Sukkot beckons and the Citrus Medica marketplace is preparing for its once yearly sale. The intrigue is building as buyers visit their stores and Rabbi’s in search of the exact etrog which, quite possibly, has yet to be harvested. Or not! Perhaps this year, you will be the lucky owner of an etrog that is quite perfect in every way.
The thrill of the hunt is meaningful with American imports from Israel harvesting an impressive $1million per year. Individual sales average $40 per fruit, but certain etroggim can fetch prices of several thousands and buyers know their investment is worth every penny. This is no lemon.
There are many other variables that make etrog shopping as exciting as the search for bread on the night before Pesach. Your journey will require thoughtful investigation, spiritual cognizance, artistic competence and a fair amount of luck so that you are drawn to the etrog that will make your lulav lovely. The etrog represents the heart in the lulav, because of its shape; some say the luscious fruit is also symbolic of our perfected selves. Indeed, it is necessary to love your chosen etrog or it will not survive the holiday season intact.
The etrog is unique in many ways, despite sharing certain similarities with other citrus fruits. It retains a personality that includes vertically growing seeds and the thickest skin that cushions a pitifully small amount of bitter, acidic flesh. Etrogade is not replacing lemonade any time soon. Nonetheless, its superiority is undisputed as it is one of the original four species that grew in Israel.
Any self-respecting etrog buyer will check for the pitom at the top, shakuah at the base and even a gartel in the center of the fruit. Do not be fooled into purchasing a small etrog as a kosher etrog must weigh 2.04 oz., even when a little dried out by the time Simchat Torah rolls around. In the same way that the four seasons change the way trees look, so too the etrog declines along with the holiday.
And now that you have to choose which to purchase, have you considered your personal favorite in terms of shape and style? Every country produces etrog in different shapes and color variations. In order to fulfill the mitzvah at the highest level, you must have a clean and unmarked fruit and then there is the question of the tower. Oral traditions across different communities will prefer a different style, although a symmetrical arch to the top half is fundamental and bumpy skin is commonly chosen because this distinguishes the fruit from a lemon.
Jews, with inimitable creativity, have named the etrog according to their design. There is the picturesque, Eve’s Etrog, so named because of the supposed bite marks in the top of the fruit. Those whose heritage is from Hungary will choose etroggim shaped like a teardrop, oblong that comes to a pointed top. Some choose an etrog that has a broad and round top and then gets narrower at the bottom and Chabad Rebbes prefer one which is domed on the top and then narrower at the base.
After the fall of the second temple in 70CE, Jews planted etrog trees wherever they settled. This was a good plan, but kosher trees cannot be grafted with other species and gradually the original variety was contaminated with a mix of lime or lemon trees. You can hardly blame the local farmers who needed to make a living from trees that are problematic, fragile, prone to bug infestation and unpredictable in fruit size and color.
Wholly unsuitable as a snack, the global marketplace for etrog is small. Few have tasted the Greek etrog liquor, Kitron, and sales in the perfume industry, who use the peel of the etrog in certain fragrances, are as small as for chefs who occasionally use the peel in cakes. And still, etrog farmers can stay in business because of the guaranteed sales every year at Sukkot.
Today, the largest producers of the elusive fruit is Italy, Greece, Morocco, Algeria and Yemen, but the biggest sales of citrons come from Eretz Yisroel where superior growers of etrog will likely use seeds from the etrog grown in Calabria, southern Italy. This is because Calabria is thought to be the home of the orchard that supplied the messengers of Moshe Rabbeinu with his etrog while wandering in the desert all those years ago.
This last year was shmita year so there are additional complications. Israeli farmers, despite legalistic measures to allow for sales of Israeli etrogim, have faced a decline in sales with Italian and Moroccan farmers picking up the business with their fruit that has grown outside of the shmita restrictions.
Even if you purchase Israeli imported etrogim, you need rabbinical advice on whether they should be shipped back to Israel, or left to naturally deteriorate before being discarded, or is it better yet to cook some wonderful etrog preserve after the Sukkot holiday? The point is that this year you may not discard your imported etrog as you might discard your schach.
Rabbi Yanky Kahn is the only Los Angeles etrog distributor who visits Calabria each year to check and purchase the fruit that he imports. Rabbi Kahn explained the enjoyment of his job, “When I was 15, I was first taken to Italy to watch the harvesting of the trees as you need two people to check that the trunk is not grafted. Although it’s a side business, I still travel to southern Italy each year and it is always thrilling to find a perfect etrog on a tree. Even the farmer and the workers are delighted to see it because you only get one magnificent etrog out of 1,000 that are harvested. This was a decent year. I brought home a great crop which is good news for our community. What better way to start the New Year?”