How to get a good etrog
Editor’s Note: Sukkot is the annual Jewish harvest festival that commemorates the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness in the book of Exodus. As part of the holiday, branches of palm (lulav), myrtle and willow, and a citrus fruit called etrog are held together and shaken.
Etrog – etrogim is the plural in Hebrew; esrog and esrogim are how it was pronounced among Eastern European Jews – mostly grown in warm Mediterranean climates. This made citrus fruits extremely difficult to find for Jews in the Diaspora until international trade became more robust in the 20th century. In addition, elaborate rabbinical rules govern how the etrog is to be cultivated and handled. This article describes the tense and controversial history of the etrog in America. It first appeared in a larger version in Segula, a Jewish history magazine, and has been reprinted with permission.
By Jonathan D. Sarna ’75, MA’75, and Zev Eleff, PhD’15
In 1882, etrogim in Los Angeles were a good deal: only 25 cents each.
“They are beautiful to see and will compare favorably [â¦] with all those who have ever been imported into this country â, reportedâ Maftir â(Isidore Choynski), correspondent on the west coast of American Israelite. etrogim, grown in America’s new citrus capital, seemed to solve what was previously a significant religious problem. As Rabbi Moses Weinberger of New York explained in 1887:
Just a few years ago a poor New Yorker couldn’t buy a lulav and esrog of its own [as part of the four species taken on the festival of Sukkot]; even the most orthodox were to keep the commandments with esrogim circulated every morning by poor hawkers. Now, it’s hard to find a traditional kosher house without esrog of its own. In many synagogues, especially the smaller ones, there are just as many esrogim as worshipers.
Within a few years, however, production of etrog in the United States had almost completely ceased. Contrary to popular belief in economics, expensive, imported etrogim triumphed over the cheaper domestic variety. To understand why, we will have to go back in the history of the etrog to the beginning of the 19th century in the New World.
From Corsica to the Caribbean
During the early decades of the 1800s, American Jews had three sources of etrogim: Corsica, the United States itself and the Caribbean. The most beautiful and the most expensive came from Corsica, under French domination. …
Two factors have decreased the popularity of these etrogim, Nevertheless.
- First of all, many turned out to be transplanted (murkav), which made them much stronger and better able to grow and travel, but violated the biblical prohibition of kilayim (mixture of species).
- Second, trade with France and Italy was severely disrupted by the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). At that time, very few diamante [from Corsica] etrogim arrived in the New World; other sources had to be found.
The most common source of etrogim, as a result, became the Caribbean. â¦ Yet Jamaican etrogim were yellowish-white and smoother and rounder than those in Corfu. So were they really kosher? This question has led to a heated halachic dispute between the luminaries of the Old and New Worlds.
L’Etrog upside down
The most unusual response came in 1836 from one of Central Europe’s leading rabbis, Yaakov Ettlinger. â¦ In Europe, Ettlinger reasoned, the common practice of holding an etrog with its protuberance or “pitoma“the higher would mean that a southern hemisphere citron was in fact upside down, violating the rule that the four species must be held and shaken in the way in which they grow up.
While the science is dubious, Ettlinger’s responsum [a written decision from a rabbinic authority] accidentally allowed those in the New World to continue using the New World etrogim, while protecting European producers of etrogs from cheap New World competition.
Etrog as a metaphor
The following decades saw etrogim from various locations sold in the United States. Business exploded, in large part because sugar prices fell and candied citron became a very popular American treat.
Which of these imported products was actually kosher for use in Sukkot continued to be debated, but ultimately just as local Jews could choose from different rites and movements and synagogues, they could now choose from. etrogim from different localities: very expensive from Corsica or Corfu; cheaper varieties from the Caribbean; and, with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, growing numbers of citrus fruits from sunny California, where citrus fruits of all kinds flourished.
Interestingly, these three etrog sources reflected three different views of America’s place in the global Jewish economy.
- Those who demanded Europe etrogim for Sukkot considered them the most reliable and believed that American Jews should follow the same standards and use the same ritual objects as their European counterparts; that the United States, in short, should be part of the European Jewish religious sphere and market.
- Those who supported the West Indian etrogim, on the other hand, placed the United States in a large New World Jewish religious economy – separate from Europe – with suppliers in North and South America catering to all the needs of its clientele.
- Finally, those who began to develop the etrog trade in California – which peaked in the last decades of the 19th century, dropping etrog prices to just twenty-five cents – seem to have imagined that the United States – United would become an independent Jewish center, producing their own four species with its own Hebrew and Rabbi books.
Then American industrial demand collapsed and the Californian citron trade went bankrupt. Caribbean citron disappeared from the market, having been replaced by the Californian variety. And a new player has appeared on the scene.
The holiest of all
In September 1877, just a decade after the inauguration of a regular steamboat service from New York to Palestine, the Big Apple newspapers reported that JH Kantrowitz of 31 East Broadway had “imported from the Holy Land a lot of choice of Esrogim. “ … Etrogim from the Land of Israel were small and lean, without the visual appeal of those produced elsewhere. But whatever they apparently lacked, they made up for with holiness, justifying their high price.
As the etrog cultivators of the Holy Land were known to be pious Jews, no one could question the halachic suitability of their product. In addition, the money spent on these etrogim helped support Palestine’s struggling Jewish community (the Yishuv) as well as the nascent Zionist movement, making their purchase doubly laudable. …
Then, in April 1891, the death of a young Jewish girl in Corfu sparked a bloody high-profile smear, resulting in massive anti-Jewish violence and the emigration of the majority of the island’s Jews. In response, many Jews boycotted products from Corfu, etrogim included. …
Corfu’s etrog producers never fully recovered. Instead, in the 20th century, the orchards of Jaffa and Petah Tikva [in Israel] took the lead in a larger, Zion-centric restructuring of the global Jewish economy, which affected ritual objects of all kinds. For most of the last hundred years, a large majority of etrogim sold in the United States were imported from the Land of Israel – although they cost well over 25 cents each.
Jonathan D. Sarna is Distinguished University Professor and Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. He is also a member of the advisory board of Segula.
Zev Eleff is president of Gratz College in Pennsylvania, where he is also a professor of American Jewish history.