The Torah does not specify what fruit the etrog is or from what tree it is taken. The Torah only identifies what we call the etrog as “the fruit of a goodly tree” (Leviticus 23:40). The Jerusalem Talmud (Sukkot 3:5, 53c) offers two different identifications. Aqilas suggests that the Hebrew word “hadar” – translated as “goodly” – is the same as “hydor,” the Greek word for water. Hence, the Torah actually refers to a tree that grows by the water. While this identification is creative, it is not compelling. The tree from which the etrog develops need not grow by the water.
Rabbi Levi offers an alternative identification: one that is not based on a foreign language, but on Hebrew. The word “hadar,” according to Rabbi Levi, is not an adjective. Rather, it is a cognate word derived from the root “dar” meaning “to dwell.” The letter “heh” at the beginning of the word makes it an adverbial clause. Consequently, the phrase in which the word “hadar” appears ought to be translated as the fruit “which remains in the tree from year to year.” In other words, what makes the etrog the paradigm of what is good and beautiful is its constancy. RaShI makes a similar observation in his Torah commentary.
More than just a definition of the etrog, Rabbi Levi’s identification is actually a description of the value of religion. We live in a rapidly changing world. And this observation applies to morality as well as technology. Noble principles that were once universally accepted are now held in question. The notions of an objective right and wrong have been largely rejected in favor of situational or utilitarian ethics and even moral relativity. Some religions or religious groups have vainly tried to mirror society’s changing values. But the pace of change will make it difficult, if not impossible, to keep up. More importantly, thoughtful people are looking for a haven from the cataclysmic changes that affect every human domain. People are searching for stability and reliability: the characteristics symbolized by the etrog. What makes religion worthy is the same quality associated with the etrog, according to Rabbi Levi’s understanding.