ben Azzai focuses entirely on the fruit, which is “the dweller.” Ben Azzai’s understanding of peri etz hadar is “hadar fruit that comes from a tree,” which he interprets midrashically to mean “the dweller fruit that comes from a tree.”
Vayikra Rabbah takes a similar approach when it discusses the wisdom of King Solomon:
[Solomon] was perplexed by the four species, as it says, “three things are beyond me… four I cannot fathom” (Proverbs 30:18). The [four] things that [Solomon] wished to understand were the four species of the lulav bundle. [He asked:] “peri etz hadar, who said that it is an etrog? All trees (ilanot) make beautiful fruit (perot hadar)!” (Leviticus Rabbah to 23:40)
By separating the “trees” (ilanot) from the “beautiful fruit” (perot hadar), this midrash is clarifying that the fruit is beautiful (perot hadar), not the tree. It also asserts that the plain-sense meaning of peri etz hadar has nothing to do with the etrog (“All trees make beautiful fruit!”). The etrog is associated with Leviticus 23:40 because of tradition alone.
More than a half millennium later, this approach would be taken by Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089 – 1167). According to Ibn Ezra,
We believe that the words of our sages do not contradict the words of the Bible… The sages passed down a tradition that peri etz hadar is the etrog, for in truth there is no tree-fruit (peri etz) more beautiful (hadar) than it.
Ibn Ezra introduces two ideas here. First, he clarifies that the etrog is a tradition as opposed to the plain-sense meaning of the biblical text. Second, by separating the word tree (etz) from the word beautiful (hadar), Ibn Ezra is disambiguating the original Hebrew. The tree-fruit (peri etz) is beautiful, not the tree itself. Ibn Ezra’s translation would be “beautiful tree-fruit,” or “beautiful fruit from a tree.”
III. Hadar fruit and hadar tree
There is a group of commentators that did not choose between hadar fruit or hadar tree. For these commentators both were hadar. According to the Yerushalmi, Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai (2nd century) took this approach.
“And you shall take for yourselves peri etz hadar.” This refers to a tree whose fruit is hadar and whose tree is hadar. The taste of its fruit is like the taste of its tree. The taste of its tree is like the taste of its fruit. Its fruit is similar to its tree. Its tree is similar to its fruit. And what is this? This is the etrog. (Yerushalmi Sukkah 3:5)
Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai equates the fruit (peri) with its tree (etz) five times in this brief passage. Both the fruit and the tree are hadar. The syntax underlying this interpretation is “hadar fruit from a hadar tree” (peri hadar from an etz hadar).
Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, 1194 – 1270) took a similar approach by translating hadar as etrog.
It appears to me that the tree called etrog in Aramaic is called hadar in Hebrew… the tree and the fruit are called by the same name, as is the custom with the majority of fruits such as the fig, the nut, the pomegranate, the olive, etc., and so both the tree and the fruit are called etrog in Aramaic and hadar in Hebrew.
As a proper noun meaning etrog, hadar has the ability to modify both the tree, which is called hadar, and the fruit, which is called hadar. Ramban’s interpretation is “hadar fruit from a hadar tree,” or better, “etrog fruit from an etrog tree.” Like Targum Onkelos and Saadia Gaon, Ramban views the etrog identification as Scriptural as opposed to being a tradition from Sinai. As mentioned above, this approach was also taken by the much later Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and the translators of the Artscroll Tanach.
Two decisions are implicitly made in every Rabbinic interpretation of peri etz hadar. The first is whether the fruit is hadar, the tree is hadar, or if both are hadar. The second is whether the identification of hadar as the etrog stems from an oral tradition from Sinai or whether it is explicit in the biblical text. If it is an oral tradition, then hadar means “beauty,” but if it is explicit in the text, then hadar means “etrog.”
How would I interpret peri etz hadar? Like Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra. That is, the etrog is a Rabbinic tradition and peri etz hadar means “beautiful fruit (peri hadar) from a tree (etz),” or “tree-fruit (peri etz) that is beautiful (hadar).” These two translations, which are identical in meaning, emphasize that the fruit is beautiful, not the tree. Although Ibn Ezra never mentioned it, there is evidence for translating this way. The phrase peri etz exists individually in Biblical Hebrew and means “tree-fruit.” Tree-fruit is mentioned on the sixth day of creation (Genesis 1:29), in the Egyptian plague of locusts (Exodus 10:15), in the laws of tithes (Leviticus 27:3), and in one of Ezekiel’s prophecies (Ezekiel 36:30). The very similar phrase peri kol etz, which means “all tree-fruit,” is attested to twice, in Nehemiah 10:36 and 10:38. Thus, peri etz “tree-fruit” is a unique and individual phrase.
Why is this important? There is another phrase that can shed light on our ambiguity. The term nega tzara’at, “leprosy affliction,” is a unique phrase that appears by itself thirteen times in the Bible. When a third noun is added, such as beged /garment in Leviticus 13:59, we arrive at the same ambiguity as peri etz hadar. Does beged modify nega or does it modify tzara’at? Luckily, another verse, Leviticus 13:47, disambiguates for us: “a garment (beged) that has a leprosy affliction (nega tzara’at).” The phrase nega tzara’at stays intact. There are other examples of this phenomenon (e.g., shemen-mishhat kodesh and berit-melah olam), but what is important for us is that peri etz “tree-fruit” is to remain intact. The interpretation is “beautiful fruit (peri hadar) from a tree (etz),” which can also be written as “tree-fruit (peri etz) that is beautiful (hadar).” The tree-fruit is beautiful, not the tree itself.
This grammatical interpretation is bolstered by the context of Leviticus 23, which ties the annual festivals to the agricultural cycle. The omer ritual marks the beginning of the barley harvest at Passover time; the two loaves are offered on Shavuot to commemorate the end of the wheat harvest; and Leviticus 23 even contains harvesting laws such as peah, “the corner,” and leket, “gleanings” (v. 22). Sukkot is also tied to agriculture, taking place “when you have gathered in the bounty of your land” (v. 39). The holiday is elsewhere called the “festival of ingathering” (Exodus 23:16; 34:22). What “bounty” was “gathered in” during the seventh Hebrew month, which correlates to our September and October? Tree-fruit. At the time of Sukkot, the grapes, figs, dates, and pomegranates were either ripe for harvest or already harvested, and the olive harvest was just beginning. These ripe tree-fruits were most likely the peri etz hadar of Leviticus 23:40. While this interpretation is what I consider the plain-sense meaning of the text (pshat), an ancient tradition says otherwise. As Ibn Ezra put it, “The sages passed down a tradition that peri etz hadar is the etrog, for in truth there is no tree-fruit (peri etz) more beautiful (hadar) than it.”