The Etrog: A Glorious Fruit
The custom of waving the arba minim – the branches of myrtle and willow, the palm frond, and the etrog (citron), known as the four species – during Sukkot dates back to Biblical times, when the ceremony was performed in the Temple. The three branches are from trees that grow widely throughout the Middle East, but the fourth component, the strange-looking fruit resembling a knobbly, rough-skinned lemon with very thick pith, was introduced from Persia quite late in Jewish terms, in about 500 BCE.
The etrog (citron) is described in the Bible as etz pri hadar, (Lev. 23:40). The word “hadar” is usually translated as “goodly” or sometimes “beautiful.” Taking the word hadar in its context elsewhere in the Bible, I believe that it really ought to be translated as “glorious.” What could be more glorious-looking than this large, bright yellow citrus fruit, gleaming among the glossy green leaves of a citron tree?
The citron is the oldest citrus fruit known in the West, yet there is no certainty as to where it originally grew wild. The greatest citrus expert of all time, Shmuel Tolkowsky, who also happened to be a Zionist pioneer, wrote the first authoritative book in English about the history of citrus, first published in 1938 (and subsequently translated into Hebrew). Tolkowsky believed that the citron originated at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula in the region known as Hadramaut. In contrast to the rest of the peninsula, the area is lush and fertile and is often claimed to be the original site of the Garden of Eden. Tolkowsky’s book is called Hesperides in reference to the “golden apples” of Greek mythology that grew in the Garden of Hesperides. The word “apple” (pomona) was given to fruit of any kind in Greek and Latin, and it is believed by many classicists that the Golden Apples of Hesperides were, in fact, citrons.
If the citron did originate in the Arabian peninsula, it grew closer to the Near East than all the other commonly known citrus varieties, which originated in southern China, India, and South-East Asia. This would account for it being the first citrus fruit to reach Persia (the Latin name of the fruit, Citrus medica, refers to the Medes). Since the citron was the most beautiful and highly-prized fruit of its time and would have been a great novelty in the time of Leviticus, it is not surprising that it became a symbol of the Sukkot harvest festival, supplanting the original fourth member of the arba minim, which was a cedar cone. This cone is also fragrant like the etrog, which it resembles in shape.
The etrog has the most variable shape and size of all citrus fruits. When mature, a citron may be as small as a lemon (those exported for Sukkot are deliberately kept small, of course, to get more in one box) or as large as a football and often deeply grooved. Some etrog boxes are made in this grooved shape. For sukkot, the etrog must be perfect in every respect and still have the piton – or male nipple (the withered remains of the flower) at the end opposite the stem.
There is another, extraordinary-looking version of the citron known as The Hand of Buddha, in which the segments are external, so that the fruit looks like a bunch of long, green fingers. The citron type required for the arba minim must be the etrog type, however. It must be grown from an ungrafted tree (other commercially grown citrons are grafted onto hardier root stocks, the citron being particularly sensitive to frost).
Before etrog cultivation started in Eretz Israel (another of Sir Moses Montefiore’s initiatives), etrogim were mainly imported from the Greek island of Corfu to Europe, a custom that began as early as the days of the Second Temple. The mistake made by the island’s Jews, however, is that they did not themselves cultivate the fruit, but left it to the local farmers. In 1875, the Corfu growers formed a cartel and drastically increased the price, thinking the Jews would have no option but to pay. This caused the etrog to be largely imported from elsewhere, especially Corsica and Diamante in Calabria, a city that has even given its name to the citron variety grown there. This variety of etrog is also known as the Yanova (Genoa) etrog, since the Jews of Eastern Europe confused the port of shipping with the growing centre.
The reason why the citron is not a common citrus fruit any more is because the white part is very thick and the juice is sparse and slightly bitter – but the fruit has a wonderful fragrance and is used in Southeast Asia as a natural air-freshener (keep your etrog in your car, it will get rid of all those gasoline smells!). Yet the citron was once grown for its juice, which can still be made into refreshing citronade, known in Italy as cedrata. Nowadays, the citron’s thick peel is used to make the finest candied peel for use in fruit cakes and confectionery.