The Tale of the etrog - Archives: Jerusalem Post
Tracing the saga of the Succot fruit all the way back to its Far East roots. Ari Greenspan is a dentist in Jerusalem and Ari Zivotofsky teaches neuroscience at Bar Ilan University. Together they have been "halachic adventurers" for over 20 years.
It should be simple. The holiday of Succot approaches and you
buy the four species mandated by the Torah. The lulav (palm
branch) with its accompanying willow and myrtle stems are easily
chosen. But choosing the etrog is an entirely different matter.
For the most mehudar (exquisite) etrog, you need to spend time
studying the hundreds of yellow lemon-like fruits at your local
etrog dealer. Who would have thought that behind this fine,
fragrant, and beautiful fruit is a history of political intrigue,
worldwide business domination, and acerbic religious disputes that
left a sour taste in the mouths of many?
The phrase used by the Torah to describe the etrog is pri etz
hadar or "the fruit of a beautiful tree" (Lev. 23:40). Modern
Hebrew for all fruit of the citrus family (lemon, orange, etc.) is
The oral tradition from Sinai is very clear: the fruit we take
today and have used for thousands of years is the etrog, or
citron, known scientifically as Citrus Medica, (because of its
medicinal uses, or Citrus Media, attributed to its Persian
The etrog is also called "Adam's apple," or "paradise apple,"
and is one of the suggested candidates for the fruit of the Tree
of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
That was all fine and dandy for Jews living in the Holy Land
and Persia, where the etrog was well-established. Prof. Ari
Schaffer of the Volcani Institute for Agricultural Research in
Beit Dagan cites Maimonides's thesis presented in his Guide for
the Perplexed that the Torah's mandate of these particular four
species is that "they were plentiful in those days in Eretz
Yisrael, so that everyone could easily get them."
Schaffer also notes that the etrog specifically fulfills the
symbolic role of the plant growing largely on the coastal plains
of Israel and demanding much water, as part of the ritual of the
four species which represent water-loving plants in the various
ecological habitats of Israel (palm - desert; willow - river beds;
myrtle - mountains; etrog - plains).
The etrog was unique in the ancient period as a tree that
required intense irrigation (hadar was even interpreted in the
Talmud as "hydro," the water tree), unlike native Israeli fruit trees such as the fig, date, grape, and pomegranate.
This ritual coincides with the other water rituals of Succot,
including the water libations, because both thanks and prayers are
specifically offered for rain during this period.
In fact, the history of the citrus fruit has its roots in the
Far East. Botanical historians followed the etrog from its origins
in the Far East westward. Jewish tradition holds that the etrog
was transmitted from father to son from the time of the giving of
One thing is sure: by the time of Alexander the Great in 332
BCE, it was well-rooted as the first citrus fruit in the western
world. The fruit is described in detail by the great Greek
naturalist Theophrastus, a contemporary of Alexander, and extolled
for its medicinal value as well as its fragrance.
The Jews, however, constantly used it on the joyous holiday of
Succot. An unusual event occurred during the Simchat Bet
Hasho'eva, the joyous celebration of water libation during the
intermediate days of the holiday.
During the first century BCE, Alexander Yanai, the sixth and
last of the Maccabean ruler high priests, had angered the Pharisee
population by his Hellenized, military behavior. The outrage at
this soldier priest climaxed when he brazenly expressed Sadducee
beliefs by pouring the water libation on his feet (Succah 4:9),
and he was pelted with etrogim by the multitudes gathered on the
Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
With the dispersion of the Jews to the four corners of the
earth, the heretofore unknown fruit went with them. For why would
a fruit with almost no pulp, little known benefit, that needs
copious quantities of water and care, and that is particularly
fragile find itself being grown in orchards on the perimeter of
the Mediterranean Sea?
It was clearly to enable the fulfillment of the precept
commanded in the Torah. It appears in the Peloponnesus (southern
Greece) and Mauritania in the first and second centuries. From
Israel westward we find it transplanted to Egypt, Libya, Tunisia
and Morocco. Going north, it was dispersed to Lebanon, Syria,
Greece and Italy.
Jewish art and coins
We find numerous examples of the etrog on mosaic floors and
frescoed walls of synagogues from the Roman and Byzantine period.
Sometimes it appears with the lulav and other times alone.
It's such an important Jewish icon that it is also found on
numerous coins of the Great Revolt in the year 66 CE, and is a
common theme on the coins of the Bar Kochba rebellion of 132-135
CE. In fact, its appearance in non- Jewish art is considered to be
a sign of Judaizing influences. Even the well-known belt or
"gartle" around the middle of the fruit which is especially chosen
by many hassidim can be seen to be prevalent 2,000 years ago,
based on depictions on coins of the first and second centuries,
as well as various synagogue mosaics.
The "gartle" can already be observed on the fruitlet only days
after the flower opens, and is caused by the ring of anthers in
the flower physically constricting the fruitlet, much like a
rotund hassid tying a gartle around his belly.
One of the most interesting testimonies from a Bar Kochba
period coin is the representation of the Four Species showing a
single etrog, a single lulav, a single willow branch and a single
myrtle branch, rather than the two willows and three myrtles we
are accustomed to. This is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi
Akiva, Bar Kochba's supporter, that "just as the etrog and lulav
are single, so too are the willow and myrtle."
The use by Bar Kochba of the etrogim on his rebellion coins is
all the more poignant when we discover that one of the very few
letters found intact in the caves of the Judean desert by Yigal
Yadin was written by Bar Kochba himself, and deals with his army
and its supply difficulties.
"Shimon to Yehudah Bar Menashe: Kiryat Arabaya. I have sent two
donkeys. You shall send two men with them to Yehonatan bar Be'ayan
and to Masabla. They shall pack and bring back to you palm
branches and etrogim. You should send others from your place to
bring back myrtles and willows. See that they are tithed. Send
them all to my camp. Our army is large. Peace."
High finance and the etrog
It would seem that as long as Jews stayed in the moderate
climate on the shores of the Mediterranean, there was no
difficulty obtaining etrogim for the holiday. As people moved
north into France, Germany, Poland and Russia, however, the
temperature-sensitive tree could not exist and tremendous problems
ensued. In fact, the halachic literature is replete with cases of
only one etrog being available to fulfill an entire community's
The commercial aspect regarding the Jews' willingness to buy
these fruits at any price was not lost on the non- Jews. In 1329,
victorious Guelph Florence prohibited the republic of Pisa from
engaging in the etrog trade, keeping the lucrative business for
itself. Empress Maria Theresa (mid-18th century) demanded a huge
annual tax of 40,000 florins from the Jews of Bohemia for the
right to import their etrogim.
The local Jewish community was often in charge of etrogim
sales, and a small tax was levied in order to help with communal
expenses. The fledgling Ashkenazi community of Jerusalem in the
first half of the 19th century was prohibited from engaging in the
One of the early etrog dealers in Palestine to break the
Sephardic monopoly was Rabbi Yaakov Sapir, for whom the Jerusalem
Hills moshav Even Sapir is named. He describes how "when I came
from the holy city of Tzfat, may it be rebuilt, to Jerusalem, the
holy city, may it be rebuilt, in the year 1835, the entire
business was in the hands of the Sephardic community. A great
rabbi, who was in charge of the fund, would send two people in the
month of Av every year, who were born in Israel, to bring the
necessary number of erogim. In those days, 500 etrogim was more
The etrog tree is very delicate, requiring constant care. It
starts to bear fruit after about five years, but because it is
vulnerable to a number of diseases, particularly those of the root
system, they rarely live more than 10 or 15 years.
The solution is to graft an etrog onto a base of another citrus
tree, most often a lemon tree, thus using the hearty base of the
lemon to nourish the etrog.
A grafted-citron tree, known as a murkav, has a life expectancy
of 30 to 35 years, is more durable, and requires less care. After
just a few years, the place where the two trees were joined
becomes difficult to detect, and it is then virtually impossible
to determine if a tree is pure or grafted. At times the graft
union is below ground level, adding difficulty to the diagnosis.
No mention is made in the Talmud, early commentators,
Maimonides, or even the Shulchan Aruch about the halachic status
of a grafted etrog, despite the fact that the technique of
grafting was known from before the talmudic period.
Not only were they familiar with the general principal of
grafting, but Maimonides even discusses grafting etrogim, albeit
not in the context of Succot but rather related to the pagan
rituals that often accompanied the grafting procedure.
This silence by the rabbis on the suitability of murkav fruit
may be because they did not commonly graft etrogim, possibly
because there were not yet any other citrus plants in Israel on
which to graft them, since the second citrus fruit to be
introduced into the Middle East, the lemon, makes its appearance
only in the Middle Ages. Or the omission may be because such an
etrog would actually not have been problematic in their eyes.
The first discussion of a concern over an etrog murkav is by
scholars of the Holy Land and Italy in the 16th century, who
probably personally witnessed what was by then a widespread
procedure. Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen, known as the Maharam
mi'Padua (1482-1565, Padua, Italy) and Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508-
ca. 1593 Safed), a student of Rabbi Joseph Karo, the author of the
Shulchan Aruch, or Code of Jewish Law, were among the first to
discuss and prohibit the grafted etrog.
Although these are the earliest recorded prohibitors, from
these sources it is clear that the phenomenon already had
established roots, positions on its use were known, and most
likely the use of such etrogim was widespread.
Over the centuries, while it was generally held that a murkav
was unacceptable, the search for a reason offered fertile ground
for a plethora of suggestions as to its invalidation.
Some of these reasons are:
1. Due to the fact that the fruit must be whole and not missing
a piece (chaser), the grafted etrog is considered as being
partially from each fruit and therefore not complete.
2. Possibly the identity of a fruit is determined by the trunk
of the tree on which it appears, meaning that a grafted etrog is
not even considered to be an etrog but rather a lemon.
3. Because the fruit consists partially of a lemon, using it
for the mitzvah entails adding an additional species, which
violates the prohibition of bal tosif (adding onto mitzvot).
4. Interspecies grafting of any kind is a biblical prohibition,
and using the progeny of an illicit act for a mitzvah is
"repugnant to God."
Most authorities are willing to apply this rationale even if
the grafting was done by non-Jews. However, it is actually not
clear whether the etrog and lemon are in fact considered distinct
species according to halakha.
Over the past few hundred years, following the prohibition of
grafted etrogim, various physical, botanical characteristics have
been proposed to distinguish between the grafted and pure etrog:
the murkav is smooth like the lemon, while the etrog is rough and
bumpy; the grafted etrog has a protruding stem, while the pure one
has a recessed stem; the real etrog has a very thick skin and
almost no pulp, while the grafted one has a thin skin like the
lemon and a liquidy pulp; finally, the pure citron has seeds that
lie longitudinally (i.e. parallel to the long axis), while in the
murkav the seeds lie latitudinally (horizontally).
The important 19th-century authority, the Chatam Sofer, greatly
minimized the utility of these late, non- Talmudic signs.
In lieu of anatomical markers to identify an ungrafted etrog,
he demanded the existence of an unbroken mesorah, tradition, as is
required in order to identify kosher birds. He did, however, grant
weight to two other signs that have their roots in the Talmud. The
etrog is described as the only tree in which the fruit and the
tree have the same taste. In addition, the etrog is considered
unique in that the fruit will stay on the tree past its "season"
and continue to grow and thrive year-round.
Prof. Eliezer Goldschmidt of The Hebrew University of
Jerusalem's faculty of agricultural, food, and environmental
quality sciences, and a world expert on etrogim, has studied the
history of the etrog as well as the morphological and genetic
effects of grafting. He concludes that genetically, grafting has
no effect on the etrog fruit, and that the fruit growing on a
branch of the etrog scion (the stem portion of the tree) will
remain the same etrog irrespective of the tree used as the stock
(the root portion of the grafted tree).
Interestingly, some of the most recent scientific research in
the field of plant molecular biology suggests that in certain
cases there can actually be a transfer of genetic material across
graft unions in plants. But nevertheless, from a scientific view,
a grafted etrog has the same makeup as a non-grafted one.
The etrog wars
As the Jewish population of northern Europe proliferated, the
need to import etrogim from far away, namely the Italian and Greek
coasts and neighboring islands, grew, and the possibility of graft
increased. In fact, the non-Jewish merchants understood the
fortunes that could be made, and actually turned the grafted
etrogim into an exquisitely beautiful fruit.
The unparalleled experts were the islanders of Corfu.
No one knows exactly when etrog orchards first started in
Corfu, but the Corfu etrog appears to have first been sold in
Sephardic lands in the mid-18th century. By the last decades of
the 18th century, these beautiful etrogim were introduced to the
Corfu etrogim were characterized by their stunning appearance,
relatively steep price, and by the retained stigma (pitam), taken
by many as a sign that they had been grafted. This led to
questions regarding their fitness.
Not everyone, however, agreed that a murkav is unkosher. The
Hungarian rabbi Meir ben Isaac (b. 1708), in his work Panim
Me'irot, concludes that since a murkav has all the properties of a
pri etz hadar it should be kosher. The Rashban (Rabbi Shlomo Tzvi
Schick) permitted buying etrogim of questionable lineage from the
local etrog merchant, a widow, because supporting her is a greater
hiddur than the fear of grafted etrogim.
Throughout the first half of the 19th century, Corfu etrogim
were widely distributed and, for many, were the preferred variety.
A large number of Sephardic rabbis were wary of the potential for
fraud but accepted etrogim from Corfu as long as they had local
In Poland and Lithuania, there was also widespread use of the
Corfu etrog, although the rabbinic reaction was mixed, but rarely
equivocal. People either preferred the Corfu beauty and were
willing to pay the premium price or held it to be part lemon and
invalidated it totally.
In 1846, all heck broke loose, and what would be probably the
most ferocious and acrimonious halachic debate of 19th-century
Europe burst forth. This fascinating piece of Jewish history was
the subject of a recent in-depth study by Prof. Yosef Salmon of
Ben Gurion University.
Behind the initial salvo was Alexander Ziskind Mintz, a learned
resident of Brody who earned his livelihood from selling etrogim.
He had actually achieved a monopoly the previous year on citrons
from Parga on the Ionian coast of Greece, near Corfu.
He published a booklet titled Pri Etz Hadar that prohibited the
etrogim of Corfu and the surrounding areas such as the Albanian
coast. It seems that a former partner of his had broken off and
set up shop in these new areas. In order to stop him, Mintz
solicited and received the support of many of the great rabbis of
the time, all of whom were included in this slender volume. Their
claim was that the exceptional beauty of the Corfu fruit was
actually what damned it. A real etrog could never be as perfect as
a grafted one. In parallel, a minor brouhaha erupted over the
etrogim from Corsica that were also suspected of being grafted.
The chief rabbi of Corfu, Rabbi Yehudah Bibias, countered that
he had personally checked the local etrogim and they were not
grafted. Furthermore, he argued that grafting in the warm climate
of Corfu is actually detrimental to the fruit.
Numerous rabbis lined up behind the Corfu etrogim, as did many
consumers who continued to prefer the attractive Corfu product.
From that time onwards, all etrogim were sold with rabbinic
supervision reading "kosher with no concern of being grafted." Yet
the argument persisted, engendering many letters and responses.
Fortunes hung in the balance. Various rabbinical prohibitions
over the years were either observed or ignored, but everybody
agreed on one thing - the beauty of the Corfu fruits was
The farmers of Corfu fought back, found supporters among the
Hassidim, and a number of times even dumped thousands of citrons
into the ocean to create a shortage to raise the price. The
temptation for a beautiful etrog was so great that despite the
rabbinic ban, Jews continued to purchase those etrogim.
In 1876, the debate was reignited with the publication of a
broadside signed by 117 Polish rabbis banning the Corfu etrog, and
so once again the rabbi of Corfu defended "his" product.
Two additional factors conspired to doom the Corfu etrog. In
1891 the Greek population of Corfu, never known for their love of
Jews, became involved in a blood libel. The Avnei Nezer wrote of
"the etrogim of Corfu that are in the hands of the uncircumcised
Greeks, known through their writings to be Amalekites, may their
names be erased."
From as far away as Newark, New Jersey, a call was issued to
ban Corfu etrogim. A broadside was issue there in 1892 which
described the importers of Corfu etrogim to the United States as
"traders in the blood of Israel" who, "since there is hardly a man in Europe who will touch them, bought these etrogim dripping with the blood of the children of Zion."
The second factor was the Israeli etrog crop. There had always
been a small, local etrog industry in the Land of Israel. The
tradition on the kashrut of the etrogim from Tiberias, Safed,
Shechem and Jaffa was very old. Some of the orchards had been
planted by Rabbi Yosef Karo in Safed, some 300 years earlier.
In fact, Rabbi Chaim Wax, in his Nefesh Haya, published in the mid-19th century, tells us that the entire concern over grafted trees began from the year 1851.
He writes: "Originally all of the land was under the control of
the Sultan, and nobody had the right to plant trees, and if he did
the extracts were the Sultan's. Who would plant a tree if one knew
the fruits would not be theirs? However, there was a garden
belonging to the king, and in it no falsity was practised. In 1851 though, permission was granted to plant trees if a tax was paid to the king, and since then there has been an increase in the fakers and grafters."
The orchards in the Land of Israel were all in Arab hands, and
etrogim were relatively inexpensive. In the mid 19th century local
Sephardim entered the etrog trade, and soon thereafter the
Ashkenazim accused them of peddling grafted etrogim . The
Ashkenazim too started selling etrogim. After several decades of
bitter fighting, Israeli etrogim garnered the strong support of
chief rabbi Avraham Kook. Kook suggested raising kosher etrogim in
Israel, and making the Land the leading supplier of etrogim.
"The future, my brother, is with the kosher etrog, with the
power of kashrut, and only with the kosher etrog will we win the
battle of those who are against us, the Corfu mamzer [etrogim]."
There was even a famous trip across Israel on donkey by the
leading rabbis of Jerusalem at the end of the 19th century in
search of non-grafted etrogim. The journey was described in all
There is the quaint description of their sojourn among the Arab
orchardists, and how they dug around the base of the trees looking
for the graft scar. Originally the Israeli etrogim were of
significantly poorer quality, but Kook, in an effort to boost
sales, published a text extolling the virtues of using
specifically etrogim from the Land of Israel on Succot.
So too the famed Lithuanian authority Rabbi Yechiel Epstein
included in his Halakhic work, Aruch Hashulchan, a plug for
Israeli etrogim, not only because he said they are unquestionably
kosher, but because of the importance of buying from the Land of
Rabbi Hezekiah Modena (19th century, Israel) writes: "If
Israel's etrogim are not the loveliest on earth, they will be the
loveliest in Heaven."
Over time, the Israeli etrog became "lovelier on earth," and
has won the etrog wars. Today Israel is the world's leading
supplier of etrogim for Succot, and most Jewish communities
worldwide pride themselves in using the holy fruit from the Holy
There are a few exceptions to this unifying theme of world
Jewish ritual usage. One interesting exception is the Chabad sect,
which adamantly uses etrogim of the Diamente variety from
Calabria, near the southern portion of the boot of Italy.
Schaffer relates that Chabad followers are known to pass on the
legend that when Moses received the commandment during the
wanderings through the desert to take the etrog, he naturally looked around the desolation around him, bewildered, and asked the Almighty, "From where am I supposed to take them?"
And the Almighty took Moses upon a cloud and flew him around
the world until he landed in Calabria, where he picked the first
etrogim used by Jews for the ritual of Succot. And to this day
they preserve the custom of using Calabrian etrogim.
The modern etrog
Nothing, of course, will stop the bickering about whose etrog
is the genuine article, and today in Israel several "breeds" are
Some have posited that the "Yemenite etrog" is the closest to
the "original" fruit used by the Jews in days of old.
It is large, without pulp, and edible, indicating to its
supporters that the lemon has not been grafted with it. It is
still grown in the orchards of Yemen in the same primitive ways as
of old. Today, it is also cultivated by Jews of Yemenite ancestry
Others vote for the etrogim of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco,
grown by Berber tribesmen in primitive and ancient conditions.
Prof. Eliezer Goldschmidt pointed out in an article in T'chumin
that there is simply no way to tell if an etrog today is a
descendent of a grafted tree or one that naturally cross
pollinated years ago.
Nonetheless, he and his colleagues in a recent study compared
the DNA of 12 etrogim from a variety of sources and found great
similarities, indicating that "all the currently acknowledged
types of citrons appear to be 'true,' authentic citrons."
Despite the DNA evidence that these are all one species,
business is booming for all, as there are still buyers who prefer
only one of the various types.
4 photos; Caption: Yael Greenspan holds a fingered etrog in one hand and a large Yemenite etrog in the other. An Arab etrog salesman in the souk of Sanaa in Yemen. The authors, Ari Greenspan and Ari Zivotofsky pose with etrogim. A medieval Rothschild manuscript featuring a picture of a man holding the four species.
Credit: Ari Greenspan
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
People: Greenspan, Ari, Zivotofsky, Ari
Companies: Bar Kochba
Text Word Count 4167
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