Fruit of the Beautiful Tree

By Carol Novis

Published September 18, 2007, issue of September 21, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

“This is a good year for etrogs,” said Levi Zagelbaum, a wholesaler who is president of the Esrog Headquarters Inc. in New York. Despite the fact that the fruit was picked especially early in the season in Israel, in observance of shmitta (the biblical commandment to let soil lie fallow every seventh year), Zagelbaum has high hopes that the green etrogs will ripen in time for Sukkot and help him recoup his investment. Most of Zagelbaum’s stock of several thousand is imported from the Holy Land. Each piece of fruit, together with a lulav made from palm frond, myrtle and willow, will be sold for an average of $50, with the most expensive going for $120.

That may seem expensive for a fruit that to most people is an inedible, elongated, bumpy lemon, but growing and selling etrogs is a complicated process, and very few, if any, have found that dealing in etrogs is a way to get rich.

“It’s not an easy business,” Zagelbaum said in a phone interview. “I’m so nervous and tense that I haven’t slept for nights. I can find an etrog that I think is perfect, and someone will send it back to me because he doesn’t think so. And then I might sell it for a lot of money to someone else who thinks it’s beautiful. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.”

Etrogs, or citrons, are much like diamonds, which to the non-professional eye may look very similar but are graded and priced according to quality of cut, clarity and color. Similarly, etrogs fluctuate widely in value, according to criteria that are mysterious to the uninitiated. And to be considered kosher in fulfillment of the Sukkot blessing, etrogs are subject to many laws.

The Bible calls the etrog the “fruit of the beautiful tree.” But what determines beauty? Most agree that a beautiful etrog should be shaped like a tower, with a wider bottom and a narrower top. By Jewish law, it should have bumps but no blemishes and no bruises or black spots, and the peel should not be punctured. If it has a pitom, or knobby extension, it must be attached. (If, by chance, the pitom falls off, the etrog is no longer kosher.) The etrog should be larger than a walnut and not withered, and it should not come from a branch that has been grafted on another kind of citrus tree.

But from there, it’s a matter of personal taste. Some prefer the Temani, or Yemenite, variety, which is imported by Yemenite Jews and tends to be larger and drier. Then there is the Chazon Ish (or Lefkowitz), which is shaped like an egg, and the Braverman strain, which has a bumpy exterior. Another type, the Kivilevitz, is a sub-strain of the Braverman. Some like etrogs that are narrow in the center, commonly referred to as “belted” etrogs.

The Chabad-Lubavitch prefer the Yanover variety from Calabria, in southern Italy, though a strain of this one is grown in Israel, too. (The name Yanover comes from the Yiddish word for Genoa. The city was once a transit point for etrogs, which were shipped from there to locations around the world.) And many Sephardim believe that etrogs from Morocco, with their characteristic pointed end, are the ultimate in beauty.

Zagelbaum himself prefers an etrog that is straight and bumpy.

The beauty will determine the price of the etrog, which can range from $10 to well over $100, but this is not the only difficulty that people in the business face. Growing etrogs is not easy. It takes at least four years to get a usable crop, and the etrog is the most susceptible of all citrus fruits to frostbite and insects. Yet too much insecticide may leave blemishes.

Despite the difficulties in bringing the fruit to market and the resulting high price, few people begrudge the cost. For those who wave the carefully chosen, fragrant etrog in their sukkah, it is truly the most beautiful of fruits. Carol Novis, from Canada, has been living in Israel for over 30 years. She is a former writer and editor with the Jerusalem Post and now teaches editing at Beit Berl College.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.