Showing posts from October, 2014

The Fruit That Remembers: What Botanists Say About the Etrog

The Etrog is undoubtedly one of the most unusual Jewish ceremonial objects. If you have spent some time with an Etrog, you know that it smells wonderful, it doesn't taste so great, and it looks like a mutant lemon, (usually) with a distinctive protrusion on one end.  It is one of the Arba Minim , the four kinds of plants that Jews use ceremonially during prayers on the holiday of Sukkot. As I learn more about the Etrog, both Judaically and botanically, I realize what a powerful symbol it is for the Jewish people. In English, an etrog is called a 'citron,' and it's a very early member of the citrus family.  According to many botanical scholars, it’s the very first citrus fruit to be cultivated.  In fact, almost all of the citrus fruits that we know of today - grapefruits, oranges, lemons, limes - are human creations, cultivated by crossing the four original citrus fruits (citron, mandarin, pomelo, and papeda) with each other.  This would indicate that not

A Yom Kippur thought on the origin of a Jewish toast: "L'chaim" - "to life!"

I shared this reflection with my community a few years ago on a Yom Kippur evening.   Each Shabbat morning in our synagogue, before we say the Kiddush, the prayer over wine, it is traditional for the leader to say ' savri meranan ,' or ' savri haverei, ’ which basically means, “Your attention please!”.  This is traditionally followed by everyone saying, with great enthusiasm, “ L’chaim !"  If you know Hebrew, or if you ever saw Fiddler on the Roof , you know that L’chaim! means "To Life!"  Then we say the blessing over wine. You may have wondered where this peculiar Jewish toast comes from.  In fact, it is almost a thousand years old.  The Midrash Tanhuma , a collection of ancient midrashim, describes this practice , in a way that has a lot to teach us about wine, about community, and about each other.  The Midrash says: When there's a death-penalty trial, and the verdict is about to be announced, one of the judges announces: savri meranan