Friday, February 3, 2012

Isn't it great when you might be wrong?

I have a particular interest in this story from today's Haaretz:

Jerusalem dig uncovers earliest evidence of local cultivation of etrogs - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

For a number of years it has bothered me that Rabbinic tradition says that the Torah refers to the etrog (citron fruit) specifically (in Vayikra 23) when it explains the mitzva of the four species on Sukkot. For example, Maimonides says:
ב "פרי עץ הדר" (ויקרא כג,מ) האמור בתורה, הוא אתרוג.
"The fruit of a beautiful tree" referred to in the Torah is the citron fruit.
The entire article is worth reading, but the part relevant to my problem is:
Most of the plants were wild, but in one layer of plaster, apparently from the Persian period (the era of the Jewish return from the Babylonian exile in 538 B.C.E. ) they found pollen from ornamental species and fruit trees, some of which came from distant lands.
The find that most excited the scholars was pollen from etrogs, or citrons, a fruit that originated in India. This is the earliest botanical evidence of citrons in the country.
Scholars believe the citron came here via Persia, and that its Hebrew name, etrog, preserves the Persian name for the fruit - turung. They also say royal cultivation of the exotic newcomer was a means of advertising the king's power and capabilities.
The garden at Ramat Rachel is also the first place in the country to yield evidence of the cultivation of myrtle and willow - two more of the four species used in Sukkot rituals.

See the problem? If etrogim, according to the evidence, only arrived in Israel during the second temple period, than the Torah couldn't have meant them hundreds of years before the first temple was built! This would mean that the Rabbis were in error. Admittedly, this would not amount to faith shaking heresy, just an interesting trivial point. But still. At least I thought it was interesting. I've basically assumed for years that the Rabbis were wrong.


In fishing around after reading today's article, I found out something new. (for me) There is some evidence that the etrog had travelled to Egypt sometime before most assumed dates for the Exodus story. While no actual physical remains of etrogim have been found, images of what appear to be citrons on the walls of the Temple of Karnak have! Apparently they appear in the Akh-Menou hall from the time of Thutmose III, which would date it to the 15th century B.C.E. That would be well early enough for Moshe and his contemporaries to be familiar with them. There may even be images there of my favorite kind of Etrog, the many fingered Buddha's hand citron!

I know not everyone agrees, but I think these things are gorgeous. 

So there is some circumstantial evidence that the Torah could possibly have meant the etrog, and that the Rabbinic tradition is true. Of course, there are still questions. For example, the hebrews would then have had to bring loads of them into Canaan, and there should be some evidence of that.

But its still nice to see that the answer to my question was not as simple as I had originally thought. I just love it when things are more complicated than I thought, and there is so much more to figure out! Now I just have to convince my high school students to share that attitude.