By: Dave Gordon

Rabbi Yizchak Luria, better known as the Arizal,
taught his disciples that the cultivation of joy is necessary
to achieve enlightenment.

The very concept ofHidur Mitzvah– “beautifying a mitzvah” –is one that seems infrequently explored in Judaism, where the essence of ritual seems to be more devoted to purpose than to beauty. The festival of Sukkot, however, encourages us to beautify the rituals of a joyous celebration. And nothing better embodies the spirit of hidur mitzvahthan the search for the perfect, unblemished etrog.

It looks like a lemon, feels like a lemon, and kind of smells like a lemon – but an etrogis not a lemon. It is rather the fruit of the citron tree and one of the four species used on the festival of Sukkot. The others arelulav(palm), aravah(willow) and hadas(myrtle).
The symbolism of bringing all of these species together represents the common bond shared by Jews everywhere.

Of the four species, the etrogis the most expensive, due primarily to the regulations that must be followed in order to render it kosher. The most important specification is that it be a Pri Ets Hadar, an unblemished, beautiful fruit.

Today, the etrogimfor Sukkot are mostly grown in Morocco, Italy, Yemen, and Israel. Yemenite etrogimare generally plumper, as they are left on the tree longer.

Moshe Kishkof Tehilat Yitzhak on Kings Highway in Brooklyn has sold about one thousand etrogimper year for the past fifteen years. Imported from Israel and Yemen, his etrogimare carefully inspected before they hit the shelves to make sure they aren’t chaser– or forbidden for use – because of nicks or scratches. An etrogwith such blemishes, according to Kishk, should not be blessed upon.

His advice for the amateur etrogshopper? “Make sure it has a clean, nice look. That’s why you see people looking so closely at the etrog. They’re looking for any problems, even minor ones.”

A proper etroghas some qualities that are discernible to the average person. Here are just a few: It should be turning yellow, rather than still green; must not be pierced in any place, have no visible black spots when held at arm’s length, and have a bottom that is wider than the top. Finally, if the etrog grew with a protruding stem, (or pitam), the stem cannot be broken off.

Lest we think we can identify the perfect etrogwith our eyes alone, it should be stated that the fruit also has features that cannot be spotted from a store shelf. Because of a Torah prohibition, the etrog cannot be plucked from a tree that is three years old or younger. Additionally, every 13 years the tree has to be replanted, to restart stagnated growth. One citron tree produces about 300 fruit each season. The etrogis plucked after about four months of growth in the outdoors.

Great care is taken to protect the trees and their fruit from harm. Many etroggrowers trim the thorny leaves of the tree to prevent them from scarring the fruit. This is because winds can cause the leaves to brush against the fruit and scratch them, leaving behind a thin scrape. Such a blemish can take away from the beauty of the fruit, like a photograph with a streak through it.

A lot of trees are also watered manually to avoid moving irrigation equipment through the groves. In many cases, someone who wants a particularly first-rate etrogwill cover it with a rigid plastic bottle while it’s still on the tree, so that it does not get scratched or disturbed.

Etrogimporters must beware of grafting – etrogimbeing crossed with lemons. The Yemenite and Yanover (Italian) etrogimhave the best reputation for not being grafted. Moroccan etrogimare typically reputable, but in recent years doubt has cropped up as to their authenticity. Of course, only the pure species of etrog is kosher for Sukkot.

Non-Jews do not understand the egregiousness of grafting. To them, the etrogis just a citrus fruit and grafting makes it look nicer, smother, and tastier. Jews, however, are diligent about how the etrogis handled. In Israel, an
on-site mashgiahspends 24 hours a day on the farms, sleeping on the premises and only going home for Shabbat. When all is said and done, he grades the etrogimaccording to the Hebrew alphabet, with alephbeing the best grade an etrog can get and daletbeing the least.

After the importer cleans off the pesticides, the fruit is sorted according by “grade” for its cleanliness. The amount of scratches the etrogsustains, as well as the shape and beauty of the fruit affect its pricing. Because there’s such variability when it comes to etrogim, people pay anywhere from $20 to $500 for this Sukkot necessity.

Brooklyn resident Ezra Ozeri has been an etrogseller for fourteen years, offloading about a thousand each year. He personally visits the crops in Israel to assure their viability. “Most years I work with Israeli farmers and distribute in America. Every shmittahyear, I work with distributors outside of Israel, including Italy, Morocco, and California. The most recent shmittahyear happened last year,” Ezra notes.

“I don’ttell them what to pick. Most of the farmers are agricultural experts, and they know what they’re doing,” he insists. “Some years are good, some years not; only Gd controls the weather and the growing.”

Indeed, the whole process is a big gamble for both the grower and the seller. Ezra affirms: “Out of two million etrogimgrown in Israel, about five percent are nice and about forty percent to fifty percent are tossed out. They can’t use any fruit that has perforated skin, holes, or has dried out. Even if it is kosher, if it’s ugly and in a funny shape, no one’s buying it,” Ezra proclaims. “It’s not about the fruit; it’s about supply and demand.”

Importing, the etrogimis not easy either. Agriculture and customs officials can be as unpredictable as the weather– lenient some days, stringent others. One shipment, Ezra recalls, was stuck on the tarmac for two days. “Thousands of etrogim; everything got ruined. They cut up the boxes, and they wanted to see inside,” he explains. “If scratches render an etrogunfit,certainly scrapes from box-cutters do. They give us a very hard time,” Ezra continues, “because they’re worried about bugs. Usually everything turns out OK, though, with the etrogimarriving about ten days before Rosh Hashanah.”

The etrog’sorigin is unknown, although seeds have been found during excavations in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) dating back 5,000 years ago. The etrogis believed to have first started growing in Israel during the Second Temple period (about 500 BCE).

The etrogflowers have a large pistil, which is the seed bearing part. Habitually, the pistil does not drop off after the fruit has begun to grow and ripen. It is the only fruit that has that characteristic. If not picked early, an etrogwill remain on the tree and continue to enlarge for years, until the branch can no longer support it.

Besides its use as a vital element for the celebration of Sukkot, other customs have arisen from the fruit’s symbolism. Pregnant women have sometimes used the etrog– long considered a feminine symbol – to determine the sex of their children. Some believe that a woman who bites into an etrog will bear a male child. Indeed, it’s easy to see how the etrogcan seem like a representation of fertility – an ideal centerpiece for the harvest season festivalof Sukkot.

It is our hope that, with a new appreciation for the origin, growth and importation of the etrog, you’ll proceed to choose one for this upcoming Sukkot with new eyes. Inspect it for nicks, blemishes or scratches, note its shape, admire its beauty and think about how long it’s been in existence. Use it this holiday to truly beautify your experience of Sukkot, while rejoicing with Gd over the beginning of a new year. After all, the etrogis not a prop, but a catalyst that enables us to get closer to Gd by performing His mitzvot.