The Tale of the Etrog

etrog (citron)

etrog (citron)

It was the morning of the first day of Succot and the moment of the Hallel prayer of praise and supplication, recited while holding the lulav, etrog, myrtle and willow, had arrived. Yet instead of lingering over each word of the Hallel in his usual manner, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, who was leading the prayers, was in a hurry. The reason for his impatience was the unmistakable fragrance of the Garden of Eden that filled the air. As soon as the morning prayers were over, the rabbi began to investigate the sweet aroma’s source. He discovered that it was coming from a small etrog that belonged to the passionately pious Rabbi Uri of Strelisk, who was standing in a corner of the shul. Rabbi Uri was famous for saying good-bye to his wife and children each morning before he prayed because he feared that, during prayer, his uncontrollable yearning for God would take him from this world. Rabbi Uri was an impecunious melamed who, nevertheless, was in the habit of saving 50 gulden, half of his annual earnings, to purchase a large, perfectly formed etrog every Succot. This year, on the way to buy his etrog just before Yom Kippur, he stopped at an inn. There he heard a poor Jew crying his heart out because his horse had just died and his livelihood as a wagon driver was ruined. The innkeeper mentioned that he had a replacement horse for sale and, without batting an eye, Rabbi Uri produced the 45 gulden needed to close the sale. The wagon driver was wild with joy as he ran outside to hitch up the horse, while Rabbi Uri quietly disappeared, not wanting to be noticed for his charitable act. Although he had only five gulden remaining, it was enough to procure an etrog which, small and nondescript to look at, would soon, in the hands of a tzaddik, reveal its otherworldly scent. It turned out that the mitzva of using etrog money for tzedaka had cosmic repercussions. The wagon driver was an unlearned Jew who wanted to thank God for his good fortune in receiving a new horse but, knowing no prayers, could offer praise to the Almighty in only one way. Looking up into heaven, he cracked his whip skyward three times. Soon Yom Kippur arrived and the holy Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, one of the Jewish nation’s staunchest advocates, found himself pushing a wagon of mitzvot toward the heavenly throne. He had nearly reached his destination when the wagon stalled, its path blocked by piles of Jewish sins. Nothing would budge the wagon while the fate of Israel in the coming year hung in the balance. Suddenly a neighing sound could be heard. The angel Michael was leading a horse toward the wagon of mitzvot, followed by a wagon driver and his whip. As the horse was harnessed to the wagon, the wagon driver seated himself and cracked his whip. The horse pushed forward, pounding down the piles of sins, delivering its precious cargo of mitzvot to the Almighty, and assuring Israel a healthy and prosperous new year. (A more complete version of this tale may be found in The Story of Tishrei, by Nissan Mindel, Kehot Publication Society.) THE WORD ETROG is a curious one, associated with the Aramaic m’ragag, which is equivalent to the Hebrew nehmad, meaning desirable. In Genesis 3:6, nehmad (translated by Onkelos as m’ragag) is the adjective employed to describe the Tree of Knowledge. This was the basis for Ramban’s argument that the forbidden fruit plucked from the Tree of Knowledge was an etrog. A connection between the fruit eaten in Eden and the fruit used for Succot is established in Leviticus 23:40, where the Aramaic etrogin, cognate with m’ragag, is utilized by Onkelos in the translation of hadar, as in etz pri hadar or “fruit of the tree of splendor.” Continual use of the etrog for Succot down through the ages testifies to the tenacity of the Jewish people in keeping its mitzvot. Aside from the blessing made over the etrog during one week in Tishrei each year, there is no compelling reason to grow it. The fruit is nearly all peel, with a small amount of terribly sour pulp inside. The etrog tree is sensitive to frost, heat, drought, viruses, fungus diseases, scale and mealy-bug insect pests and spider mites. Citron trees do not live more than 25 years and often die in less than 10. The etrog or citron (Citrus medica) is a tropical tree, but even if you live in a cold winter climate, you can grow it indoors as an evergreen house plant. To germinate the seeds, soak them in a small cup of water for a week, changing the water once a day. Plant the seeds in a well-drained potting soil or make it yourself from 50 percent peat moss (kabul in Hebrew) and 50% sand. Seeds, planted no more than 1 cm.. deep, should germinate in seven to 14 days. As the plant moves beyond the young seedling stage and reaches 25 centimeters or so in size, water it as you would any indoor plant, waiting for the soil to go dry in between watering. Fertilize during the growing season with a 10-10-10 formula but, as winter approaches, cease fertilizing and keep watering to a minimum. It can take up to five years or longer for an etrog tree to begin to flower and bear fruit. According to Jewish law, only in the fourth year of harvest can you begin to use the etrogim produced for eating, for making blessings during Succot, or for any other purpose. The great virtue of etrogim is their fragrance. It is a fairly common practice to make the etrog into a pincushion for cloves and then use the spice studded fruit in the borei minei besamim prayer in the havdala service that marks the end of the Sabbath.

We are in the midst of the Jewish holiday known as Sukkot, whose representative fruit is the citron or, in Hebrew, etrog. The etrog (Citrus medica), about the size of a lemon but often with bumpy skin, is one of the original citrus species, an ancestor to lemons and limes.

It is thought to have originated in the Arabian Peninsula. In order for an etrog to be fit for holiday use, it must come from a tree that was grown from a seed. Trees that grow from seeds, otherwise known as seedling trees, are virtually unheard of in commercial orchards and nurseries. In nearly all cases, a fruit or nut tree consists of two species that are grafted together.
The top or scion portion of the tree, which is the clone of a particular variety, bears the fruit of your choice – whether Hass avocado, Gala apple or Santa Rosa plum. The trunk or rootstock portion of the tree does not produce fruit, but imparts vigor and disease resistance to the top. In the vast majority of plant species, each seed is genetically different. And when it becomes a mature plant, its fruit will be different as well.
Thus, you never know how good the fruit of a seedling tree will taste until the tree produces, which usually takes several years. Unlike most fruit, however, certain citrus varieties contain seeds that may grow into trees whose fruit are exact replicas of the original. If you plant a seed from a Hass avocado, the tree that grows will produce avocados whose flesh will probably be more watery and less pasty than the flesh you encounter in a Hass. If you plant a seed from a Gala apple, the tree that grows will produce apples which, in all likelihood, will be less sweet and crispy than Gala fruit. Or, if you plant a pit from a Santa Rosa plum, the fruit of the resulting tree will probably not be as large as the Santa Rosa variety from which it came.
Citrus, however, is different, and trees grown from seeds often produce exact copies of the fruit from which those seeds were taken. Through a phenomenon known as apomixis, certain citrus seeds are produced without mixing female (ovule) and male (pollen) sex cells; only female characteristics are passed on to the next generation. The unfertilized cells develop into seeds, and later trees, with predictable, clonelike characteristics, including taste and texture.

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