The tale of the etrog

The mitzva of using etrog money for tzedaka has cosmic repercussions.

September 25, 2007 07:18
4 minute read.
etrog feature 88 224

etrog feature 88 224. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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It was the morning of the first day of Succot and the moment of the Hallel prayer of praise and supplication, recited while holding the lulav, etrog, myrtle and willow, had arrived. Yet instead of lingering over each word of the Hallel in his usual manner, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, who was leading the prayers, was in a hurry. The reason for his impatience was the unmistakable fragrance of the Garden of Eden that filled the air. As soon as the morning prayers were over, the rabbi began to investigate the sweet aroma's source. He discovered that it was coming from a small etrog that belonged to the passionately pious Rabbi Uri of Strelisk, who was standing in a corner of the shul. Rabbi Uri was famous for saying good-bye to his wife and children each morning before he prayed because he feared that, during prayer, his uncontrollable yearning for God would take him from this world. Rabbi Uri was an impecunious melamed who, nevertheless, was in the habit of saving 50 gulden, half of his annual earnings, to purchase a large, perfectly formed etrog every Succot. This year, on the way to buy his etrog just before Yom Kippur, he stopped at an inn. There he heard a poor Jew crying his heart out because his horse had just died and his livelihood as a wagon driver was ruined. The innkeeper mentioned that he had a replacement horse for sale and, without batting an eye, Rabbi Uri produced the 45 gulden needed to close the sale. The wagon driver was wild with joy as he ran outside to hitch up the horse, while Rabbi Uri quietly disappeared, not wanting to be noticed for his charitable act. Although he had only five gulden remaining, it was enough to procure an etrog which, small and nondescript to look at, would soon, in the hands of a tzaddik, reveal its otherworldly scent. It turned out that the mitzva of using etrog money for tzedaka had cosmic repercussions. The wagon driver was an unlearned Jew who wanted to thank God for his good fortune in receiving a new horse but, knowing no prayers, could offer praise to the Almighty in only one way. Looking up into heaven, he cracked his whip skyward three times. Soon Yom Kippur arrived and the holy Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, one of the Jewish nation's staunchest advocates, found himself pushing a wagon of mitzvot toward the heavenly throne. He had nearly reached his destination when the wagon stalled, its path blocked by piles of Jewish sins. Nothing would budge the wagon while the fate of Israel in the coming year hung in the balance. Suddenly a neighing sound could be heard. The angel Michael was leading a horse toward the wagon of mitzvot, followed by a wagon driver and his whip. As the horse was harnessed to the wagon, the wagon driver seated himself and cracked his whip. The horse pushed forward, pounding down the piles of sins, delivering its precious cargo of mitzvot to the Almighty, and assuring Israel a healthy and prosperous new year. (A more complete version of this tale may be found in The Story of Tishrei, by Nissan Mindel, Kehot Publication Society.) THE WORD ETROG is a curious one, associated with the Aramaic m'ragag, which is equivalent to the Hebrew nehmad, meaning desirable. In Genesis 3:6, nehmad (translated by Onkelos as m'ragag) is the adjective employed to describe the Tree of Knowledge. This was the basis for Ramban's argument that the forbidden fruit plucked from the Tree of Knowledge was an etrog. A connection between the fruit eaten in Eden and the fruit used for Succot is established in Leviticus 23:40, where the Aramaic etrogin, cognate with m'ragag, is utilized by Onkelos in the translation of hadar, as in etz pri hadar or "fruit of the tree of splendor." Continual use of the etrog for Succot down through the ages testifies to the tenacity of the Jewish people in keeping its mitzvot. Aside from the blessing made over the etrog during one week in Tishrei each year, there is no compelling reason to grow it. The fruit is nearly all peel, with a small amount of terribly sour pulp inside. The etrog tree is sensitive to frost, heat, drought, viruses, fungus diseases, scale and mealy-bug insect pests and spider mites. Citron trees do not live more than 25 years and often die in less than 10. The etrog or citron (Citrus medica) is a tropical tree, but even if you live in a cold winter climate, you can grow it indoors as an evergreen house plant. To germinate the seeds, soak them in a small cup of water for a week, changing the water once a day. Plant the seeds in a well-drained potting soil or make it yourself from 50 percent peat moss (kabul in Hebrew) and 50% sand. Seeds, planted no more than 1 cm.. deep, should germinate in seven to 14 days. As the plant moves beyond the young seedling stage and reaches 25 centimeters or so in size, water it as you would any indoor plant, waiting for the soil to go dry in between watering. Fertilize during the growing season with a 10-10-10 formula but, as winter approaches, cease fertilizing and keep watering to a minimum. It can take up to five years or longer for an etrog tree to begin to flower and bear fruit. According to Jewish law, only in the fourth year of harvest can you begin to use the etrogim produced for eating, for making blessings during Succot, or for any other purpose. The great virtue of etrogim is their fragrance. It is a fairly common practice to make the etrog into a pincushion for cloves and then use the spice studded fruit in the borei minei besamim prayer in the havdala service that marks the end of the Sabbath.

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