Sukkot is fast approaching. For many this means selecting a “mehudar” etrog. Depending upon where one is this task can involve not only selecting an etrog with or without a pitum, bumpy or smoother, with or without a gartel, or a host of other considerations, but also selecting which type, Berman or Hazon Ish. Indeed, today, there are variety of types of etrogim identified by the farm or personalities that have ostensibly certified them as Kosher for use during the holiday. But, how do we know that any of these types are preferred? Where did these etrogim originate? Are they really Kosher?
Until recently, the answers to many of these questions have been shrouded in mystery. Sure one may have been told that so-and-so decided (mostly by merely looking at a particular tree) this etrog is Kosher. Today, however, Zohar Amar, who has written extensively on agriculture and other issues involving mesorah as it relates to Kashrut, has published a book where he investigates these questions, Etrogei Eretz Yisrael, Israel, 2010, 85 pp.
In reality, this latest book complements his book published last year discussing all the four species, Arbat ha-Minim, Israel, 2009, 101 pp. The earlier book, as it relates to etrogim focuses on how and when we identified the etrog with the biblical commandment of “prei etz hadar.” Amar seeks to disprove the notion that etrogim were not native to the Middle East until far after the Jews were present. This is important as some want to argue that the use of etrogim for araba minim is of late origin and thus undermine the mesorah associating etrog with prei etz hadar. Amar’s thesis is can be summed up using the talmudic expression “lo raenu enu rayah.” That is, much of what has been said about this point is predicated on the lack of etrogim seeds or evidence that can be dated to an early period - i.e. when Jews were in Israel practicing the Torah.
Amar provides the earliest evidence that we have of etrogim and their use on Sukkot. For example, etrogim appear on some Jewish coins and in mosaics. While some may associate the “gartel” or figure eight shaped etrogim with hassdim (probably because some hassidim wear such belts all year-round), in reality, many of these early depictions show etrogim with a gartel.
Additionally, Amar discusses the development of using etrogim from outside of Israel and then their importation and eventual grafting of those etrogim. The reason these foreign etrogim were used were because, for the most part, etrogim that are indigenous to Israel aren’t what we would consider mehudar today. Typically they lacked the pitum and weren’t shaped nicely and were smoother than our bumpy etrogim. Thus, some began to use etrogim from outside of Israel. This in turn created a controversy as to whether those etrogim were Kosher as well as whether there is a preference for Israeli etrogim over those from outside of Israel.
As part of this controversy the issue of grafted etrogim became a much larger issue. Indeed, the issue of grafting etrogim doesn’t appear in Jewish literature until 16th century. Amar, discusses the development and application of this concept as it relates to etrogim.
Returning to Amar’s latest book, Etrogei Eretz Yisrael. This time around Amar turns his focus to the mesorah of Israeli etrogim. He has extensively researched this topic and his research included visiting the etrogim farms and speaking with the farmers. What emerges is that for most of the etrogim available today, the best we can trace their pedigree is 100 years. For many, it is less than that. That. is, while many claim significantly longer pedigrees, the stories fail to match with fact. That is not to say that today’s etrogim aren’t Kosher or that many are grafted, only that we don’t have evidence that today’s etrogim are the same as were used more than 100 years ago. Amar concedes that more research, including genetic and other scientific testing is necessary to determine which etrogim are pure and ungrafted.
In all, this latest book is an important one as it sets the baseline for further research regarding etrogim, and, additionally, provides more background on the specific types of etrogim currently available in the marketplace today.
The books are distributed by Girsa and Shalem in Israel and is available at Beigeleisen in the US.