Growing Etrog Citron: How To Grow An Etrog Tree
Of the large variety of citrus available, one of the oldest, dating back to 8,000 B.C., bears etrog fruit. What is an etrog you ask? You may have never heard of growing etrog citron, as it is generally too acidic for most people’s taste buds, but it holds special religious significance for Jewish people. If you are intrigued, read on to find out how to grow an etrog tree and additional care of citron.
What is an Etrog?
The origin of etrog, or yellow citron (Citrus medica), is unknown, but it was commonly cultivated in the Mediterranean. Today, the fruit is primarily cultivated in Sicily, Corsica and Crete, Greece, Israel and a few of the Central and South American countries.
The tree itself is small and shrub-like with new growth and blossoms tinged with purple. The fruit looks like a large, oblong lemon with a thick, bumpy rind. The pulp is pale yellow with lots of seeds and, as mentioned, a very acidic taste. The aroma of the fruit is intense with a hint of violets. The leaves of the etrog are oblong, mildly pointed and serrated.
Etrog citrons are grown for the Jewish harvest festival Sukkot (Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles), which is a Biblical holiday celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei following Yom Kippur. It is a seven-day holiday in Israel, elsewhere eight days, and celebrates the Israelites’ pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. It is believed that the fruit of the etrog citron is “the fruit of a goodly tree” (Leviticus 23:40). This fruit is highly prized by observant Jews, specifically fruit that are unblemished, which may sell for $100 or more.
Less than perfect etrog fruit is sold for culinary purposes. The rinds are candied or used in preserves as well as flavoring for desserts, alcoholic beverages and other savory dishes.
How to Grow an Etrog Tree and Care of Citron
Like most citrus trees, the etrog is sensitive to cold. They can survive short bursts of freezing temps, although the fruit will likely be damaged. Etrog trees thrive in subtropical to tropical climates. Again, as with other citrus, growing etrog citron dislike “wet feet.”
Propagation occurs via grafts and seeds. Etrog citron for use in Jewish religious ceremonies cannot be grafted or budded onto other citrus rootstock, however. These must be grown on their own roots, or from seed or cuttings descended from stock known to have never been grafted.
Etrog trees have wickedly sharp spines, so be careful when pruning or transplanting. You will probably want to plant the citrus in a container so you can move it indoors as temperatures dip. Be sure that the container has drainage holes so the tree’s roots are not drenched. If you keep the tree indoors, water once or twice a week. If you keep the etrog outdoors, especially if it is a hot summer, water three or more times per week. Lessen the amount of water during the winter months.
Etrog citron is self-fruitful and should bear fruit within four to seven years. If you wish to use your fruit for Succot, be aware that you should have your growing etrog citron checked by a competent rabbinical authority.
Grown for its fascinatingly large and lumpy fruits with a scent that combines lemon and violet, the citron plant, sometimes known by its South Indian name "Dabbakaya tree," has eight different kinds of cultivars. According to Purdue University, they are: Citrus medica 'Corsican,' Citrus medica 'Diamante,' Citrus medica 'Etrog,' Citrus medica 'Sarcodactylus' (also known as Fingered Citron or Buddha's Hand), Citrus medica 'Bajoura,' Citrus medica 'Chhangura,' Citrus medica 'Madhankri' and Citrus medica 'Turunji.'
Around the holidays, citron fruit is especially popular at many grocery stores, as citron is the candied peel you find on fruitcakes. Britannica mentions that many types of citron are used for Hebrew religious rites, especially during Sukkoth, with the thick peel being cured in brine, candied and sold as a confection in some places. The pulp is firm and somewhat dry and either acidic or sweet. It is generally used only for byproducts.
The extraordinary history of the etrog
It should be simple. The holiday of Succot approaches and you buy the four species mandated by the Torah. The lulav (palm branch) with its accompanying willow and myrtle stems are easily chosen. But choosing the etrog is an entirely different matter.For the most mehudar (exquisite) etrog, you need to spend time studying the hundreds of yellow lemon-like fruits at your local etrog dealer. Who would have thought that behind this fine, fragrant, and beautiful fruit is a history of political intrigue, worldwide business domination, and acerbic religious disputes that left a sour taste in the mouths of many?
The phrase used by the Torah to describe the etrog is pri etz hadar or "the fruit of a beautiful tree" (Lev. 23:40). Modern Hebrew for all fruit of the citrus family (lemon, orange, etc.) is "hadar."
The oral tradition from Sinai is very clear: the fruit we take today and have used for thousands of years is the etrog, or citron, known scientifically as Citrus Medica, (because of its medicinal uses, or Citrus Media, attributed to its Persian origin).
The etrog is also called "Adam's apple," or "paradise apple," and is one of the suggested candidates for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
That was all fine and dandy for Jews living in the Holy Land and Persia, where the etrog was well-established. Prof. Ari Schaffer of the Volcani Institute for Agricultural Research in Beit Dagan cites Maimonides's thesis presented in his Guide for the Perplexed that the Torah's mandate of these particular four species is that "they were plentiful in those days in Eretz Yisrael, so that everyone could easily get them."
Schaffer also notes that the etrog specifically fulfills the symbolic role of the plant growing largely on the coastal plains of Israel and demanding much water, as part of the ritual of the four species which represent water-loving plants in the various ecological habitats of Israel (palm - desert willow - river beds myrtle - mountains etrog - plains).
The etrog was unique in the ancient period as a tree that required intense irrigation (hadar was even interpreted in the Talmud as "hydro," the water tree), unlike native Israeli fruit trees such as the fig, date, grape, and pomegranate.
This ritual coincides with the other water rituals of Succot, including the water libations, because both thanks and prayers are specifically offered for rain during this period.
In fact, the history of the citrus fruit has its roots in the Far East. Botanical historians followed the etrog from its origins in the Far East westward. Jewish tradition holds that the etrog was transmitted from father to son from the time of the giving of the Torah.
One thing is sure: by the time of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, it was well-rooted as the first citrus fruit in the western world. The fruit is described in detail by the great Greek naturalist Theophrastus, a contemporary of Alexander, and extolled for its medicinal value as well as its fragrance.
The Jews, however, constantly used it on the joyous holiday of Succot. An unusual event occurred during the Simchat Bet Hasho'eva, the joyous celebration of water libation during the intermediate days of the holiday.
During the first century BCE, Alexander Yanai, the sixth and last of the Maccabean ruler high priests, had angered the Pharisee population by his Hellenized, military behavior. The outrage at this soldier priest climaxed when he brazenly expressed Sadducee beliefs by pouring the water libation on his feet (Succah 4:9), and he was pelted with etrogim by the multitudes gathered on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
With the dispersion of the Jews to the four corners of the earth, the heretofore unknown fruit went with them. For why would a fruit with almost no pulp, little known benefit, that needs copious quantities of water and care, and that is particularly fragile find itself being grown in orchards on the perimeter of the Mediterranean Sea?
It was clearly to enable the fulfillment of the precept commanded in the Torah. It appears in the Peloponnesus (southern Greece) and Mauritania in the first and second centuries. From Israel westward we find it transplanted to Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco. Going north, it was dispersed to Lebanon, Syria, Greece and Italy.
Jewish art and coins
We find numerous examples of the etrog on mosaic floors and frescoed walls of synagogues from the Roman and Byzantine period. Sometimes it appears with the lulav and other times alone.
It's such an important Jewish icon that it is also found on numerous coins of the Great Revolt in the year 66 CE, and is a common theme on the coins of the Bar Kochba rebellion of 132-135 CE. In fact, its appearance in non-Jewish art is considered to be a sign of Judaizing influences. Even the well-known belt or "gartle" around the middle of the fruit which is especially chosen by many hassidim can be seen to be prevalent 2,000 years ago, based on depictions on coins of the first and second centuries, as well as various synagogue mosaics.
The "gartle" can already be observed on the fruitlet only days after the flower opens, and is caused by the ring of anthers in the flower physically constricting the fruitlet, much like a rotund hassid tying a gartle around his belly.
One of the most interesting testimonies from a Bar Kochba period coin is the representation of the Four Species showing a single etrog, a single lulav, a single willow branch and a single myrtle branch, rather than the two willows and three myrtles we are accustomed to. This is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Akiva, Bar Kochba's supporter, that "just as the etrog and lulav are single, so too are the willow and myrtle."
The use by Bar Kochba of the etrogim on his rebellion coins is all the more poignant when we discover that one of the very few letters found intact in the caves of the Judean desert by Yigal Yadin was written by Bar Kochba himself, and deals with his army and its supply difficulties.
"Shimon to Yehudah Bar Menashe: Kiryat Arabaya. I have sent two donkeys. You shall send two men with them to Yehonatan bar Be'ayan and to Masabla. They shall pack and bring back to you palm branches and etrogim. You should send others from your place to bring back myrtles and willows. See that they are tithed. Send them all to my camp. Our army is large. Peace."
High finance and the etrog
It would seem that as long as Jews stayed in the moderate climate on the shores of the Mediterranean, there was no difficulty obtaining etrogim for the holiday. As people moved north into France, Germany, Poland and Russia, however, the temperature-sensitive tree could not exist and tremendous problems ensued. In fact, the halachic literature is replete with cases of only one etrog being available to fulfill an entire community's need.
The commercial aspect regarding the Jews' willingness to buy these fruits at any price was not lost on the non-Jews. In 1329, victorious Guelph Florence prohibited the republic of Pisa from engaging in the etrog trade, keeping the lucrative business for itself. Empress Maria Theresa (mid-18th century) demanded a huge annual tax of 40,000 florins from the Jews of Bohemia for the right to import their etrogim.
The local Jewish community was often in charge of etrogim sales, and a small tax was levied in order to help with communal expenses. The fledgling Ashkenazi community of Jerusalem in the first half of the 19th century was prohibited from engaging in the etrog trade.
One of the early etrog dealers in Palestine to break the Sephardic monopoly was Rabbi Yaakov Sapir, for whom the Jerusalem Hills moshav Even Sapir is named. He describes how "when I came from the holy city of Tzfat, may it be rebuilt, to Jerusalem, the holy city, may it be rebuilt, in the year 1835, the entire business was in the hands of the Sephardic community. A great rabbi, who was in charge of the fund, would send two people in the month of Av every year, who were born in Israel, to bring the necessary number of erogim. In those days, 500 etrogim was more than enough."
The etrog tree is very delicate, requiring constant care. It starts to bear fruit after about five years, but because it is vulnerable to a number of diseases, particularly those of the root system, they rarely live more than 10 or 15 years.
The solution is to graft an etrog onto a base of another citrus tree, most often a lemon tree, thus using the hearty base of the lemon to nourish the etrog.
A grafted-citron tree, known as a murkav, has a life expectancy of 30 to 35 years, is more durable, and requires less care. After just a few years, the place where the two trees were joined becomes difficult to detect, and it is then virtually impossible to determine if a tree is pure or grafted. At times the graft union is below ground level, adding difficulty to the diagnosis.
No mention is made in the Talmud, early commentators, Maimonides, or even the Shulchan Aruch about the halachic status of a grafted etrog, despite the fact that the technique of grafting was known from before the talmudic period.
Not only were they familiar with the general principal of grafting, but Maimonides even discusses grafting etrogim, albeit not in the context of Succot but rather related to the pagan rituals that often accompanied the grafting procedure.
This silence by the rabbis on the suitability of murkav fruit may be because they did not commonly graft etrogim, possibly because there were not yet any other citrus plants in Israel on which to graft them, since the second citrus fruit to be introduced into the Middle East, the lemon, makes its appearance only in the Middle Ages. Or the omission may be because such an etrog would actually not have been problematic in their eyes.
The first discussion of a concern over an etrog murkav is by scholars of the Holy Land and Italy in the 16th century, who probably personally witnessed what was by then a widespread procedure. Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen, known as the Maharam mi'Padua (1482-1565, Padua, Italy) and Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508-ca. 1593 Safed), a student of Rabbi Joseph Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, or Code of Jewish Law, were among the first to discuss and prohibit the grafted etrog.
Although these are the earliest recorded prohibitors, from these sources it is clear that the phenomenon already had established roots, positions on its use were known, and most likely the use of such etrogim was widespread.
Over the centuries, while it was generally held that a murkav was unacceptable, the search for a reason offered fertile ground for a plethora of suggestions as to its invalidation.
Some of these reasons are:
1. Due to the fact that the fruit must be whole and not missing a piece (chaser), the grafted etrog is considered as being partially from each fruit and therefore not complete.
2. Possibly the identity of a fruit is determined by the trunk of the tree on which it appears, meaning that a grafted etrog is not even considered to be an etrog but rather a lemon.
3. Because the fruit consists partially of a lemon, using it for the mitzvah entails adding an additional species, which violates the prohibition of bal tosif (adding onto mitzvot).
4. Interspecies grafting of any kind is a biblical prohibition, and using the progeny of an illicit act for a mitzvah is "repugnant to God."
Most authorities are willing to apply this rationale even if the grafting was done by non-Jews. However, it is actually not clear whether the etrog and lemon are in fact considered distinct species according to halakha.
Over the past few hundred years, following the prohibition of grafted etrogim, various physical, botanical characteristics have been proposed to distinguish between the grafted and pure etrog: the murkav is smooth like the lemon, while the etrog is rough and bumpy the grafted etrog has a protruding stem, while the pure one has a recessed stem the real etrog has a very thick skin and almost no pulp, while the grafted one has a thin skin like the lemon and a liquidy pulp finally, the pure citron has seeds that lie longitudinally (i.e. parallel to the long axis), while in the murkav the seeds lie latitudinally (horizontally).
The important 19th-century authority, the Chatam Sofer, greatly minimized the utility of these late, non- talmudic signs.
In lieu of anatomical markers to identify an ungrafted etrog, he demanded the existence of an unbroken mesorah, tradition, as is required in order to identify kosher birds. He did, however, grant weight to two other signs that have their roots in the Talmud. The etrog is described as the only tree in which the fruit and the tree have the same taste. In addition, the etrog is considered unique in that the fruit will stay on the tree past its "season" and continue to grow and thrive year-round.
Prof. Eliezer Goldschmidt of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem's faculty of agricultural, food, and environmental quality sciences, and a world expert on etrogim, has studied the history of the etrog as well as the morphological and genetic effects of grafting. He concludes that genetically, grafting has no effect on the etrog fruit, and that the fruit growing on a branch of the etrog scion (the stem portion of the tree) will remain the same etrog irrespective of the tree used as the stock (the root portion of the grafted tree).
Interestingly, some of the most recent scientific research in the field of plant molecular biology suggests that in certain cases there can actually be a transfer of genetic material across graft unions in plants. But nevertheless, from a scientific view, a grafted etrog has the same makeup as a non-grafted one.
The etrog wars
As the Jewish population of northern Europe proliferated, the need to import etrogim from far away, namely the Italian and Greek coasts and neighboring islands, grew, and the possibility of graft increased. In fact, the non-Jewish merchants understood the fortunes that could be made, and actually turned the grafted etrogim into an exquisitely beautiful fruit.
The unparalleled experts were the islanders of Corfu.
No one knows exactly when etrog orchards first started in Corfu, but the Corfu etrog appears to have first been sold in Sephardic lands in the mid-18th century. By the last decades of the 18th century, these beautiful etrogim were introduced to the Ashkenazim.
Corfu etrogim were characterized by their stunning appearance, relatively steep price, and by the retained stigma (pitam), taken by many as a sign that they had been grafted. This led to questions regarding their fitness.
Not everyone, however, agreed that a murkav is unkosher. The Hungarian rabbi Meir ben Isaac (b. 1708), in his work Panim Me'irot, concludes that since a murkav has all the properties of a pri etz hadar it should be kosher. The Rashban (Rabbi Shlomo Tzvi Schick) permitted buying etrogim of questionable lineage from the local etrog merchant, a widow, because supporting her is a greater hiddur than the fear of grafted etrogim.
Throughout the first half of the 19th century, Corfu etrogim were widely distributed and, for many, were the preferred variety. A large number of Sephardic rabbis were wary of the potential for fraud but accepted etrogim from Corfu as long as they had local rabbinic validation.
In Poland and Lithuania, there was also widespread use of the Corfu etrog, although the rabbinic reaction was mixed, but rarely equivocal. People either preferred the Corfu beauty and were willing to pay the premium price or held it to be part lemon and invalidated it totally.
In 1846, all heck broke loose, and what would be probably the most ferocious and acrimonious halachic debate of 19th-century Europe burst forth. This fascinating piece of Jewish history was the subject of a recent in-depth study by Prof. Yosef Salmon of Ben Gurion University.
Behind the initial salvo was Alexander Ziskind Mintz, a learned resident of Brody who earned his livelihood from selling etrogim. He had actually achieved a monopoly the previous year on citrons from Parga on the Ionian coast of Greece, near Corfu.
He published a booklet titled Pri Etz Hadar that prohibited the etrogim of Corfu and the surrounding areas such as the Albanian coast. It seems that a former partner of his had broken off and set up shop in these new areas. In order to stop him, Mintz solicited and received the support of many of the great rabbis of the time, all of whom were included in this slender volume. Their claim was that the exceptional beauty of the Corfu fruit was actually what damned it. A real etrog could never be as perfect as a grafted one. In parallel, a minor brouhaha erupted over the etrogim from Corsica that were also suspected of being grafted.
The chief rabbi of Corfu, Rabbi Yehudah Bibias, countered that he had personally checked the local etrogim and they were not grafted. Furthermore, he argued that grafting in the warm climate of Corfu is actually detrimental to the fruit.
Numerous rabbis lined up behind the Corfu etrogim, as did many consumers who continued to prefer the attractive Corfu product.
From that time onwards, all etrogim were sold with rabbinic supervision reading "kosher with no concern of being grafted." Yet the argument persisted, engendering many letters and responses.
Fortunes hung in the balance. Various rabbinical prohibitions over the years were either observed or ignored, but everybody agreed on one thing - the beauty of the Corfu fruits was unsurpassed.
The farmers of Corfu fought back, found supporters among the Hassidim, and a number of times even dumped thousands of citrons into the ocean to create a shortage to raise the price. The temptation for a beautiful etrog was so great that despite the rabbinic ban, Jews continued to purchase those etrogim.
In 1876, the debate was reignited with the publication of a broadside signed by 117 Polish rabbis banning the Corfu etrog, and so once again the rabbi of Corfu defended "his" product.
Two additional factors conspired to doom the Corfu etrog. In 1891 the Greek population of Corfu, never known for their love of Jews, became involved in a blood libel. The Avnei Nezer wrote of "the etrogim of Corfu that are in the hands of the uncircumcised Greeks, known through their writings to be Amalekites, may their names be erased."
From as far away as Newark, New Jersey, a call was issued to ban Corfu etrogim. A broadside was issue there in 1892 which described the importers of Corfu etrogim to the United States as "traders in the blood of Israel" who, "since there is hardly a man in Europe who will touch them, bought these etrogim dripping with the blood of the children of Zion."
The second factor was the Israeli etrog crop. There had always been a small, local etrog industry in the Land of Israel. The tradition on the kashrut of the etrogim from Tiberias, Safed, Shechem and Jaffa was very old. Some of the orchards had been planted by Rabbi Yosef Karo in Safed, some 300 years earlier.
In fact, Rabbi Chaim Wax, in his Nefesh Haya, published in the mid-19th century, tells us that the entire concern over grafted trees began from the year 1851.
He writes: "Originally all of the land was under the control of the Sultan, and nobody had the right to plant trees, and if he did the extracts were the Sultan's. Who would plant a tree if one knew the fruits would not be theirs? However, there was a garden belonging to the king, and in it no falsity was practised. In 1851 though, permission was granted to plant trees if a tax was paid to the king, and since then there has been an increase in the fakers and grafters."
The orchards in the Land of Israel were all in Arab hands, and etrogim were relatively inexpensive. In the mid 19th century local Sephardim entered the etrog trade, and soon thereafter the Ashkenazim accused them of peddling grafted etrogim . The Ashkenazim too started selling etrogim. After several decades of bitter fighting, Israeli etrogim garnered the strong support of chief rabbi Avraham Kook. Kook suggested raising kosher etrogim in Israel, and making the Land the leading supplier of etrogim.
"The future, my brother, is with the kosher etrog, with the power of kashrut, and only with the kosher etrog will we win the battle of those who are against us, the Corfu mamzer [etrogim]."
There was even a famous trip across Israel on donkey by the leading rabbis of Jerusalem at the end of the 19th century in search of non-grafted etrogim. The journey was described in all the newspapers.
There is the quaint description of their sojourn among the Arab orchardists, and how they dug around the base of the trees looking for the graft scar. Originally the Israeli etrogim were of significantly poorer quality, but Kook, in an effort to boost sales, published a text extolling the virtues of using specifically etrogim from the Land of Israel on Succot.
So too the famed Lithuanian authority Rabbi Yechiel Epstein included in his Halakhic work, Aruch Hashulchan, a plug for Israeli etrogim, not only because he said they are unquestionably kosher, but because of the importance of buying from the Land of Israel.
Rabbi Hezekiah Modena (19th century, Israel) writes: "If Israel's etrogim are not the loveliest on earth, they will be the loveliest in Heaven."
Over time, the Israeli etrog became "lovelier on earth," and has won the etrog wars. Today Israel is the world's leading supplier of etrogim for Succot, and most Jewish communities worldwide pride themselves in using the holy fruit from the Holy Land.
There are a few exceptions to this unifying theme of world Jewish ritual usage. One interesting exception is the Chabad sect, which adamantly uses etrogim of the Diamente variety from Calabria, near the southern portion of the boot of Italy.
Schaffer relates that Chabad followers are known to pass on the legend that when Moses received the commandment during the wanderings through the desert to take the etrog, he naturally looked around the desolation around him, bewildered, and asked the Almighty, "From where am I supposed to take them?"
And the Almighty took Moses upon a cloud and flew him around the world until he landed in Calabria, where he picked the first etrogim used by Jews for the ritual of Succot. And to this day they preserve the custom of using Calabrian etrogim.
The modern etrog
Nothing, of course, will stop the bickering about whose etrog is the genuine article, and today in Israel several "breeds" are grown.
Some have posited that the "Yemenite etrog" is the closest to the "original" fruit used by the Jews in days of old.
It is large, without pulp, and edible, indicating to its supporters that the lemon has not been grafted with it. It is still grown in the orchards of Yemen in the same primitive ways as of old. Today, it is also cultivated by Jews of Yemenite ancestry in Israel.
Others vote for the etrogim of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, grown by Berber tribesmen in primitive and ancient conditions.
Prof. Eliezer Goldschmidt pointed out in an article in T'chumin that there is simply no way to tell if an etrog today is a descendent of a grafted tree or one that naturally cross pollinated years ago.
Nonetheless, he and his colleagues in a recent study compared the DNA of 12 etrogim from a variety of sources and found great similarities, indicating that "all the currently acknowledged types of citrons appear to be 'true,' authentic citrons."
Despite the DNA evidence that these are all one species, business is booming for all, as there are still buyers who prefer only one of the various types.
Ari Greenspan is a dentist in Jerusalem and Ari Zivotofsky teaches neuroscience at Bar Ilan University. Together they have been "halachic adventurers" for over 20 years.
10 things you didn’t know about the etrog
Over here in Israel, Sukkot is the cherry on top of the never-ending High Holiday season. Not only does it not require fasting, repenting or staring at a fish head throughout dinner (we’re looking at you, Rosh Hashana!), it involves DIY decorations, camping on the balcony and getting a whole week off school.
Alongside its namesake sukkot, or temporary dwellings, the festival’s most recognized symbols are the four species: the etrog (citron), lulav (palm branch), hadas (myrtle) and aravah (willow) that are taken in hand or waved during some of the holiday prayers.
Of these, the etrog is perhaps the most famous and, dare we say it, the most interesting. How interesting? Scroll down below for some fabulously fun facts on that most precious of citrus fruit.
The etrog’s scientific name is citrus medica, which alludes to its first mention in Western literature by Greek philosopher and botanist Theophrastus, who called it “Persian or Median apple.”
And yet, the etrog’s roots lie even further east, at the foothills of the Himalayas, from where it spread back to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean.
The etrog is one of the four “founding fathers” of all the citrus fruit in the world, alongside pomelo, mandarin and papedas (from which yuzu and kaffir lime are derived). That’s right. An etrog is not a type of lemon, but rather the other way around.
- It made its way to the Land of Israel with Babylonian exiles
The Jews weeping by the rivers of Babylon came across etrogim while in exile there (around 586 to 516 BCE) and brought them back to the Land of Israel when they returned to build the Second Temple. It became a symbol that adorned coins and synagogues. Mosaics depicting these fruits can be seen in the remains of the ancient Beit Alpha Synagogue and elsewhere.
- There’s ancient evidence of it in Israel
Back in 2012, researchers discovered etrog pollen in an ancient garden belonging to a 2,500-year-old royal palace located in Ramat Rachel in southern Jerusalem.
The researchers didn’t find the pollen in the ground, but rather trapped inside the plaster used to coat a water pool. The fossil pollen that was discovered was used to identify the type of trees and plants that adorned the royal garden – among them etrog trees and the similarly non-indigenous cedar of Lebanon and Persian walnut tree.
- The Bible doesn’t explicitly mention etrogim for Sukkot
The biblical commandment to wave the four species speaks not of etrogim, but of “the fruit of splendid trees.” While the identification of etrog as the required fruit was made later in the Talmud, the custom became deeply ingrained. The identification of the etrog with the commandment is even the source of the Hebrew word for citrus – hadar, or “splendid.”
- The etrog’s condition is a very serious matter
For an etrog to be considered suitable for ritual use on Sukkot, it must comply with strict standards. First it must be a pure citron — not hybridized or grafted with any other species. Second, the knobby bit at the top of the fruit, called pitam , must either be complete or should have naturally shed during the growing process. If the whole pitam is unnaturally broken off, the etrog is no longer kosher. Needless to say, it also needs to be blemish-free. No wonder they’re kept safe in silky fibers and fancy boxes.
- Science has discovered a way to keep pitamim whole
Seeing as the condition of the etrog and particularly its pitam is such a serious matter, it’s a good thing that science has managed to come to its rescue. An auxin, or plant hormone, developed by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Prof. Eliezer E. Goldschmidt prevents the pitam from dropping off, no doubt saving many thousands of citrons from being thrown in the bin.
- Only a fraction of Israeli etrogim are sold each year
According to Joshua D. Klein, a scientist at the Agriculture Ministry’s Volcani Center, the market for Israeli etrogim stands at 1.8 million to 2 million fruit per year. But this is only a fraction of the number of etrogim grown, since so many get thrown away for being imperfect or not up to the ever-increasing demands and standards of customers.
Israeli etrogim are grown by about 10 farmers around the coastal plain – although there is also an etrog orchard down in Eilat – on about 60 to 75 acres of land. Etrogim are also grown in Morocco, California and Brazil, which produces more citrons than Israel but doesn’t use any for Jewish ritual, instead turning them into fruit preserves for cake, Klein notes.
- Etrog marmalade on toast
Speaking of fruit preserves, etrogim are unlike lemons in that they are very dry fruit with very thick skin. The best culinary use for them is in the form of candied peel, preserves or jam. Certainly makes a festive change from plain old orange marmalade on toast.
- And what about etrog beer?
If etrog marmalade doesn’t do it for you, you can always enjoy it in a beer. Each year, Tel Aviv’s boutique beer brewery The Dancing Camel releases a seasonal beer for the holidays called ‘trog wit, a Belgian-style Witbier that has an etrog-y floral fragrance. According to the company, the fragrance “adds a heavenly balance to the unmalted Israeli wheat.” Sounds fun.
- Etrogim star in an award-winning Israeli movie
Etrogim appear in art forms other than ancient mosaics, including an award-winning Israeli movie. Called Ushpizin, the 2004 film tells the story of a poor religious couple in Jerusalem who miraculously receive a large sum of money to celebrate the festival of Sukkot properly with a super-fancy etrog but who are then tried and tested over the course of the holiday.
Starring Israeli singer and actor Shuli Rand, who received Best Actor at the Ophir Awards for his role, the movie was a hit in Israel, giving audiences a glimpse at life in an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem community.
Planting Citron Trees
Since citron trees can only be grown outside in warmer climates, you may only be able to grow them indoors. Make sure to grow your indoor citron in a clay pot that is appropriate for the size of the tree you have purchased or started. University of Minnesota Extension recommends mixing citrus potting soil or cactus soil with peat to keep the pH down since citron trees prefer acidic conditions.
Choose a fertilizer made specifically for acid-loving plants. Mix it at half the recommended strength and only fertilize when the citron plant is growing, usually April through September. Keep your citron slightly root-bound to prevent the roots from getting too wet. Do not water the citron tree until the soil is dry to about an inch below the surface. Water it thoroughly and dump out any liquid that remains in the pot's saucer afterward.
Place the tree in a sunny window or greenhouse where the temperature doesn't fall below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Move it outdoors after the weather warms in the spring and back indoors in the autumn. Fertilize your citron every two weeks during the growing season and stop fertilizing it during the winter months.
These instructions are sent with the plant gift
This unusual lemon tree (Citrus Medica) produces large yellow fruits. One of the oldest members of the citrus family they are often included in Sukkot celebrations. These attractive lemon trees can bring pleasure for years, with the right care.
Etrog citrus trees need plenty of light. A conservatory is ideal but they will also be happy near a window in a cool, bright room. In the summer, your lemon tree will enjoy a patio in sun or partial shade. However young trees are not hardy and will need to come inside as soon as there is a nip in the evening air. When indoors, try to keep your plant away from radiators.
While your lemon tree is in a pot it will need regular watering. Remove the pot from inside its basket or container. Water thoroughly from the top until excess water drains right through the pot and out of the bottom. This will ensure the roots at the bottom get the water they need. In the winter you should expect to water thoroughly once every 7-10 days, in the summer months you may need to water up to 3 times a week but do not stand your plant in water. Don"t worry if the top of the soil feels dry between waterings, but if the leaves start to droop or curl you know it is thirsty, so water straight away. Your Etrog tree will benefit from citrus feed every week or two to encourage growth.
Lemon trees grow quite slowly if you need to, repot in the spring in citrus compost. Etrog trees tend to fruit around October but in this country they can also fruit or flower at any point during the year. The fragrant flowers will give way to small green fruit that will slowly swell and ripen to a bright yellow.
Etrog trees are not the easiest of plants but they are very rewarding. Look out for signs of trouble and try to treat problems early. The most common problem is leaves dropping due to over or under watering. If leaves are crisp when they drop, this is due to underwatering if they are leathery the chances are it has been over watered. A return to a regular and thorough watering routine should lead to recovery.If new growth is very light in colour or has mottled markings your plant may be lacking trace elements. A good dose of citrus feed should soon green up the leaves. Our lemon trees are grown in a pesticide free environment. In the unlikely event that you find pests eg. aphids these can be removed by hand or with a soap and water spray.
The large Etrog fruits tend to ripen around October
An Etrog Tree Grows In Arizona
Matt Bycer is like any other 33-year-old attorney who wakes up at the crack of dawn to exercise.
Except that rather than sweating to a P90X regimen, Bycer, in a T-shirt, shorts and cowboy hat, lugs 170 buckets of water across his backyard in Scottsdale, Ariz., to water his etrog farm.
The Phoenix native has been nurturing his citron project since he first started collecting etrogs in 2007. With a 60 percent survival rate for each etrog tree he plants, Bycer is optimistic that he’ll be up for production in five years and able to sell the valuable fruit to Jews across America.
The etrog (also pronounced esrog) is one of four plant species that Jews are enjoined to pick up and shake daily during the weeklong holiday of Sukkot, which this year begins on the eve of Sept. 30.
“I’m a patent lawyer by day and farmer by dawn,” he said. “It’s a lot of work to run this esrog farm, and a lot of people laugh at me and think its kooky, but I have a huge backyard and I like working outside. I’m really dedicated to this.”
Bycer started his etrog farm after discovering there was a need for U.S.-grown etrogs — particularly every seventh year during the “shmitah” sabbatical, when the Torah’s command that the land of Israel lie fallow handicaps Israeli etrog farmers. The last time such a shmitah year occurred, in 2007, many observant Jews were forced to rely on a rabbinic loophole to procure Israeli etrogs because of an insufficient supply from the Diaspora.
Etrogs retail from a few dollars to several hundred dollars, with most in the $20 to $50 range. Often they are sold as part of a set along with the three other Sukkot species: lulavs (palm fronds), hadassim (myrtle branches) and aravot (willow branches).
The only large-scale etrog supplier in the United States currently is a Presbyterian farmer from northeast California named John Kirkpatrick, who was profiled in a Tablet magazine article last year.
Bycer says he is aware that many who have tried have failed to grow etrogs, including friends of his in Florida and Texas who found the climate was too humid. The fruits need a dry and sunny climate, which is why most of them are grown in Israel. Southern Europe, especially Italy, also is a major source for etrogs.
With Arizona practically as dry as Israel’s Negev Desert, the Copper State appears to be an optimal place to grow American etrogs.
What started as a hobby has become Bycer’s part-time job. He estimates that he puts in at least 15 hours a week and nearly $10,000 every year. His methods for etrog care come from reading material from the horticulture departments of the University of Arizona and University of Florida.
His first attempt at etrog farming ended in failure, when he rented a 2,700-foot house and kept the etrogs indoors, surrounding them with florescent lights and foil-covered walls.
“The whole thing was a disaster because I had no idea what I was doing. There were bugs everywhere, the plants were too wet and everything just died,” he said, laughing. “But part of being a citrus farmer is catching on as you go, so I learned I had to let the plants dry out in between watering them.”
Bycer started again and now has nearly 200 healthy trees. With each tree capable of producing up to 40 fruits, he hopes his sales soon will number in the thousands.
After marrying in 2010, he moved the plants outside to a makeshift greenhouse with walls covered in foil. Bycer inspects them on a daily basis.
To keep his crop organic, Bycer uses chemical-free pesticide alternatives such as fish-oil soap or nicotine-based insecticides. He plants the etrog seeds in small pots right after Sukkot and incubates them inside, then moves the plants outside once they start sprouting six months later.
“The community here has been so supportive,” he said. “Everyone donates their etrog to me after Sukkot so I can plant their seeds.”
Etrogs grow best in 95-degree temperature Arizona highs can soar well into the triple digits. So Bycer shields his etrogs with a shade structure and special cloth, and he constantly sprays them with specialized water. When winter sets in and the temperatures drop to near freezing, Bycer wraps the plants in Christmas lights to keep them warm.
“I really have to spend a lot of time being on top of them,” he said. “All it takes is one day of bad weather, even if it’s a drop too cold or the sun hits a tree too long, and the whole plant can die. And all it takes is one spider mite to eat the plant and it’s done.”
Because Jews cannot agree on which etrog variety is optimal, Bycer has planted an array of specimens: Moroccan etrog, which has an hourglass-like strip around the middle Chazon Ish or Balady etrogs, which are covered in bumps and are very popular Yanover or Diamente etrogs, which are greener and smoother and Yemenite etrogs, which are significantly larger than average.
Once the trees begin to produce fruit, Bycer hopes to supply underserved communities throughout the United States that don’t have easy access to etrogs. Bycer says his wife, Elly, encourages his etrog venture, although she’d prefer he’d spend less time outdoors and more time helping with their 6-month-old daughter, Nava.
“Never mind that I smell like fish oil from inspecting the leaves so much,” Bycer said, “my wife tells me she knows it makes me happy because I’m always smiling when I’m out there.”