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In the instructions for building booths on the feast of Tabernacles in Leviticus 23.40:

וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיֹּום הָרִאשֹׁון פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים׃ (BHS)

And on the first day you shall take for yourselves the first fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees and branches of a leafy tree and of a brook’s poplar trees, and you shall rejoice before Yahweh your God for seven days. (LEB)


The question is with the list of trees in the first part of this passage. Here is the translation from Milgrom's AYBC commentary1 on Leviticus:

On the first day you shall take for yourselves the boughs[pĕrî] of majestic trees: fronds of palms, branches of leafy trees, and willows of the brook

In other words, many modern commentaries

  1. Interpret pĕrî to be "boughs/branches", not edible fruit (see KJV, NET2, NASB)
  2. Interpret pĕrî ʿēṣ hāḏār as "boughs of majestic trees" which labels all elements of the list
  3. The actual members of the list are three things: fronds of palms, branches of leafy trees, and willows of the brook

This is because in a list, the items are separated by a vav and there is no vav between "majestic trees" and "palm branches", therefore the list should begin with the palm branches and all three members are to be taken as belonging to the category of פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר. E.g. it's like if I said "You shall take three classic cars: the mustang and the porsche and the corvette". This should not be interpreted as four cars "classic cars, mustang, porsche, corvette" but as three cars that are all in the category of "classic cars".

On the other hand, traditional interpretations assume that there are four types of trees, and this is because what Milgrom translates as boughs, they take as edible fruit belonging to a specific specie of tree, which by tradition is taken to be the citron ('etrog). As the other items in the list do not have edible fruit, it cannot be the case that the subsequent three items are special cases of the first. Then there is the question of the missing vav between the first two elements of the list, if the list is assumed to have four elements, but to my knowledge, this issue is ignored in traditional commentaries.

Unfortunately 'etrog is a Persian loanword for a tree not native to Palestine, as the citron was brought to the region from Mesopotamia after 600 BC. Thus modern commentaries that assume "majestic trees" is not a label on a category but a reference to a certain specie of tree tend to assume this passage was written in post-exilic times. Traditional rabbinical commentaries tend not mention that 'etrog is Persian so this issue, like the grammatical problem, is not raised.

Here is Milgrom again1:

An entirely different and preferable solution is that in this verse the word pĕrî does not mean “fruit,” but “branches.” As Ginsberg (1963: 167–70) has demonstrated, the word pair pĕrî and šōreš (e.g., 2 Kgs 19:30; Isa 14:29; 37:31; Ezek 17:9; Hos 9:16; Amos 2:9) is a synecdoche for the tree, where šōreš means “stock” and pĕrî means “branches.” Already Ehrlich 1908, following the Karaites (see Seper Hamibḥar; Keter Torah), had speculated that pĕrî should be read pōrê / pōʾărê from pōʾar / pōʾărâ ‘branch’ (e.g., Ezek 31:5–6; note that in fifty MSS, related puʾrâ [Isa 10:33] is spelled pûrâ). Aiding this interpretation is the fact that the next species in the list kappōt tĕmārîm is not introduced by a waw. Thus pĕrî ʿēṣ hādār is the general term “boughs of majestic trees,” followed by the specification of branches of three majestic trees. It is therefore no wonder that in the list of Neh 8:15 there is no mention of fruit (for the implications, see COMMENT C). This rendering is adopted in the translation.

So what is the correct reading of the first part of Leviticus 23:40? Is it three trees, in the category of majestic trees, or is it four trees?

Note I am not interested in answers explaining current rabbinical practice for celebrating the festival, but in an exegesis of the Hebrew text of Leviticus 23:40, whether the list has three items (Milgrom's interpretation) or four (medieval rabbinical interpretation).

Elucidating the issues

In response to some confusion about the question, in Biblical Hebrew, placing two nouns next to each other either puts them in apposition or inserts a to-be verb. But it does not insert a conjunction. So if you want a list of nouns without any to-be verbs, you need to add a conjunction between them. Biblical Hebrew had no commas!

Take two examples:

A) here is a great list and a car and a bus and a plane

or

B) here is a great list a car and a bus and a plane

  • In case A), it is a listing of four things: a list, a car, a bus and a plane.

  • In case B) it is two substantives (great list) and (car and bus and plane) where the second further specifies the first. Thus a great list consisting of a car and a bus and a plane - a list of three things that is a great list.

Therefore whether it is a list of four things or three things is going to be decided by counting the vavs, identifying the substantives, and making a case as to any implied to-be verbs. This is the key grammatical point that should be addressed.

Then there is a lexical point to be addressed, which is whether the פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר should be interpreted as fruit of a specific tree, branches of a specific tree, or branches of "majestic" trees. Here again, evidence should be presented as to why, say the NASB/NET2/Milgrom is wrong and rabbinical tradition is correct, or the reverse. Obviously citing Milgrom is not evidence that the rabbinical interpretation is wrong, anymore than citing the rabbinical interpretation is evidence that Milgrom is wrong.


Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 23–27: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 3B. Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008.

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Having just read all 119 occurrences of the noun פְרִי (peri) in the OT, I can report that with the exception of Lev 23:40a, it sole meaning is "fruit', in any of the following senses (BDB arrives at a very similar list):

  • fruit of a plant, ie a crop
  • fruit of the womb, ie, offspring/children or either humans or cattle
  • fruit of one's actions, ie, the results/consequences of one's deeds

This means that unless the instance in Lev 23:40a is an exception (which it cannot be)) it must be interpreted as meaning one of two things:

1. The literal (edible) fruit of beautiful trees. This would make Lev 23:40a read as follows:

And you shall take for yourselves on the first day:

  • [edible] fruit of beautiful trees
  • branches of palm trees
  • and boughs of leafy trees
  • and willows of the river/brook

However, this would require a waw conjunction between the first and second item which is absent, making this option grammatically unlikely.

2. Fruit in the sense of branches generally. This would make Lev 23:40a read as follows:

And you shall take for yourselves on the first day fruit (ie, foliage) of beautiful trees [such as]:

  • branches of palm trees
  • and boughs of leafy trees
  • and willows of the river/brook

The second sense appears more consistent with the context and practice of the festival and thus it is translated by most modern versions:

  • NIV: On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees—from palms, willows and other leafy trees
  • NLT: On the first day gather branches from magnificent trees—palm fronds, boughs from leafy trees, and willows that grow by the streams.
  • ESV: And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook
  • NASB: Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and branches of trees with thick branches and willows of the brook
  • CSB: On the first day you are to take the product of majestic trees—palm fronds, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook

[The CSB gets closest to the sense IMO.] Thus, פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ becomes a general phrase signifying "foliage of magnificent trees" of which the next three are particular examples. This conclusion is strengthened (as the OP correctly observes) by the fact that the list (of things, trees) only has waw conjunctions between the last three items and not before "palm trees.

The writings of Nehemiah also confirms this conclusion. Note the comment in Neh 8:15 -

So they proclaimed this message and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the hill country and bring back branches of olive, oil tree, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.”

Note that this list of tree is quite different from Leviticus, but is consistent if we understand that they simply had to find branches of magnificent trees.

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  • +1, That is a good find for CSB, thanks. It's not in my regular rotation for Bible translations but perhaps it should be
    – Robert
    Commented Sep 9, 2022 at 22:38
  • @Robert - HCSB has a similar wording.
    – Dottard
    Commented Sep 9, 2022 at 22:39

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