Jewish Calendar - Etrog story

Born in Galicia in 1888 and from 1924 on resident of Jerusalem, where he died in 1970, Agnon was the master of an original style and a prolific pen. He authored several novels, hundreds of short stories and anthologies of Jewish folklore. Agnon was recognized as the foremost modern Hebrew writer; he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first author in the holy tongue to be so honored.

The following story looks squarely at human weakness, and the gap between pious conventions and wayward outcomes. The quest of the tzaddik (righteous man) for a beautiful etrog (citron) is revealed as simply a higher form of spiritual selfishness.

One year it was already hours before Sukkot and the rabbi's wife did not have a morsel in the house for celebrating the holiday. She thought, I will go tell my husband; he will hear and know my distress. She went to his solitude room, stood in the doorway, and said, "Sukkot eve is upon us and I still have no festival provisions."

That righteous man lifted himself from his chair, poked his head out from under his tallit, put his hand on his tefillin, and said to her, "You are worried about meat and fish, and I am worried about not yet having my etrog (special Sukkot citron)." She kissed the mezuzah on the doorpost of his room and left dejectedly.

That righteous man stood up and went all over the house looking for something to sell and use the money to buy an etrog, He looked and looked but did not find a single thing worth an etrog.

He fondled his tefillin and mused:, The nine festival days are approaching, and during the festival tefillin aren't worn, and my tefiIlin were written by a holy man of God, who writes each and every letter in holiness and purity, investing the most sublime and most awesome intents and purposes in the writing of each and every character. Tefillin of his make are much sought after and command a high price. I will sell them, and with the proceeds I will get an etrog.

Reb Mikheleh removed his tefillin and took them and went to his Beit Midrash and asked, "Who would like to buy my tefillin?" A certain man stood up and said, "I will buy them," He took out a gold dinar and gave it to the righteous man, and the righteous man handed him his tefillin.

The righteous man took the dinar and ran to the etrog seller to get an etrog. He saw a beautiful etrog and judged it to be kosher and perfectly formed. Now a truly righteous man, when he buys an object in order to perform a divine precept, doesn't bargain. All the more so when it comes to an etrog, about which it is written, " And on the first day [of Sukkot] you shall take a fruit of the beautiful tree, and rejoice before the Lord your God" (Leviticus 23:40).

Reb Mikheleh returned home happy that he had come by a beautiful etrog possessing all the qualities that are lauded in an etrog. He went into his sukkah to fix something and returned to his solitude room.

He sat down in his chair and placed the etrog before him and ruminated on this precept that God had given the Jewish people to observe during these holy days of Sukkot, a holiday adorned with a multitude of precepts to observe.

His wife the rebbetzin heard that her husband had been to market. She went into his room. She saw the glow in his face and the ecstasy emanating from his entire being. The rebbetzin thought he had brought home all the festival victuals. She said to him, "I see that you are happy. You must have brought us the festival provisions. Give them to me and I will prepare them, for it is nearly time."

The righteous man rose from his chair and put his hand on his eyes and said, "Praised be the blessed and sublime Name for bestowing His grace on me and fulfilling my every need." The rebbetzin stood there waiting for her husband to deliver. He sat back down in his chair and told her that he had been privileged to acquire a kosher etrog.

She asked him, "How did you have money to get an etrog?" He said to her, "I sold my tefillin for a gold dinar and bought an etrog." She said to him, "In that case, give me the change." He said to her, "They didn't give me any change. All the money they gave me for my tefillin, I gave for my etrog." He started to enumerate with steadily mounting enthusiasm all the virtues of the etrog.

The rebbetzin swallowed her tears and said, "I want to see this great find of yours." The righteous man took out the etrog and unwrapped it. It radiated its beauty and emitted its fragrance, a feast for the eyes and truly fit for the benediction.

The woman said, "Give it to me so I can have a good look at it." She reached out and picked up the etrog. She thought of the pitiful state of her house and the distress of her children who had nothing to eat, and how the festival of Sukkot was nearly here and she had nothing with which to make it festive.

Grief drove the strength from her hands, and the etrog slipped and fell. And having fallen, its stem broke. And the stem having broken, the etrog was no longer fit for ritual use.

The righteous man saw that his etrog was no longer fit for the benediction. He stretched out his two holy hands in despair and said,"Tefillin I have not and etrog I have not; all I have left is anger. But I will not be angry, but I will not be angry."

*  *  *

Now that Hasid who told me this story said to me: I asked my rebbe, "Is that really how it happened?" And my rebbe said to me, "That is how it happened, exactly as I have told it to you." And my rebbe also said to me, "This story — the daughter-in-law of the Holy Preacher, wife of Rabbi Yosef of Yampol, told it to the father of her son-in-Law, Rabbi Baruch of Mezbizh. On the very day that this incident occurred she had been in the Holy Preacher's home and had seen it with her own eyes. And when she told it to Rabbi Baruch the Tzaddik of Mezbizh, Rabbi Baruch, father of her son-in-Law, said to her, 'Mother of my daughter-in-law, tell me the story again from beginning to end. This is a story worth hearing twice.' "


excerpted From: A Book That Was Lost and Other Stories, by S.Y. Agnon. Introduction by Alan Mintz and Anne Golomb Hoffman; translated by Shira Leibowitz and Moshe Kohn. New York: Schocken, 1995.

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