TAIPEI, Taiwan (JTA) — Rebecca Kanthor, a member of a progressive Jewish community in Shanghai, knows that she can easily order lulavs and etrogs in a few clicks online.
Kanthor, who belongs to Kehilat Shanghai, simply logs onto Taobao, China’s equivalent to Amazon. Etrogs, important components of a ritual for the Sukkot holiday, are known as xiang yuan (fragrant citrus, or citron) in Chinese. While American Jews may spend anywhere between $20 and $200 on a single etrog grown in the Mediterranean, etrogs grown in China, mostly in the southwestern Yunnan province, are available on Taobao for about $2 each.
Taobao also sells a wide array of traditional products made from the etrog, including tea, perfume, preserves and candy. The fruit is well known in China as a medicine used to treat everything from stomach issues to severe cough. (The components of the lulav, the other major component of Sukkot rituals, are available, too, in potted form: palm, willow, and myrtle plants go for around $7 altogether.)
But even though etrogs are available locally, most Jewish communities throughout Asia opt to import them from countries such as Israel or Italy for Sukkot. That’s because rabbinic authorities on Jewish law have for decades debated whether etrogs grown in Asia meet the standards for ritual use.
The etrog plays a central role on Sukkot, when Jews are commanded to hold it as they shake the lulav and recite the holiday’s prayers. The fruit’s ritual significance has given rise to a competitive marketplace: Some Jews pay hundreds of dollars for the perfect fruit and spend hundreds more on etrog boxes.
Most important to observant Jews today are the rules proclaiming that an etrog must be clean and without blemishes; that it retains its pittom — a protrusion separate from the stem; and that the plant must not be grafted.
“Most important: etrog is a weak tree,” said Rabbi Shalom Chazan, an emissary for the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement stationed in Shenzhen, China. “Usually, farmers will make a graftage between an etrog and lemon tree to make it stronger. That makes the etrog not kosher. We don’t know if the Chinese farmers do it or not, therefore we buy from Israel or Italy, and Morocco, to make sure it’s kosher.”
Chabad will import about 40 etrogs to share with the eight Chabad communities throughout China this year, he said.
Centuries of debate
These rules are borne out of rabbinic commentary, not the Torah, which only describes the ritual fruit as p’ri etz hadar, which has been interpreted as “fruit from the beautiful tree,” “beautiful fruit from any tree” or the “choice fruit of a tree.”
Scientists have traced the fruit’s genetic origins to the triangle of southwest China, northern Myanmar and northeast India. Today the etrog still grows in abundance in that area. But it was after the fruit migrated that it caught on with ancient Jews.
According to David Z. Moster, a Bible scholar and author of “Etrog: How a Chinese Fruit Became A Jewish Symbol,” the etrog was the first citrus fruit that traveled from East to West — likely because of its thick rind that hardens rather than rots over time, preserving the fruit and seeds inside. It arrived in Israel around the fourth to third centuries BCE, and while it is not clear when exactly the etrog became the “choice fruit of the tree,” it quickly rose as an important symbol to distinguish Jews from Christians and Samaritans while fulfilling rules laid out in the Torah.
“Every Jewish community has, in the past, found what they wanted the most,” said Moster. “There’s the Yemenite etrog, which, if you get a really good one, you get the size of a football… A lot of the European Jews are looking for [an etrog with] a gartel, a belt… Now, in the modern world, a person like me can go to Borough Park [a heavily Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn] and see 10,000 etrogim in one day.”
In modern times, most Jews in the West used etrogs grown in what is now Israel, the Caribbean or North Africa, including Morocco. But in the East, where most Jewish communities formed in the 18th and 19th centuries, debates over the etrog continued, especially with the discovery of the Chinese “Buddha’s hand” citron, which sprouts finger-like protrusions due to a genetic mutation.
Rabbi Asher Oser of Hong Kong’s historic Ohel Leah synagogue has researched the subject heavily for classes he has taught. He found documents revealing debates among Baghdadi rabbis about the Buddha’s hand citron, which is often not considered an etrog at all. (“All etrogim are citrons but not all citrons are etrogim,” Moster wrote.) Most important, the rabbis wrote, was continuing tradition.
“In the city of Baghdad we don’t allow the Dibdib tree, which has all the signs of an etrog, except it is sour,” wrote Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad in 1909 in response to questions about the Buddha’s hand. “If a person is in a strange place and they find a fruit completely similar to etrogs of the place where they are coming from, then they can be used. If they’re not completely similar… they should not be used.”
Hong Kong’s Jewish community has continued the tradition today, ordering etrogs from Israel or the United States.
Thapan Dubayehudi, a member of the Jewish community in Kochi, India, said Jews enjoyed local etrogs from trees outside of the local synagogue until the late 1990s. But as more Jews began traveling between Israel and Kochi every year, the community elected to ditch the local fruits and use Israeli ones brought back by individuals.
“There’s high-quality, rabbinically blessed supplies coming from Israel. Then why would we grow the local varieties that are usually smaller and not exactly the same species?” Dubayehudi said. “It’s been 30 years, none of the trees are left there.”
A World War II etrog rescue, of sorts
According to researchers, etrogs from what is now Israel or Iraq have long been preferable in Asia. Jewish communities in Shanghai and Kobe, Japan, for decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries received etrogs from the wealthy Abraham family, international traders who had brought a Baghdadi etrog plant with them to Shanghai. It was planted outside the Abraham mansion and tended by Chinese gardeners, according to Yecheskel Leitner’s 1987 book “Operation–Torah Rescue.”
Leitner wrote that this tradition ended after Pearl Harbor, when patriarch David Abraham was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp and the family’s property was seized by the Japanese, who had occupied parts of the city. With the Jewish community desperate for the ritual fruit at Sukkot, someone was sent to climb the walls around the family’s garden and pick etrogs to distribute. The Japanese army then cut down the tree in retaliation.
With no other choice, the Jews were left to source local etrogs and were again faced with the Buddha’s hand variety. The community was conflicted.
“Some experts in halacha [Jewish law] used this etrog for the religious observance without pronouncing the customary blessing over it — to denote their doubts regarding its authenticity,” Leitner wrote. Others used it as a symbolic physical reminder of the mitzvah, while others refused to use it at all.
Getting ‘creative’ to import etrogs
In today’s world, importing fresh fruit across borders is a complicated process that can require significant paperwork and sometimes diplomatic intervention. Chabad was only able to legally import etrogs into China beginning in 2017, after a Chinese professor of Jewish studies helped the communities provide adequate documentation, according to an article from that year on the Lubavitch website. Before then, emissaries had to come up with “creative alternatives,” said Rabbi Shalom Greenberg of Shanghai. Chabad emissaries did not elaborate when asked what those solutions were.
In Taiwan, decades ago, community members would bring etrogs from Hong Kong back to Taipei in their luggage. Since Chabad arrived in 2011, they have been legally imported with the help of the Israeli representative office but not always made available to the wider community.
Today, the Japan Jewish Community in Tokyo also gets help from the Israeli consulate and Chabad, though “nothing is certain until it arrives,” said Rabbi Andrew Scheer. One lulav and etrog set is priced at $150 before shipping, and as far as Scheer knows, etrogs don’t grow locally. “If it could be produced locally, that would be best. Just like with cars, ‘Made in Japan’ implies the highest quality.”
The etrog has long been hard to get, said Moster.
“In many Jewish lands, if they wanted an etrog, they’re gonna have to send someone on a multi-thousand-mile trip and cross many nations, just to be able to pick this thing up and get it there in time,” he said. “So the idea of it being historically hard to get also added to its value.”
At least one community in Asia has used locally grown etrogs since its establishment over 2,000 years ago: the Bene Israel in Western India, where the citron is known as the bijora.
In Bene Israel Jewish culture, the bijora appears across traditions and holidays, said Esther David, a Bene Israel writer from Ahmedabad, a city of about 8 million with a community of about 100 Jews.
“For Bene Israel Jews, Bijora is a holy fruit and placed as an offering with a myrtle twig on the chair of Prophet Elijah, at the synagogue. Bijora is also placed on the prophet’s chair during the circumcision of a Jewish male child,” David said. During a malida — a ceremony of thanksgiving to the prophet Elijah unique to the Bene Israel — a bijora is placed on the ceremonial plate.
Austen Haeems, a member of the Ahmedabad community, has been growing etrogs for over a decade and providing them to the community free of charge. He says they are grown naturally and without grafting, starting from the seed. The trees produce 30 to 40 fruits each year.
But if there isn’t enough to go around, bijoras are readily available at local markets for about 100 rupees, or $1.20, year-round.
“On my dining table, you will always find one etrog. My wife keeps it until it dries up,” Haeems said.
Are you relying on The Times of Israel for accurate and timely coverage right now? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel eleven years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel