Etrog: The Fruit of a Goodly Tree – Succot 5779

Today is the Shabbat of Succot.  It is the one day of the holiday on which we refrain from the Arba Minim, the Four Species.

It is similar to how we do not blow the shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat.  Instead, we refer to zikhron teruah, the memory of blasting.  

So let this morning’s drash serve as a zikhron arba minim.  A memory of the Four Species.

In Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus (23:40), the Torah give us the details.

וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַעֲנַ֥ף עֵץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י ה֥’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃

You shall take for yourselves on the first day: the fruit of a goodly tree, branches of date palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.

Four species: Fruit of a goodly tree – it is not clear what tree it is.  Branches of date palm trees – that is the lulav.  Boughs of leafy trees – that also is not clear, although it is understood to be the myrtle, or hadas.  And finally, willows of the brook – that is the aravah.  

Let’s focus on the pri etz hadar, the fruit of a goodly tree.  What is this fruit that the Torah is talking about?

The etrog, of course.  Everybody knows that.  Known also as the citron, or citrus medica.  

You might be surprised to learn that, 2,000 years ago, there was no such thing as an orange, a lemon, or a grapefruit.  All citrus fruits today are the result of the hybridization of three original species.  Pomelos and mandarins are known to have been in cultivation for the past two thousand years, and originated in China.  The citron is native to India and has been in cultivation for at least 2,300 years. 

Theophrastus of Eresos was an historian who accompanied Alexander the Great.  In his book, Historia Plantarum, he describes the citron that he encountered during a trip to Babylon in approximately 310 BCE.  He refers to it as “Median Fruit” and claims that it cannot be eaten.

It seams that Alexander brought it back with him to the Mediterranean.  It was the first citrus fruit to be introduced to the region.  There were no citrus fruits in the land of Israel during the biblical period.

Or, at least, that was the assumption until a recent archaeological discovery.  A layer of plaster from an ancient palace on the grounds of Ramat Rahel, a kibbutz in Southern Jerusalem, was dated to the Persian period (5th or 4th century BCE).  In that plaster, an Israeli archaeo-botanist discovered pollen from a number of plants, including the citron.

This suggests that etrog trees might have been imported from Persia to Israel during the early second Temple period.  Further supporting this find is the word etrog itself, which seems to be a derivation of the Persian name for the citron, turung.  

Textual and archaeological evidence exists that indicates that by the first or even second century, BCE, the citron, or etrog, was being used by Jews as one of the Four Species during Succot.

One of the only letters found to have been written by Bar Kochba himself during the revolt of 132-135 CE includes the following instructions:  

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.

In the midst of the fighting, Bar Kokhba made sure that his soldiers would be able to observe Succot properly, with the Four Species in hand.

Synagogue mosaic floor from Hamat Teveriah, 4th century. Note the Four Species in the bottom left corner.

Images of the Four Species, with etrogim appearing prominently, appear all over the mosaic floors and fresco walls of ancient synagogues from the Roman and Byzantine era.  It is one of the most frequently-appearing religious symbols, which indicates how important it was in the ancient world.

Rabbinic texts—the Talmud and early midrashim—agree that “fruit of a goodly tree” refers to the etrog, and there are many explanations as to why.  Here are a few:

Does hadar, “goodly,” refer to pri, the fruit, or to etz, the tree?  It could be either, and the expression could be translated either as “fruit of a goodly tree” or “goodly fruit of a tree.”  The Talmud (BT Sukkah 35a) concludes that we should understand it both ways.  Both the fruit and the tree must taste the same.  Only the Etrog meets this standard, the Talmud concludes.

Rabbi Abahu offers a different explanation.  Hadar, he claims, is related to dirah, a dwelling place.  Pri etz ha-dar.  the fruit that dwells on its tree year round.  The citron is not a seasonal tree.  It produces fruit year round.

Ben Azzai draws a connection between hadar and the Greek word hydro, meaning water.  Citron trees require intensive irrigation.

Others (Song of Songs Rabbah) identify the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden as the Etrog.  Genesis (3:6) describes the woman’s impression of the tree: “The woman saw that the tree was good for eating.”  Rav Abba of Acco asks, “what other tree is there whose wood and fruit are both edible?  It can only be the etrog.”

One thousand years later, Maimonides seems to doubt the validity of any of these explanations.  The fact that everyone knows the Torah is talking about the etrog, despite such a vague description, is proof of the validity of an oral tradition going back to Moses.

But it was Eleazar ben Yehudah of Worms, from the late 12th and early 13th centuries, who proved it *conclusively* using gematria.  But first, we must recognize one of the fundamental rules of gematria: a difference of plus or minus 1 is irrelevant.  Let’s add up the numerical value of the letters in pri etz hadar.

פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר – pri etz hadar 

80 + 200 + 10 + 70 + 90 + 5 + 4 + 200 = 659

אתרוגים – etrogim (plural of etrog)

1 + 400 + 200 + 6 + 3 +10 + 40 = 660

Seems conclusive to me.  

In any event, we can say with almost 100% certainty that Jews have understood “fruit of a goodly tree” to mean the etrog for over 2,000 years.

This was fine when most Jews were living around the Mediterranean, where citron trees grow easily.  As Jews began to move further out into the Diaspora, however, acquiring an etrog for Succot became more of a challenge.  In addition, Jews stopped being farmers—often because they were forbidden by Christian authorities.  This meant that they would have to rely on non-Jewish farmers, who may not have been aware, or may not have cared, about halakhic concerns.

The main halakhic concern is grafting, when a branch is attached to healthy root stock from a different species.  A grafted etrog, called murkav, is not acceptable.  Italian Jews were said to have been able to identify etrogim grown on a grafted tree on sight.  This was not the case for Jews who lived outside of cultivation zones.

A Jew living in northern Poland found himself at the mercy of the Jewish trader who would import etrogim for the holiday.  This resulted in a considerable amount of dishonest behavior.  In medieval times, local lords would grant exclusive charters to individual merchants to be able to conduct their trading practices.  These charters were often granted in exchange for bribes.

There were some years in which etrogim simply could not be obtained.  There are some prominent Ashkenazi Rabbis who gave permission to communities to use grafted etrogim, or even a previous year’s etrog, which had become completely dried out and would therefore not have been permissible under normal circumstances.

The difficulty of acquiring an etrog was so great that communities would sometimes import a single fruit, which would be owned in partnership by the entire community.

Through the seventeenth century, etrogim grown around the Mediterranean were shipped by way of Genoa or Venice, port cities located at the top of the Western and Eastern sides, respectively, of the Italian boot. 

By the eighteenth century, most etrogim made their way to Northern Europe through the port of Trieste, which is located in what is today northeast Italy, at the very top of the Adriatic Sea.

With the rise of Napoleon, borders between French and Austrian controlled areas became closed, upsetting trade routes and interfering with the traditional paths that etrogim took each year.

Only the Ottoman Sultan’s territories in the Eastern Mediterranean remained unaffected. Etrogim from that area were shipped through Corfu, an island off the coast of Southern Albania and Northern Greece, and on to Trieste.

The Sultan’s etrogim came to be known as Corfu Etrogim, and were highly regarded as being of great quality and consistency.  Because of tight controls, they could also be trusted to not come from hybrid trees.

In 1840, the Sultan let his exclusive monopoly on etrog production expire.  Without central controls, etrogim could no longer be relied upon to be ungrafted.  Etrog production exploded on islands surrounding what is today Greece.  The Rabbi on Corfu gave his hashgacha, his seal of approval, to them—without ever actually inspecting the orchards.

Eastern European Rabbis objected.  In 1846, they issued a collection of teshuvot, legal decisions, banning all etrogim from the area, advising that Jews should instead purchase etrogim grown in Parga, Corsica, or North Africa.  

This turned out to be impossible.  Most Mediterranean etrogim were being shipped through Corfu, where Greek traders packaged them together indiscriminately.

Further exacerbating the problem was the practice, also by Greek traders, of literally dumping etrogim into the Adriatic Sea to create scarcity and raise prices.

This led to a wholesale ban on Corfu etrogim by most of the Rabbis in Eastern Europe, the Chief Rabbi of England, and Rabbis from several German cities.  Sephardic Rabbis were more likely to permit the use of Corfu etrogim.  Some Hassidic Jews not only permitted the Corfu etrog, but even came to prefer it, seeing it as symbolic of Hassidism itself.

In addition to the religious issues, there were also economic implications.  Controversies arose between competing authorities, some of whom had personal financial stakes in the permissibility or otherwise of the Corfu etrogim.

Despite gains made under the Enlightenment and under the influence of Napoleon’s granting of citizenship to the Jews, antisemitic sentiments were widespread.  With growing Jewish boycotts of Corfu etrogim, attitudes towards Jews worsened.

In 1891, the Jews of Corfu were accused of ritual murder, leading to pogroms against the community.  In response, even more Rabbis issued bans against the fruit.  More moderate leaders advised caution, fearful of exacerbating the situation.

With European demand falling, Corfu etrog traders tried to market directly to the American Jewish public by touting the high quality of the fruit.  “Real Corfu Esrogim” almost became a name brand.

A Latvian immigrant named Ephraim Deinard was not impressed.  He was a professional traveler and writer, but not a Rabbi.  In 1892, Deinard wrote a pamphlet in Hebrew entitled God’s War Against Amalek in which he did not mince his words:

The shriek of the children of Israel on Corfu, the island of blood, pierces heaven. These cursed beasts, these Greeks, children of Antiochus the tyrant, after two thousand years have still not gorged themselves sufficiently upon the blood of our fathers. Not a year passes, but these cannibals slander us with accusations of ritual murder in all the countries of Greece, Turkey, and Russia. Before our eyes runs the blood of our brethren in Salonica, Smyrna, Odessa, Alexandria, Port Said, and Corfu.

Calling out the New Yorkers who were importing Corfu etrogim, he wrote:

. . . they are traders in the blood of Israel . . . and since there is hardly a man in Europe who will touch them [the etrogim] they bought these etrogim dripping with the blood of the sons of Zion. . . . These circumcised anti-Semites . . . have connived with importers from Trieste and a group of Galician Jews . . . to mislead the people of God.,  

Deinard identified the “robbers’ hideout” of these dishonest merchants: 185 East Broadway.

Around the same time, Jewish farmers living in Palestine were beginning to grow etrog trees.  The Fruit of the Goodly Tree Association was founded by Palestinian growers to promote their product.

The Chief Rabbi of Jaffa at the time, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, offered his endorsement.  He stated that when the Torah declares ul’kachtem lakhem, literally, “you shall take for yourselves… fruit of a goodly tree…” it implies, you shall take purely – that is not steal.”  He adds, “you shall take for yourselves” means “you shall take from yourselves,” that is to say from Jews and Jewish soil.

Today, most of the etrogim that we get are from Israel.  During shemitah, or sabbatical years, supply shifts to other sources, such as Greece, Italy, Morocco, and Yemen.

Don’t get too bogged down in this long, and sometimes unsavory, history.

The Torah tells us to take for ourselves pri etz hadar.  The fruit of a goodly tree.  From this expression comes the idea of hiddur mitzvah: the beautification of the mitzvah.

It is possible to simply go through the motions when we fulfill our ritual obligations.  The Torah suggests that there is a higher level that we can achieve.

It has become customary to try to get our hands on the most beautiful etrog available.  

This was true when entire communities would join together to purchase a single, sad etrog that had made the long, thousand mile long journey from a remote Mediterranean island by boat, mule, and cart.

It is a bit easier for us today, as our etrogim are shipped by overnight delivery, each in its own insulated and foam-lined box.  But there is something special about it.

The Etrog is a strange fruit.  We don’t eat it.  With its bumpy skin, it looks kind of ugly.  It has a unique, beautiful smell. 

Every year, I savor the moment when I first take my etrog out of its box.  I inspect its skin, check to see that it has its pitam intact.  Then I inhale its special smell.  Beautiful.  Moadim L’simchah.  Have a Happy Succot.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Erich and Rael Isaac, “A Goodly Tree” in The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology, ed. Philip Goodman.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, “The Trail of the Elusive Etrog,” The Forward, Oct. 2, 2008

Gabriel Moskovitz, “The Genesis of the Etrog (Citron) as Part of the Four Species,” Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2015

Eliezer Segal, “Citric Asset

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