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
- Interpret pĕrî to be "boughs/branches", not edible fruit (see KJV, NET2, NASB)
- Interpret pĕrî ʿēṣ hāḏār as "boughs of majestic trees" which labels all elements of the list
- 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
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.