The fruit familiar to Jews as the etrog has a long and complex history which is here traced by Erich and Rael Isaac.
Shortly before World War II, and well before the days of the Egyptian-Israeli conflict, the Egyptian ship “Zamzam” steamed into New York harbor with a worthless cargo which, a few days earlier, would have netted the Jewish booksellers of Canal Street and various other enterprising merchants a profit of thousands of dollars. The ship showed no gaping wounds; the log reported no accidents; the worst that had happened was a delay of a few days. But in this case time was money. The ship’s cargo consisted of the “Citrus Medica var. ethrog Engl., a fragrant golden oval or oblong fruit somewhat larger than a lemon with a small stem at the base and a slight knobby projection at the head.” This fruit is familiar to Jews as the etrog, and while it is supremely valuable to them for a single week, commanding prices ranging from six dollars for a scrawny specimen to thirty for an exceptionally handsome one, and averaging eighteen dollars apiece, it is worthless for the rest of the year. Only during the Feast of Booths, Succoth, is the use of the etrog obligatory for ritual celebration. Chances are that a similar shipping delay occurred at least once before in history, for “an etrog after Succoth” is a Yiddish byword for something absolutely without value.
While religious Jews today will go to considerable trouble and expense to obtain an etrog, their anxieties and difficulties are minor compared with the anguish suffered by Jews in previous centuries—especially those communities located north of the area where the etrog grew—when it came time to acquire the fruit.
The danger of the long trips from Italy, Greece, or Catalonia to Frankfort or Prague cast an aura of romance on the traders in etrogim. We know of one family—the Spaniers of Frankfort—who for generations were in the business of importing etrogim from Spain (hence the name Spanier), and whose house, occupied by the family for one hundred and fifty years, bore the title “The Golden Apple” in honor of the trade. So important economically did trade in etrogim become in the Middle Ages that one of the terms of the peace treaty imposed upon the defeated Republic of Pisa in 1329 by the Guelph League of Tuscany (led by Florence) forbade her to continue her commerce in etrogim. Presumably Florence and her allies intended to take over the flourishing trade with Jewish merchants from Germany, Austria, and Poland as one of the spoils of victory.
To what can we trace the importance of the etrog in the life of the Jewish community? Leviticus 23:40 says concerning the Feast of Booths: And you shall take to yourselves on the first day the fruit of a goodly tree, palm fronds, the bough of a thick tree and willows of the brook and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. There is no explicit reference here to the etrog, only to “the fruit of a goodly tree.”
The Talmud advanced various arguments to prove that the traditional identification of “the fruit of a goodly tree” as the etrog was based on Scripture. The Biblical phrase, said the rabbis, implied that both fruit and tree had to be goodly, which meant that the taste of wood and fruit must be similar; only the etrog lived up to both specifications. Etymological evidence was produced by several rabbis, one of whom postulated (mistakenly) that the word “goodly” (hadar, literally “splendor”), came from dirah, meaning “dwelling.” The fact that the etrog is not a seasonal fruit, and that the citron tree can be said to provide a dwelling for the etrog all year round, was cited by the rabbi as proof that the etrog was virtually called by name in the commandment. Misguided etymological enthusiasm inspired another rabbi to conclude that hadar was really the Greek hudor (“water”); since the citron tree is often in need of irrigation, the fruit in question must be the etrog. The rabbi neglected to mention that many other orchard trees are commonly irrigated. An unsophisticated attempt to cut the Gordian knot was made by yet other rabbis who asserted that the word hadar was the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew word etrog, despite the fact that hadar everywhere else in the Bible means “goodly” or “glory.”
Another type of interpretation was advanced by the Aggadists, who claimed that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was the etrog tree. This was indicated by the description of the tree in Genesis 3:6 where “. . . the woman saw that the tree was good for food. . . .” Said Rav Abba of Acco: “What other tree is there whose wood and fruit are both edible? It can only be the etrog.”1
In approaching the problem of “the fruit of a goodly tree,” one group of rabbis, which included Maimonides, boldly converted what was apparently the chief weakness of the Biblical phrase into a source of strength. These rabbis claimed that there was never any doubt that the goodly tree of the Bible was the etrog and that the lack of specific reference only proved the absolute necessity of oral tradition, without which we could not know the true significance of the divinely ordained command. Finally, Eleazar of Worms, a rabbi with a mathematical flair, scientifically and conclusively proved that the fruit of the commandment was the etrog by showing that the numerical value of the Hebrew letters spelling out “fruit of a goodly tree” was the same as of those in the word etrogim.
While discussion of the etrog’s relation to the Bible’s “goodly tree” died down after the Middle Ages, the matter was never totally abandoned. In fact, only recently S. Tolkowsky, a Palestinian historian of citrus culture, has advanced the thesis that Leviticus referred not to the etrog but to the dar tree, the ha– in front of the noun being the definite article. The dar tree, or Cedrus Deodara, is a giant cedar and a holy tree of India. The fruit of a goodly tree, on this theory, was the cedar cone which was also used in Assyrian ritual. Tolkowsky’s theory is based upon the assumption that Leviticus could not have intended the etrog since that tree did not grow in Palestine in Biblical times. The citron, Tolkowsky holds, was introduced into Palestine in the 2nd century B.C. and substituted for the cedar cone by Simon Maccabeus in whose time a coin bearing the imprint of the fruit (the earliest evidence in Jewish records for the etrog) is believed to have been struck. Simon Maccabeus, according to Tolkowsky, introduced the etrog presumably in order to purify the Feast of Booths from the pagan implications of the cedar cone.
However, it is by no means certain that the citron was brought into the eastern Mediterranean at such a late date. Most recent findings indicate that the citron originated not in India or Southwest Asia, as was formerly thought, but in East Africa or Southern Arabia, and there is ample proof of very early connections by land and sea between these areas and Mesopotamia—connections which would have permitted the introduction of the etrog in Palestine considerably before the 5th century B.C.E.
Internal evidence from the text of Leviticus also argues against the thesis that hadar means the dar tree. “The fruit of a goodly tree” is one of a list of items in this verse, and it is unlikely from a stylistic point of view that the definite article would be employed for only one of the objects while the others listed parallel to it are without the article. Finally, the coin bearing the imprint of the etrog—which Tolkowsky asserted marked the initial use of the fruit—was not struck in the time of Simon Maccabeus but two hundred years later in the period of the first Jewish war against Rome when, according to all available evidence, the etrog had already been in use for some time.
Indeed, Rabbi Akiba, who lived in the period of that war, was supposed to have grown an etrog so large he was forced to carry it on his shoulder when he displayed it to his fellow rabbis to prove that an etrog should not be used as a standard measure of size. Although we do not know the size of the ordinary etrog of the period, we know that it was considerably smaller than Rabbi Akiba’s—at least small enough to serve as a convenient hand weapon. In the first part of the 1st century B.C.E., Alexander Jannai, the Hasmonean king, was greeted by thousands of his irate subjects on Succoth in the Temple with a shower of etrogim. An unfortunate Babylonian rabbi had a similiar experience, but he was not equipped with the same means of retaliation as Alexander, who slaughtered six thousand of his subjects on the spot.
By the 1st century C.E. the etrog had become so important in Jewish religious observance that it moved with the Jews outside Palestine wherever the environment permitted. In this way the tree spread through North Africa and Asia Minor, the Aegean, Greece, and Italy. To what extent the etrog was responsible for making Jews the expert horticulturists of Mediterranean Europe we do not know. We do know that they were noted for this art and modified the Mediterranean landscape through their practice of it.
The etrog played an extremely important role in the development of the entire Mediterranean citrus culture. The Jewish obsession with the etrog made the transition from cultivation of the etrog to citrus culture in general comparatively simple. It was thanks to the Jews that the peoples of Mediterranean lands grew to accept the citron as edible, and this acceptance in turn made them receptive to the rest of the citrus family. We know that when, at an early period, the citron had been encountered by Mediterranean travelers in foreign lands, it had been considered inedible. Theophrastus of Eresos, the favored pupil of Aristotle, on his trip to Babylon witth Alexander the Great about 310 B.C.E., described the citron as a fruit which could not be eaten. By the 2nd century C.E., however, the Greek physician Galen was writing recipes for its use.
In the intervening centuries the citron had spread with the numerous Jewish communities which formed throughout the Mediterranan. Up to the 17th century traders who brought etrogim to Jewish communities in extra-Mediterranean Europe were also the traders in those other branches of the citron family for which a European demand developed.
The further history of the etrog was influenced by the altered pattern of Jewish settlement in Europe. Jews established flourishing communities well north of the line where the etrog can be grown; at the same time, the political and economic conditions of feudal Europe made it virtually impossible for the Jews to obtain etrogim outside of Italy. Furthermore, it was at this period that the Jews ceased to be horticulturists, a circumstance giving rise to a new set of problems. Since Jews no longer grew the etrog, they no longer had confidence that etrogim were grown in the fashion permitted by Jewish law. An indication of the growing concern over this problem can be found in the sudden rush of rabbinical responsa in the 16th century forbidding the use of the fruit of the grafted citron.
According to Jewish law grafting is prohibited. The prohibition is derived from a Biblical command against sowing in one field seeds of different types and was applied by the rabbis to the grafting of trees. Grafting in the case of the etrog was particularly sacrilegious because it meant that a fruit which merely superficially appeared to be an etrog was employed for a holy purpose to which the etrog alone had been divinely designated. Italian Jews were able to detect grafted etrogim from their own area on sight, but not from orchards outside their immediate vicinity. Clearly the Jew beyond the growing range of the etrog was totally unable to determine whether the etrog he received was acceptable or not, and partly because of the wide practice of grafting in Italy, the attempt was made more and more to tap areas of supply beyond the offending country.
Further complications arose from the difficulties of transport and the monopolistic trading practices of Jewish merchants who obtained royal or ducal charters by paying substantial fees. The plight of many Jewish communities at Succoth became so severe that more than one rabbi—Mehr Eisenstadt I, Moshe Isserles, and Benjamin A. Slonik, to cite a few examples—permitted the use of grafted or dried-out etrogim preserved from the previous year when others were totally unobtainable. In its extremity the entire community of Kuttenplan, now Chadova Plana in western Bohemia, went so far as to tax itself in 1576 in order to obtain a single etrog.
Rabbi Asher Levy, who lived in Reichshofen, Alsace, in the early 17th century, recorded an interesting incident in his memoirs. Two days before Succoth he and his entire community were without a single etrog. Christian peasants approached the rabbi with two small green objects which Rabbi Levy feared to accept because they were of less than the permitted size. However, when Asher Levy arose after a tormented night of reflection and doubt he decided to buy the “etrogim” after all since it was clearly a case of these or nothing at all. For an entire week the two pitiful objects were used not only by the community of Reichshofen but by three neighboring communities as well to which they were tenderly carried each day. Rabbi Asher Levy’s doubts, however, did not diminish with the days. At the close of the holiday he shut himself up with his “etrogim” and carefully sliced them in two. He found the secret of their small size—the “etrogim” were unripe lemons.
There were in the 17th century three major sources supplying the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe with etrogim: Spanish Catalonia in the west; the coasts and islands of the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian Sea, especially Corsica, in the middle; and, in the east, the Adriatic shores of the Ottoman Empire and the Venetian islands of Corfu, Cephalonia, and Zante. Genoa served as the market place for etrogim from the first two areas and Venice channeled the trade from the last. The reputation of the etrogim of Genoa ranked highest in the eyes of Jewish communities because the majority sold there came from Corsica where they grew in wild and ungrafted profusion.
Beginning with the 18th century, when the Catalonian trade declined and trade through Genoa became more difficult, Trieste increasingly took the place of Genoa as the great central market place of etrogim. With the creation of the First Republic in France and the swift rise of Napoleon, boundary lines between French and Austrian possessions hardened so that Jews in Austrian territories had no choice but to use the Adriatic sources. But the Adriatic trade presented problems of its own, what with the islands of Corfu, Cephalonia, and Zante, the main sources for etrogim, changing from Venetian to French to Russian to English occupation within the space of twelve years. Of all the places supplying etrogim, only the coastal areas of Ottoman Albania and Epirus did not change hands. Here the Sultan monopolized the growing of etrogim and kept close supervision over the purity of the tree stock. The etrogim of Parga, where the Sultan maintained orchards, achieved a reputation as high as those of Corsica. These etrogim and others from the eastern Adriatic region were shipped largely via Corfu to Trieste.
The trouble began when the Sultan let his monopoly lapse around 1840. How was it possible now to determine whether the etrogim had been grafted upon lemon stock? An indication of the mounting concern of Jewish communities throughout Europe, following the Sultan’s abandonment of his monopoly and the consequent mushrooming of new orchards in the inland provinces of Ioannina, Prevesa, and Arta in what is now Greece, was the publication in the Galician town of Lvov in 1846 of a collection of responsa on the problem. The rabbis were unanimously of the opinion that the etrogim received from the area could no longer be trusted. They explained that the rabbi of Corfu gave his seal of approval to the etrogim from the mainland, although he had no knowledge of the conditions under which they were grown. Under the circumstances the rabbis advised that tradition be followed and that Jews continue to buy only the etrogim of Parga, or, if available, those of Corsica or North Africa. The practical difficulty in the way of following this advice turned out to be that all the etrogim from the area were shipped to Corfu where Greek traders crated them together indiscriminately. Eventually all the etrogim from the region became known under the single title of the Corfu etrog, although etrogim from Corfu itself were not the largest component in the trade.
The Corfu etrog fell into disrepute not only from the Halachic standpoint but also as a result of the practices of Greek merchants who dumped etrogim into the Adriatic in order to induce an artificial scarcity and force up prices. This they were the more ready to do because the credulous merchants were convinced that Jewish superstition dictated that a Jew who did not use a Corfu etrog each year would die before the next. Disgust with the Corfu etrog was aggravated in the following decades by the anti-Semitic outrages committed by the people of the island. Under Napoleon Jews had been granted full civil equality, but under English and subsequently under Greek rule outbreaks against the Jews recurred periodically with government concurrence or even connivance. Prohibitions against the Corfu etrog began to be issued not only by the rabbis of Eastern Europe, but also by such notables as Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler of England and the rabbis of Hamburg, Mainz, and Würzburg. Determined to end the reign of the Corfu etrog, Isaac El-chanan Spektor, one of the greatest Talmudic authorities of the age, repeated his prohibition year after year until his death.
The ritual murder accusation of 1891 on Corfu and the subsequent pogroms clinched the case against the Corfu etrog for most Jews, and such famed teachers as Naftali Zevi Yehuda Berlin (head of the Yeshiva of Volozhin) and Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever (the outstanding representative of religious Zionism) followed the example of Isaac El-chanan Spektor in prohibiting the Corfu etrog. An attempt was unsuccessfully made in Russia to circulate a complete list of all the rabbis who joined forces to ban the Corfu etrog. Traders in Corfu etrogim, however, managed to bribe the Russian censorship to forbid the publication of the list, so that it did not appear until 1892 when it was printed in—of all places—Newark, New Jersey.
The long debate concerning the acceptability of the Corfu etrog had alerted Jews to the question of grafting, and when Palestine began to replace the Corfu area as the source of the fruit, each Jew was determined to make absolutely sure that his etrog had not the remotest relationship to a lemon. Palestinian citrons began to figure in the European market in the late 1850’s. These etrogim, however, met considerable opposition from certain Orthodox communities on the grounds that they were grafted. To counteract this unfavorable propaganda, a group of Palestinian rabbis investigated the situation and published a volume to inform world Jewry in which areas grafting was practiced and which exporters could not be relied upon, thus by implication putting the seal of approval upon the rest.
The rabbis denied that grafting was universal in Palestine; on the contrary, they asserted, the very desolation of the country and the lack of enterprise of its inhabitants, greatly as these must grieve a Jew, had yet the important advantage of insuring the purity of her etrogim. The etrog grew wild upon the ruins of Israel’s ancient grandeur. In Jaffa, alas, it was reputed that the inhabitants were more enterprising and grafted etrogim grew upon the ruins. Citron cuttings had been imported from Greece and grafted on lemon stock in the environs of Jaffa. With consummate villainy, Sephardic exporters had shipped this fruit to Europe under the title of Corfu etrogim.
Refusing to rest content with secondhand evidence, this group of rabbinic sleuths ventured forth from the security of Jerusalem into the groves themselves to establish the facts. At the first Jaffa grove they encountered an Arab owner who initially refused to say whether his citrons were grafted or not. On consideration, however, he asked shrewdly, “Which do the Jews prefer?” The rabbis, equally astute, returned: “Both. Some like grafted and some don’t.” Reassured, the Arab confided that all the etrogim, not only in his orchard but in all Jaffa, were grafted. The rabbis then inquired how grafted might be distinguished from pure stock. The owner showed them signs on a young tree, but said that on an older tree it was often impossible to distinguish. The rabbis repeated their trip to various other orchards in the neighborhood with the same result.
Flushed with victory the rabbis sought out the Sephardic rabbi of Jaffa and hauled him off to the orchards in order to demonstrate the depravity of his congregation who knowingly traded in this merchandise. In the meantime, however, the Sephardic traders had learned of the activities of the investigating committee and had warned the Arab citron growers to say nothing and to keep the prying rabbis off their property. Accordingly, when the rabbis now appeared at an orchard, they were met by a defiant servant girl who told them instantly that the owner was away and she had been instructed under no circumstances to tell them that the citrons were grafted. At this point, a small army of Sephardic traders with the owner of the orchard in their midst burst upon the scene. A violent altercation ensued in which the traders insisted that the etrogim were not grafted and there was no way of distinguishing grafted from pure stock anyway. The indignant rabbis pointed out the signs of which they had recently learned, whereupon the traders replied that this was what they had meant. Since grafted could be distinguished from pure stock they were careful to sell only the pure. The rabbis departed in despair at such obvious duplicity and left the unfortunate Sephardic rabbi to deal with the iniquities of his flock, while they went home to write their book.
While the Palestinian etrog steadily climbed in popularity, the Corfu etrog still did not lack persistent champions. The main body of its supporters was made up of certain groups of Hasidim who apparently considered pogroms and possible grafting of less moment than opposition to prevailing Misnagdic views. Traders in Corfu etrogim embarked upon desperate propaganda campaigns to keep their market and fully exploited the rift in Jewish ranks at the same time as they instituted a search for markets in remote lands uninformed of, or at least less involved with, the Corfu debate. The United States was such a market and traders in Corfu etrogim hawked their wares in New York only to meet, greatly to their chagrin, the same determined resistance they had encountered in much of Europe.
The gauntlet was thrown down by Ephraim Deinard of Newark, New Jersey, originally of Latvian Courland, and a professional traveler and writer. He published a broadside entitled “God’s War Against Amalek” in 1892. It opens with an impassioned denunciation, which inevitably loses in translation from the original Hebrew:
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.
As for the New York traders in Greek etrogim, Deinard 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.
To give villainy a place and name Deinard exposed the “robbers’ hideout”—185 East Broadway.
A cautionary note was sounded by several rabbis equally concerned with the implications of the Corfu pogroms, but more thoroughly the products of Western emancipation and possessing what they considered a more comprehensive view of the anti-Semitic problem as a whole. Rabbi Hermann Adler of London, the son of the Chief Rabbi who had been one of the first to ban the Corfu etrog, argued that while the emotions which Jews now felt toward the Greeks of Corfu were entirely justified, a boycott against Corfu would merely play into the hands of the anti-Semites who warned against Jewish economic power. Rabbi Israel Hildesheimer of Berlin adopted the humanitarian assumption that all Greek merchants were not wicked and it was therefore contrary to Jewish teachings to make the innocent suffer for the sins of the others.
But their findings to the contrary notwithstanding, Jews continued to look to Palestine for their etrogim and at the turn of the century a Fruit of the Goodly Tree Association was set up by Palestinian Jewish citron growers. This organization was supported by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, then Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, who sought to give a Halachic basis for the purchase of Palestinian etrogim. The Biblical phrase says: “And you shall take to yourselves . . . fruit of a goodly tree”; the Talmud amplified “you shall take to yourselves” to mean “you shall take purely—that is, not steal”; and Kook went further to say that this meant “you shall take from your own”—in other words from Jews and Jewish soil.
The wars of the 20th century, natural limitations of supply, and the preferences of individual groups have prevented Palestine from being the sole source of etrogim. Today the citron is grown on Greek islands such as Crete, Naxos, and Corfu; in southern Italy in the regions of Cosenza, Salerno, and Potenza; and in California, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and Israel. In the United States today we find the main importers of North African etrogim to be Hasidim. Some of the North African etrogim are far from living up to the early rabbinic ideal according to which both fruit and tree had to be goodly. These etrogim are black and shriveled. The Hasidim argue that the very unattractiveness of the fruit is proof of its purity: no grafted fruit could look so awful.
Although Jewish devotion to the etrog has not diminished over the centuries, the etrog itself has perhaps subtly changed in significance. No longer primarily the concrete beautiful fruit described in Leviticus and the Talmud, it has become for many an ideal, almost a schematic object. The etrog is often considered as a collection of attributes—i.e., it is not grafted; the fruit is flawless; the stem is intact—rather than as a single essence. It is for this reason that a dark and shriveled fruit may today be preferred over the traditionally firm and golden etrog.
An outsider, reading of the multiplicity of rabbinic interpretations, the endless squabbles, and the final seeming reductio ad absurdum of using a patently ugly object as “the fruit of the goodly tree,” may well ask what the fuss is all about. Is the etrog just an excuse for the Jews to exercise their passion for the difficult, for the formal, and, above all, for argument? Such a view has been expressed before—in the 4th century, for example, Methodios Eubulios, a Christian bishop and subsequent martyr, wrote that it was both shameful and foolish for the Jews to make such an issue over a lemon.
But although this definition may seem adequate to other men, to the Jew the etrog is not merely the “Citrus Medica var. ethrog Engl.” To the Jew the etrog is a tree rooted in eternity, its creation antedating man, from whose branches sprang the fruit which, in bringing the end to man’s sojourn in Eden, gave us human life and history as we know it. According to one midrash the etrog is “the heart of man”; according to a Hasidic teacher “the orb of the world.” The etrog is a national as well as a universal symbol to the Jew. Its fragrance was in Jacob’s clothes when Isaac blessed him, bestowing upon the people of Israel, through Jacob, its identity, its rule over nations, and the favor of the Lord. Again, the etrog is the beloved in Israel’s great poem of love, the Song of Solomon. The etrog calls up the glory of the Second Temple when the instrument of prayer became the fierce expression of a people’s longing for freedom, hurled literally in the teeth of tyrannical power. Finally the etrog symbolizes the continuity of Jewish history and its common aspiration, binding together the disparate geographic units of the Diaspora over the centuries.
As symbol of world history and Jewish national persistence within it; as the finite object in the natural world revealing God’s divine and infinite mystery, the etrog is clearly an object of the highest significance. Man must therefore strive to make the etrog conform as fully as possible to its divine essence by following the specifications laid down by tradition and law. The trouble is great but the reward is high. If the fruit is the true etrog, for seven days each year, when the Jew takes in one hand the palm branch and in the other the etrog, he will be united in a chain of intimate association through Jacob with his people, through Adam with the race of man, and, ultimately, through the fulfillment of a cherished commandment, with his God.
1 Of course, Western civilization generally accepts the apple as the fruit of the forbidden tree, and this view also derives from Aggadic material. The Talmudic commentators of medieval Europe reconciled the two traditions by identifying the apple with an etrog, citing the Aramaic translation of Song of Songs 2:3 where apple is translated as “etrog.” We may perhaps explain the translator's mistake by the old popular notion of the etrog as the symbol of love, a notion found from East Asia to the Mediterranean. Among Christians, Adamsapfel (“Adam's apple”) and Todesapfel (or “death apple,” in recognition of the fall), in late medieval German usage, meant etrog.