By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
The mitzvah of taking the arba’ah minim on Sukkot is the paradigm of hiddur mitzvah. Since the Torah refers to the etrog as “the fruit of majestic trees” (p’ri eitz hadar), the verse forms the basis for the rule “This is my G-d and I will exalt Him—beautify yourself before Him with mitzvot” (Shabbat 133b). It is from there that the custom spread of making the effort to purchase especially beautiful arba’ah minim, with multiple hiddurim.
The apex of hiddur is the etrog. Many G-d-fearing Jews are willing to pay dearly for an especially beautiful, mehudar etrog. The most significant hiddur has to do with the etrog’s upper segment (chotam) to the pitom at its tip.
Halachic definition of the pitom
- The Rif and Rambam identify the pitom as the dad at the top of the etrog.
- The Ran defines the pitom as the shoshanta on top of the dad. (Definitions below.)
The Mishnah (Sukkah 3:6) states that if the pitom falls off, it is disqualified. The Shulchan Aruch (§648:7 and Rema) rule that the pitom is the “small head with its shoshanta on it … the tree with the top of its nipple-like [protrusion] on it.” The Shulchan Aruch follows the Rambam’s opinion.
The status of an etrog that grows without a pitom
The Rema (§648:7): “What does this refer to (that the etrog becomes disqualified when its pitom is removed)? That it had a pitom and it was removed; but if it never had a pitom, it is kosher. And such are the majority of the etrogim imported to these countries.” Since this is the way the etrogim naturally develop, the fact that it lacks a pitom does not render it incomplete.
The pitom through the lens of botany
Once we become acquainted with the botanical process of the fruit’s growth and the pitom’s formation, we can truly understand the subject.
The etrog tree has many blossoms. At the center of the blossom is the style, at the edge of which is the stigma (whose job it is to gather the pollen in order to form the etrog seeds). When the etrog begins to develop, the top segment of the style develops into what the poskim term the dad, while the stigma, above it, develops into the shoshanta. Afterwards, the bottom part of the style thickens and gradually develops into the etrog fruit. These processes are directed and regulated by various growth hormones that are formed in the plant, which also cause the blossom’s white petals to fall off, as well as the other developmental stages from the blossoming stage until it turns into a fruit.
Among the hormones active in these processes are agents responsible for the pitom remaining connected to the etrog. When these hormones reach a certain concentration, the pitom stays attached. If the hormones are at a different level, the pitom falls off. After the pitom falls, special scab tissue forms over the place the pitom had been (generally brown), which closes the “open wound” left when the pitom fell off.
It is common to find on the same branch etrogim with and without a pitom; it has nothing to do with whether or not the etrog is grafted, as some have claimed in the past.
Today, artificial chemical treatment (a growth hormone agent) can ensure that the pitom remains intact on the etrog while on the tree.
Distinguishing between an etrog whose pitom broke off (invalid) and an etrog that grew naturally without a pitom
First, note that all etrogim grow with a pitom at their early stages of development; the question is only whether the pitom fell off while the etrog was still attached to the tree. When the pitom falls off when the etrog is on the tree, light-brown scab tissue forms, which covers up the area where the pitom fell. However, if the pitom broke off after the fruit was already detached from the tree, this scab does not form. At first the area will be brown; eventually it turns black. This distinguishing feature makes a pitom break clearly identifiable.
Practical tips for etrog care
- Color: If one purchased a green etrog but wants it to become yellow, place it in a plastic bag with an apple for several days (but first ascertain that the bag is not moist). The gasses emitted by the apple expedite the etrog’s ripening process, and turns it yellow.
- Storage and care: One should keep the etrog in a closed container (even when purchased way in advance of the holiday). The etrog should not be wrapped in a damp cloth and should be kept away from moisture. This is in order to preserve its beauty for the entire duration of Sukkot.
The oketz and performing the mitzvah
The oketz is the stem — the part of the etrog that connected it to the tree. When shaking the etrog along with the rest of the arba’ah minim, the etrog is supposed to be held in the direction “of its growth” (Shulchan Aruch O.C. §651:2). That is, we hold the etrog with the oketz facedown (which is counter-intuitive), since in the beginning of its growth, the oketz is below and the pitom is above. When the fruit forms, the fruit’s weight pushes the oketz upwards.
In order for the mitzvah to be performed directly after the blessing is made (over la’asiyatan), the prevalent custom is to pick up the arba’ah minim with the etrog facedown (the pitom facedown and oketz face-up). The blessing is said, and the etrog is turned over (so the pitom faces up), and then the arba’ah minim are shaken (Shulchan Aruch, O.C. §651:5). Note that if unsure which part of the etrog should face up, it is best to place the etrog on the table when making the blessing, and then pick it up with the pitom face-up, and then shake the arba’ah minim (Shulchan Aruch, ibid., first opinion cited).
Translated and adapted from an article by Dr. Mordechai Shomron, agronomist at Torah VeHa’aretz Institute.
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, mail email@example.com or call 972-8-684-7325.