Sukkot: Searching for etrogs in Morocco’s ancient groves

How are etrogim picked out and inspected in Morocco?

 A GIANT ETROG grows in a Tamguersift orchard in Souss.  (photo credit: Jacky Kadoche)
A GIANT ETROG grows in a Tamguersift orchard in Souss.
(photo credit: Jacky Kadoche)

Locals tell that the Souss etrog groves were planted by Jews fleeing the destruction of the temples thousands of years ago.

Arriving at Marrakech airport to catch a return flight to London with his precious cargo of etrogim from groves in the Anti-Atlas Mountains – originally planted by Jews millennia ago – Rabbi Yashar Levy encountered massive queues, as passengers scrambled their way onto their flights. 

“Airport security was extreme, and the queues were long, but the Moroccan airport staff gave me the greatest kavod [respect] when I explained that my cargo was for religious purposes, to pray for rain,” he told The Jerusalem Post by phone on September 6, minutes after landing.

Born in Marrakesh – “Known as the city of Gemara [Talmud] and Kabbalah,” he says – Levy has traveled every year since 1953 to the region of Souss, 100 km. from Agadir, to buy etrogim.

“All our ancestors and the great rabbis and kabbalists of the North African communities, including the Ohr Hachaim and the Baba Sali, got their etrogim from those groves,” he says.

 AHMAD BOUHALIE and son, owners of etrog groves in the Souss region, recall Rabbi Yashar Levy’s father Rabbi Yosef Levy transporting etrogim by camel. (credit: Jacky Kadoche) AHMAD BOUHALIE and son, owners of etrog groves in the Souss region, recall Rabbi Yashar Levy’s father Rabbi Yosef Levy transporting etrogim by camel. (credit: Jacky Kadoche)

Levy was 13 when he made the first hazardous journey to the Souss region with his father, Rabbi Joseph Levy, who used camels to transport his cargo. Levy Sr. spent 60 years providing the Jews of Marrakech and other parts of Morocco with the most beautiful etrogim for the blessing of the Four Species.

“He would always bring the best and most beautiful etrog to the chief rabbi of Marrakech,” Levy says.

Among the Ashkenazi Torah notables who said blessings over his father’s Souss etrogim were the Satmar Rebbe and the Gaon of Brisk in Israel, and Rabbi Itzikel of Antwerp. 

Today the head of the Jewish community of Marrakesh, Jacky Kadoche, says he still gets his etrogim from Souss, as does the rest of his community. 

The Moroccan Imazighen (Berber) etrog farmers in Souss who have worked with Levy for decades joke that the etrogim he exports should be called “Yashar’s etrogim” instead of “Moroccan etrogim,” because of the care with which he selects each one.

“We usually find a really beautiful one in every 2,000-3,000 etrogim,” says Levy. “Last year’s top etrog went to Rabbi Haim Kanievtsky [1928-2022].”

How did etrogim reach Morocco?

Generational knowledge informs that the Jews who arrived from the Land of Israel after the destruction of the First Temple, some 2,500 years ago, brought along etrog tree cuttings that they planted in the Souss region, says Levy.

Souss is mentioned in the tractate of Sanhedrin (94.), which speaks of the exile of [one of] the Ten Tribes to the “Selug Mountains” in “Afrikei.” They reached a place they called “Shush,” because they said: “It is equal (shaveh) [in beauty and topography] to our land.” 

Genealogist Jacob Marrache, who specializes in Morocco, says there is a Jewish family from Souss called Afriat, who claims to have arrived in the area around 580 BCE and is descended from the Tribe of Ephraim. The surname “Afriat” is a derivation of an earlier surname “Ephratim.”

“Shush” is identified with the Moroccan Souss by Rabbi Jacob Moses Toledano in Ner Hama’arav, the most comprehensive book about the Jews of Morocco, says Levy.

A post-Second Temple wave of Jews arrived more than 2,000 years ago, establishing themselves mainly in the mountains, among the indigenous Imazighen (Berber) tribes with whom they shared a culture. This was long before the advent of Islam. Those Jews eventually became known as toshavim (residents), meaning indigenous.

Marrache shares anecdotes about the history of the Moroccan etrog: “On the Tunisian island of Djerba [where the priests fled after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE], only Moroccan etrogim were used. Over a millennia later, Rabbi Halfon Moses Cohen of Djerba [1874-1950] praises those same etrogim in his book Berit Kehuna.”

“Even the Rambam, aka Maimonides, who lived in Fez from 1158 to 1165, used the etrogim of Souss,” adds Marrache.

“And in 1864 the sultan of Morocco sent Sir Moses Montefiore several beautiful etrogim from his own garden – six months after Montefiore had traveled to Morocco to beg the sultan for the lives of two Jews awaiting execution!”

Are Moroccan etrogim kosher?

THE KOSHER status of the Moroccan etrog was first defended by Rabbi Mordejay Aseo (circa 1750-1835), author of the book of responsa, Hegid Mordejay, published posthumously in Thessaloniki in 1845.

“Aseo writes that the etrogim from Taroudant [in Souss] and the other cities of the West [meaning Morocco,] are kosher,” says Marrache.

Later, the Holy Land’s chief rabbi, Hayim David Hazan (1790-1869) addresses a dispute regarding the kosher status of etrogim from a city called Taroudant. In his book Yesharei Lev, he cites an 1864 letter from three eminent Jerusalem rabbis of Moroccan origin: “We have never encountered the slightest hesitation about etrogim from Morocco which come to us regularly from Taroudant. The Jewish communities of Fez, Meknes, Marrakech, Tetuan, Rabat, Sale and Mogador (Essaouira) use them every year.” 

Marrache adds: “In 1891 the son of Rabbi Shlomo Kluger [also known as the Maggid of Brody] confirmed the kosher status of the Moroccan etrog, saying his father the maggid used them for the blessing; and emphasizing: ‘If I receive a Moroccan etrog this year I will say a blessing on it.’” 

In the 20th century, Rabbi Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss (1902–1989) of the Eida Haharedit in Jerusalem, explains in Minhat Yitzhak, Volume VIII, Responsa 58, that there is no place to doubt the purity and validity of the etrogim of Morocco, says Levy.

In 1981, however, the Klausenberger Rebbe, Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam (1905-1994) ruled the Souss etrog unkosher based on the fact that many were found to be seedless, a potential sign of grafting. 

“I was very hurt to hear this,” says Levy, who knew grafting had never taken place. The locals barely touch the trees except to keep the etrogim insect-free [by breaking off infested branches] and scratches [by wrapping the tops of the etrogim in wool] or to practice marcottage [replanting] when a tree is weak. The issue was resolved after an Orthodox Union delegation visited the etrog groves. 

Levy explains that a peculiarity of the Souss etrog is that while approximately 50% of the fruit from each tree have seeds (growing parallel to the axis), the remainder are seedless. 

In 1995, at Levy’s insistence, leading halachic authority Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv also sent an investigative delegation, having first declared the Souss etrogim unfit for the blessing. Despite fears to the contrary, he certified their kashrut in time for Sukkot.

The journey to retrieve etrogim from Souss

THE JOURNEY to retrieve the etrogim from Souss, 100 km. from Agadir in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, is not an easy one, says Levy. It requires crossing a desert and a river, and navigating dangerous roads and climbing paths. 

Although several villages in the area have etrog groves, Levy travels all the way to the tiny village of Tagergoust, where two of the wells used to irrigate the etrog groves still bear their original Jewish names from centuries ago: The Well of Isaac and the Well of Maimon. Close by is an ancient Jewish cemetery. 

The elders of the Moroccan Jewish communities and the Imazighen (Berber) villagers who live in Tagergoust in Souss today testify that the etrogim were planted there by Jewish communities from the south of Morocco centuries ago. 

But Levy’s journey does not stop at Tagergoust.

“We continue on to the village of Tinbael and then on to Tamguersift, where we walk along a narrow mountain path, cross a stream and continue for another hour on a very dangerous path until finally arriving at the etrog orchards.”

The etrog branches (that taste the same as the fruit, says Levy) hang low, often propped up by sticks, in hundreds of small groves, in the immediate vicinity of other fruit trees: figs, dates, apricots, apples and carob trees. There are no orange, lemon or grapefruit groves nearby.

“Once we arrive, the local farmers crawl under the trees and pick the etrogim. We examine them on the spot. Those we choose are wrapped in wool and placed into big baskets. In the nearby village we sort them,” says Levy. 

A good price is negotiated that everyone is happy with. The Amazigh-Berbers praise Allah for the good business, and Levy feels blessed that he is able, once more, to assist Jews in the commandment of the Four Species on Sukkot