Lulav, etrog, hadassim and aravot are an indispensable part of the observance of the festival. All are fascinating, and the homiletical lessons we derive from them are legion.
Some Midrashim speak of their different shapes and conclude that though all Jews are different, they are all needed if there is to be a community.
Some compare them to parts of the body, to teach the lesson that the whole person has to work “in sync” in order to be physically and mentally healthy.
It is the etrog that always evoked the greatest emotion. To this day this is the most expensive and most minutely scrutinised plant of the four. Jews in the Diaspora often needed to import etrogim from elsewhere and communities would sometimes levy all their members in order to be able to acquire at least a few etrogim.
Ibn Ezra was convinced that “there exists no tree-fruit more beautiful than the etrog” (commentary on Lev. 23:40), and the Midrash was lyrical about its fragrance and edibility (Lev. R. 30).
It comes as a surprise, then, to learn what the Ramban (Nachmanides) tells us about etrogim. You see, when we take the four plants on Sukkot we can bind three of them – lulav, aravot and hadassim – together, but the shape of the etrog defies any attempt to bind it with the others.
Nachmanides, however, argues that the etrog is left out of the bundle and held separately because it needed to be shunned!
He derives the name etrog from a root in Aramaic which denotes passion and desire. He suggests the etrog was the fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the garden of Eden (popular thinking says they ate an apple, but the text says nothing about apples and merely speaks of fruit).
“The fruit of the hadar tree – the etrog – is the fruit which was the source of lust,” Nachmanides says.
“It was the cause of the sin of Adam and Eve. In it sin lurks, and atonement for that sin is provided by the other three of the Four Species. Now you will understand why the etrog is not bound with these three but is held separately, since it stands in opposition to them” (commentary on Lev. 23:40).
So is there any lesson for life that we can learn from this rather negative view of the etrog?
Surely this, that in a community there are righteous people and there are sinners. We can all help each other to overcome human defects and failings.