Accoding to the Torah (Leviticus 23:40), the rituals of Sukkot include “taking” the fruit of a beautiful tree. What, exactly, fits this terse description is subject to dispute. Tradition maintains that the fruit in question is the citron, what the rabbis call “etrog.” According to Ben Azzai, the Greek word for water is “iddur” which alludes to the word “hadar” in the scriptural description of the fruit. The etrog is the only fruit of a tree that grows near the water.
But that was not the opinion of Rabbi Meir (Sukkah 35a). From a deduction based on similarity of words in two verses, Rabbi Meir concludes that the Torah intends that the fruit and the trunk of the tree must have the same taste. In that case, what the Torah has in mind is the pepper tree.
The gemara, however, rejects this outcome on the grounds that it is impractical. The fruit of the pepper tree are peppercorns, which are small. The performance of the mitzvah requires using items that have an impact on the observer. Peppercorns would be unnoticeable. And using two or three peppercorns would not make a substantial difference. Besides, the Torah states that only one fruit is taken since the word “fruit” in in the singular. Hence, pepper is disqualified.
Underlying the dispute is a principle that merits further emphasis. Rituals are ceremonial acts that are highly symbolic. Societies invest the objects of rituals with supreme importance. Size can certainly be a factor in determining the efficacy of a ritual object. With the etrog, there is an additional characteristic in its favor: its thick skin. Consider this illustrative story. Entrusted with making a Yom Kippur appeal, a friends of mine began his remarks to the congregation with some self-deprecating humor. He said that as a lawyer and former synagogue president he is accustomed to rejection. Yet he accepted the invitation anyway because overs the years he has become inure. While people may look at him and call him obese, he is just thick-skinned.
The etrog has the symbolic value that peppercorns never will. The etrog reminds us to develop a thick skin.