No More Etrogs

On Language

By Philologos

Published February 20, 2008, issue of February 22, 2008.
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‘No More Etrogs” was the title of a February 7 column by well-known political commentator Ari Shavit in the Israeli daily paper Ha’aretz. In his column, Shavit criticized the Winograd Commission’s report on the 2006 war in Lebanon for dealing too leniently with the government, and wrote, “The etrog syndrome has become a threat to Israeli democracy.”

We all know what an etro — or esroyg, in its Eastern European pronunciation — is. It’s a citron, the lemonlike fruit that is a ritual centerpiece on the holiday of Sukkot. But what’s an “etrog syndrome”?

Not long ago, I wouldn’t have known myself. I’d never came across any other kind of etrog than the fragrant-smelling and rarely eaten (although it’s said to make an excellent marmalade) citrus fruit of Jewish ritual. Suddenly, though, I was running into etrogs like Shavit’s everywhere. Where were they all coming from?

For instance, again in Ha’aretz, there was political columnist Akiva Eldar last month: “Strengthening a Palestinian partner for a two-state solution is an existential Israeli interest…. Abu Mazen is Ehud Olmert’s etrog.”

And the Israeli radio station Arutz Sheva last October: “Who is the media’s latest etrog?… The leading contenders are Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Dorit Beinish, chief justice of the Supreme Court.”

And Israeli television Channel One’s Ya’akov Ahimeir, speaking scathingly in January 2006, shortly after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s incapacitating stroke, about alleged plans to keep the comatose Sharon as titular head of the Kadima party: “The first seeds of this ‘cult of the personality’ were sown months ago, not by political advisers, but by representatives of the media. And the first seed of all bore the first fruit, on which the media immediately bestowed a name: ‘The etrog.’”

Ahimeir’s remarks were a clue on which I followed up. It eventually led me to another television commentator, Channel Two’s Amnon Abramovitz. Shortly before the disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005, it turns out, Abramovitz, who is on the political left and had always castigated Sharon, then under investigation for corruption charges, declared on television: “Sharon was the driving force behind the settlement movement. If now, toward the end of his career, he has mellowed and is prepared to dismantle it, I believe he must be protected not only from the political standard bearers [of the left], but from the legal standard bearers as well.”

And Abramovitz continued: “Sharon must be guarded like an etrog, in a sealed box, wrapped in cellophane and padded by absorbent cotton.”

And with that we’ve traced the expression to its source. It was Amnon Abramovitz who launched it.

An etrog, in current Israeli parlance, is a public or political figure who needs to be shielded from criticism, however well deserved, because his role is crucial in attaining a desired goal. Thus, Sharon was an etrog for Abramovitz because he was the only Israeli politician who could successfully carry out disengagement; Abu Mazen, or Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, is Ehud Olmert’s etrog because without him, there is no peace process, etc.

The etrog is an apt symbol for such a figure because, according to Jewish law, if it has even the slightest blemish, such as a small stain on its skin or a marred stem tip, it is ritually disqualified and becomes useless. This is why etrogim, the finer specimens of which fetch high prices in competitive bidding, are kept swaddled and cushioned before and during Sukkot in special boxes, some of which, made of silver, are ritual objects in their own right.

In rabbinic lore, the unblemished etrog stands for the perfect Jew. According to the midrash, all three other members of the “Four Species” of Sukkot, the date-palm, the willow and the myrtle, are flawed. The palm, whose fruit has taste but no fragrance, is like the Jew who is learned but not virtuous; the myrtle, whose fruit has fragrance but no taste, is like the Jew who is virtuous but not learned; the willow, with neither taste nor fragrance, is like the Jew who is neither, and the tasty, fragrant citron is like the Jew who is both.

The story is told of the Hasidic master Uri of Strelisk, who, as a young man, scrimped and saved money all year long so as to afford the finest etrog on Sukkot. One year, taking all his savings, he set out to buy an etrog as usual, but encountered on his way a tearful Jew who just been financially ruined. Uri gave the man all his money, and had to make do with the cheapest etrog he could find. Embarrassed to be seen with it in Strelisk, he went to pray in the nearby town of Lizhensk. Halfway through the service, the great Hasidic rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk smelled a wonderful smell, like that of the most fragrant etrog imaginable, wafting from the congregation. He went from worshipper to worshipper, looking for the source of it, until he came to Uri. When he heard his story, he told the worshippers, “The smell you smell is of the mitzvah this young man performed.”

Now that was an etrog!

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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