Hebrew Voices #78 – Chinese Origin of the Sukkot Etrog

In this episode of Hebrew Voices, Chinese Origin of the Sukkot Etrog, Nehemia Gordon talks with ordained-rabbi Dr. David Moster about the "fruit" we are commanded to use on the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev 23:40). They discuss how the Citron or "Esrog" arrived in the Land of Israel in the Persian Period, how it played an important role in the rise of the Pharisees, and how it eventually became the distinctive symbol of Judaism - replacing God's holy name. Their conversation explores the Orthodox, Samaritan, and Karaite interpretations of Lev 23:40, its function in the Feast of Booths, and why a southeast Asian-Jewish fruit is a key ingredient in traditional Christmas cakes.

I look forward to reading your comments!

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Show Notes
Rabbi Dr. David Moster is the Founder and Director of The Institute of Biblical Culture, a non-profit organization that aims to provide the general public with an in-depth understanding of the Bible and its cultural world. Moster holds a PhD in Biblical Studies from Bar Ilan University, an MA in Ancient Israel from New York University, and Rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University. In addition to his publications in the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception, Moster is also the author of the book Etrog: How a Chinese Fruit Became a Jewish Symbol (2018).

Leviticus 23:40
Targum Leviticus 23:40
Deuteronomy 8:8
Nehemiah 8:8-15
Josephus, Antiquities 13:372 (13.13.5) "As to Alexander, his own people were seditious against him; for at a festival which was then celebrated, when he stood upon the altar, and was going to sacrifice, the nation rose upon him and pelted with citrons [which they then had in their hands, because] the laws of the Jews required that at the feast of tabernacles everyone should have branches of the palm tree and citron tree; which thing we have elsewhere related."
Mishnah, Sukkah 4:9
Isaiah 1:8
2 Maccabees 10:5-8
Guns, Germs, and Steel
Segment of a synagogue mosaic floor from Tiberias, 7th-8th century ce. with Greek inscription: ΠΡΟΚΛΟC ΚΡΙCΠΟΥ ΕΚΤΙCΕΝ (PROKLOS KRISPOU EKTISEN = "Proklos (son of) Krispos (= lat. Crispus) made (it)"). Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv, Israel.

22 thoughts on “Hebrew Voices #78 – Chinese Origin of the Sukkot Etrog

  1. Olive trees are a symbol of majesty, because kings get greased with olive oil. Yehvahs people will give honor to the king of kings. Sacharyah 4,11 Then answered I, and said unto him, What are these two olive trees upon the right side of the candlestick and upon the left side thereof? Revelation 11,4 These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.

  2. You mentioned citrus fruit from eastern asia. The word for orange in german is translated as “Apfelsine”. Apfelsine contains two words, apple and sine meaning China, in other words, oranges are apples from China.

  3. Sensational!

    We are listening to this in Israel (from Hawaii) on the eve of the 2nd day of Sukkot (Sept 26 2018) in Israel and had a big Citrus smile to our faces minute after minute, second after seconds while listing to this episode of Hebrew Voices.

    Excellent interview for the holiday! Chag Sukkot Semach!


  4. The olive tree would be a symbol of honor and majesty (in answer to Nehemia’s question) because, from it, comes oil used to anoint the King, as Yehovah commands,

  5. The beautiful tree could be the almond tree. Think of all the significance of the almond tree/branch within the Tanakh…. What branch ‘budded’ when placed in the ark? The almond branch 🙂 The branch/stick that was placed inside the ark in the Tabernacle…aka- the Sukkah of YHWH, was none other than an ALMOND branch. Chag Sameach!

  6. The Olive Tree is the source of the Oil used by The Most High Yehovah to anoint King Saul, King David, & The Future King of Israel The Anointed One who will walk for Yehovah.

    Olive Oil is also used to light the Alma that is to say The Holy of Holies in the Only One (echad) place on the face of the earth where Yehovah has chosen to place His name.

    And the Only One (echad) place on the face (panay) of the earth that He, Yehovah will accept a Offering of Clean Things written in the Torah.

    Olive Oil is a acceptable offering to Yehovah, once The 3rd. Temple is built we will be able to once again present olive oil to Yehovah.

  7. Though not the point of the passage, Yeshayahu chapter 1 demonstrates that the Sukkah has a purpose of watching over the crops in a field.

  8. I had to laugh when watching because I don’t think you realized that you were saying the name יהוה when reading the scripture. Rabbi Dr. David Moster, looked very uncomfortable at that time, but it could just be my perspective. Either way the name is being proclaimed as commanded!

    • I noticed that too. I know that Nehemia is always respectful of his guests and wouldn’t offend intentionally. However, it just comes out sometimes because Yehovah has written His name upon our hearts. Halleluyah!

  9. So interesting! I especially liked that example Nehemia brought of using the swamp land to grow citrus … quite a different take on the saying “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” more like “If you buy really expensive swamp land and are surrounded by enemies, grow lemons!”

  10. What a refreshing topic! It brought back fairly intense memories of my mother’s Christmas baking. For old-timers, at least, citron is the sine qua non ingredient for both “stoellen” and lebkuchen, along with candied orange and lemon peel for the former. I think Mom also included it in fruitcake, but I’m not a fan of that. In fact, I have never seen a fresh citron, only the candied bits.
    With regard to the oil, surely it is connected with the symbol of light from the temple’s menorah, and thus of the Holy Spirit, along with associations of Yahweh Jirah when he provided oil that did not fail or run out, both for one of the prophets and for the Maccabees (?). And this would have been pure olive oil, I’m pretty sure.
    There is a brief mention of grapeseed oil in the explanation of Nazirite vows. It is certainly possible that oil was expressed from pine needles, but neither of these would produce the vast quantities used in cooking,for sacrifices, and for lamps (although animal tallow was probably plentiful enough to use for lamps in homes). So what else could the oil tree have been but the olive tree?
    By the way, my mother’s name (and HER mother’s name) was Olive.

  11. Loved this one of the etrog. I had just learned that it was indeed a rabinacal tradition and not really a biblical..that the branches were to build the sukkah. About the olive branch….I think it is the symbol of peace and it was in biblical times the mane ingredient for making bread.
    I really enjoyed the enthusiasm you both had en the joy of learning together. Hope we get to hear more of both of you😁

  12. Why was the Olive tree important? Because a branch was brought to Noah by the dove he sent out. And so it is an important symbol of Shalom to this day.

  13. Yes the beautifil tree is the olive tree because of the oil with which you anoint the king–Moshiaj!
    We are awaiting for His coming, a glorious day saying baruj haba bshem Yehovah!

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