By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
The etrog, or citron (Citrus medica), is one of the three original species of citrus fruit. The origin of the etrog is Southeast Asia (the India region), and it was known in the Land of Israel in Biblical times. In excavations in Nippur, an ancient Sumerian city in today’s southeastern Iraq, etrog seeds were discovered that date back to 4000 BCE. The walls of the Karnak Temple in ancient Egypt depict etrog fruit, dated to 1450 BCE; etrog seeds were also found in Egyptian tombs.
In ancient times, healing powers and sacred qualities were ascribed to the etrog in both India and Middle Eastern countries. Other citrus fruit, such as lemons, arrived in the Middle East later on.
The Gartel Etrog
There is an interesting phenomenon that occurs with certain etrog varieties: on the same tree, alongside standard etrogim, grow etrogim with a ridge around the center, giving an impression that the etrog has a small waist. These are popularly known as gartel (Yiddish for “belt”) etrogim. There are several botanical hypotheses as to possible factors influencing this unique formation. Coins from the time of the Bar Kochba Revolt depict the arba’ah minim with a gartel etrog; the mosaic floor of the synagogue in Maon (Nirim, near Netivot in southwest Israel) features gartel etrogim as well. These types of etrogim are often preferred by chassidim who don a gartel during their prayers to serve as a separation between their heart and the lower section of the body, and they are willing to pay top dollar for them.
Eating The Etrog
We see that the etrog was commonly eaten in the times of the Mishnah and Talmud. The Mishnah (Sukkah 4:7) tells us that on Hoshana Rabbah, after having performed the mitzvah of taking the arba’ah minim for the last time and beating the aravot, “Immediately, the children would throw away their lulavim and eat their citrons.” In the Gemara in Kiddushin (70a), R’ Nachman suggests that R’ Yehuda ate his etrog. In light of the above, it is clear that the etrog was a prominent citrus fruit in the Middle East.
The Gemara cites certain medicinal qualities of the etrog (Shabbat 109b), saying that eating a sweet etrog filled with honey is an antidote to poisonous snake venom. The Rambam writes that “the etrog peel strengthens the heart and its seeds serve as an antidote to poisons” (Pirkei Moshe B’Refuah).
Today there is a popular segulah for an easy childbirth—eating etrog jam made from etrogim used for the arba’ah minim, especially when great rabbis made a berachah on them. This segulah is attributed to Rabbi Rachamim Nissim Yitzchak Palagi (1813–1907; Izmir, Turkey), son of the renowned Rabbi Chaim Palagi. The segulah is associated with the opinion that the Tree of Knowledge was an etrog tree, and after Chava ate from it she was cursed with painful childbirth. It follows that eating an etrog that was used for a mitzvah and blessed (especially by great rabbis) on Sukkot, and thereafter undergoes a sweetening process to turn it into jam, serves as a rectification for Chava’s sin and can help ease childbirth.
The Grafted Etrog
The Torah forbids grafting trees of two different species (kil’ei ilan). All over the world, etrog trees are grafted, either onto lemon or hushhash trees. The issue of grafted etrogim arose in the late 16th century in Europe, and the vast majority of poskim forbid using a grafted etrog as part of the arba’ah minim.
Why can’t a grafted etrog be used for the arba’ah minim?
The main reason is that this is a mitzvah ha’ba ba’aveirah, a mitzvah performed by means of a transgression (the Gemara cites the example of a stolen lulav), since grafting different species is a Torah prohibition.
Another approach views such etrogim as the products of two different trees (an etrog scion and a lemon rootstock), meaning that the etrog is not 100 percent an etrog. Note that according to current scientific studies, the fruit’s genetic makeup is only from the scion (the etrog tree), and not from the rootstock. That is, if we plant seeds from a grafted etrog, they will grow as etrog trees for all intents and purposes, without any rootstock influences.
There are places where local farmers grow in the same orchard non-grafted etrogim for Jews and grafted etrogim for non-Jews (for candied etrogim, jams, liquor, and cosmetics).
All kashrut agencies worldwide ensure that the etrogim they certify are not grafted, so you can rest assured that etrogim with kashrut certification are not grafted.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.