Jewish Calendar - Tishrei - Sukkot - Etrog

"On the first day you shall take to yourselves the fruit of the goodly tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days." (Lev. 23:40)

Observant Jews went to considerable trouble over the centuries to obtain an etrog, the fruit of the goodly tree*. We know of one family — the Spaniers of Frankfurt — who for generations were in the business of importing etrogim from Spain (hence the name Spanier) and whose house, occupied by the family for 150 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.

Given changing economic and political realities over the past four hundred years, it grew increasingly difficult to obtain etrogim grown in the fashion permitted by Jewish law. The scarcity of etrogim gave rise to a rush of rabbinic discussions, arguments and responsa regarding the use of the fruit of the grafted citron (prohibited according to the original Jewish law), the geographic source of the fruit, and the definition of a "goodly tree."

At the turn of the twentieth century, a Fruit of the Goodly Tree Association was set up by Palestinian Jewish citron growers (and supported by then chief rabbi of Jaffa Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook), to promote the purchase of etrogim grown in the Land of Israel. Nevertheless, the wars of the twentieth century, natural limitations of supply, and the preferences of individual groups have prevented Israel 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.


The etrog is often considered as a collection of attributes — i.e., it is not grafted; the fruit is flawless; the stem is intact. As such, it has become for many an ideal, an almost schematic object. An outsider, hearing of the multiplicity of rabbinic interpretations, the endless squabbles, may well ask what the fuss is all about.

To the Jew the etrog is not merely the "Citrus Medica var. Ethrog Eng." To the Jew it is a tree rooted in eternity, its creation antedating man; a tree 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 it is "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.

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.

A symbol of world history and Jewish national persistence, a finite object in the natural world revealing God's divine and infinite mystery, the etrog is clearly an object of the highest significance. We 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.

When taking in one hand the palm branch and in the other — the true fruit of the etrog, the Jew is 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.

footnotes * In the extended article from which this excerpt is taken, the authors discuss at length the identification of "the fruit of a goodly tree." [Back]
excerpted From: The extended article ("A Goodly Tree") which appeared in Commentary 26, no. 4 (October 1958). It is reprinted in The Sukkot/Simhat Torah Anthology, JPS 1973.

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