Gardening: The golden fruit

The pedigree of the etrog is as important as its external appearance.

etrog 88 (photo credit: )
etrog 88
(photo credit: )

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the 18th century hassidic master, was growing impatient. As soon as the sun had set, ushering in the holiday of Succot, he had been in a state of highly agitated anticipation - he had remained awake all night waiting f or sunrise.

For a Jew whose primary love and passion in life is doing God's commandments, or mitzvot, the first Succot sunrise is a special moment; it is the first opportunity to hold a lulav (palm shoot), etrog (citron), hadas (myrtle), and arava (wil low) together, and extol God for commanding us to do so. Under the greenery that forms the succa roof, the blessing is made and the four kinds are waved in six directions, representing God's kingship over the entire universe.

All night long, by candlel ight, it was the etrog, in particular, that occupied Levi Yitzhak's attention. He could not take his eyes off the glowing, aromatic fruit that rested on a cushion inside the glass cabinet. He had procured it only after many sacrifices and at a great expen se. Now, as dawn slowly stretched across the sky, he at last turned his eyes away from the etrog and toward the horizon, upon which the sun was soon to appear.

Finally, as the tip of the long-awaited golden orb emerged in the distance, he dashed towards the etrog and, amidst the sound of breaking glass, seized the precious fruit, blood dripping from his hand. In his eagerness to hold and bless the etrog, he had forgotten about the glass that enclosed the fruit... or perhaps he knew the glass was there but did not want to delay performance of the mitzva a single instant longer, even if that meant shattering the cabinet instead of taking an extra moment to open it.

There is no fruit more important to a Jew than an etrog. Perfect specimens sell for sev eral hundred dollars. However, it is not only the external appearance of the etrog that matters; its lineage or pedigree is equally important.

Down through the ages, certain rabbis have pointed to particular etrogim as ideal examples of the fruit. This prompted their students to sprout seeds from those etrogim. When the seedlings that grew up from those seeds produced fruit, the next generation of students remained loyal to that same type, and grew more trees from the seeds of the second generation of fruit. And so a variety of etrog types were propagated and are available today.

IN ORDER FOR an etrog to be kosher, it cannot be picked from a grafted tree. The fact that this is a matter of such great importance up until our own time should give us pause. According to the Torah, grafting trees is forbidden, yet we eat from grafted trees all the time.

The apples we dip in honey on Rosh Hashana are harvested from grafted trees. The walnuts we make into haroset on Passover come from grafted trees. The grapes used to make the wine over which we recite Kiddush are picked from grafted vines. So what's going on?

The prohibition against grafting, according to the Ramban, is a God-given decree that was issued at the time of creation. The fear was that by taking shoots or branches from two different species and splicing them together, you would create a third species. This sort of activity would be blasphemous since it would represent a challenge to God as the sole Creator of all species.

If, when you graft two species together, you allow each species to develop shoots and flowers, then the possibility of creating a new species, through cross-pollination, exists. However, in modern grafting, this possibility is eliminated since only the top part of the tree or vine produces shoots. The bottom part, or trunk, which imparts vigor and disease resistance to the top, produces roots only.

Nevertheless, we are scrupulous in making sure our etrogim grow from seedling trees, a testimony to the unique sta tus of this cherished fruit.

There are two tried and true techniques for propagation of etrog trees. To grow an etrog from a seed, drop the seeds into water as soon as they are separated from the pulp. Let the seeds soak for a week, changing the wa ter once a day. Then plant the seeds in potting soil, no more than an inch deep, and they should sprout within a few weeks.

If you have an etrog tree in the neighborhood, you can make a cloned copy of it by taking shoots from branches that are two to f our years old. Cut six- to eight-inch terminal shoot pieces and, without removing their leaves, bury them in sharp sand or well-drained soil with only an inch or two of the shoots protruding above the soil surface. Do this in spring or summer and roots sh ould start to form within two months.

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