The extraordinary history of the etrog

Tracing the saga of the Succot fruit all the way back to its Far East roots.

etrogstor88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
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 "hadar." 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 origin). 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 the Torah. 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 need. 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 etrog trade. 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 than enough." Grafted etrogim 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 Ashkenazim. 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 rabbinic validation. 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 unsurpassed. 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 the newspapers. 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 Israel. 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 Land. 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 grown. 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 in Israel. 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. 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.