A Shriveled Etrog, a Little Spark

By Jonathan R. Katz

Published October 07, 2008, issue of October 17, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In the course of rearranging my office a few years ago, many months after the Sukkot holiday, I opened an etrog case kept on a high shelf. Inside, I was delighted to find an exquisitely shriveled specimen of the fruit.

As a result of forgetting to dispose of the citron, I felt as though I possessed a little treasure. Why? Because the pitom (pistil), the little protuberance on the flowering end, remained fully preserved.

During Sukkot I try especially hard to prevent the pitom from breaking off from the etrog. This can be difficult in a congregational setting, where the holiday staple is often handled by many people. For me, a citron that survives the festival with pitom intact is a sign of good luck. Of course, this goes without saying, since an etrog that loses its pitom after being taken from the tree is considered impaired and therefore no longer fit for use.

If the pitom comes off before the fruit is picked, the etrog remains kosher unless otherwise blemished. Some varieties of etrogs tend to lose their pitoms more than others, and while not halachically required, etrogs with pitoms intact are generally preferred. For this reason, efforts have been made to preserve the pitom as the citron ripens on the tree. A few years ago, to the delight of growers, a professor of horticulture at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem developed a special hormone that enabled more etrog varieties to retain their pitoms.

In certain precincts of Jewish tradition, the pitom held value beyond accentuating the citron’s aesthetic virtue. In a once popular custom, pregnant women would ingest the pitom at the conclusion of Sukkot, believing it had medicinal properties that could ease childbirth. Some commentators have suggested that the famed apple in the Garden of Eden was actually an etrog.

By waiting until the end of Sukkot to eat the pitom, Jewish women were attesting that, unlike Eve, they had resisted temptation until the citron was permitted to them. Recall in the Torah how God says Eve will experience pain in childbirth as a consequence of eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:16).

Looking at the still intact pitom of my desiccated etrog, I see a reminder of dos pintele yid (“the little Jewish point”), a Yiddish expression referring to the Jewish soul’s indestructible, concentrated spark that, while potentially strong, often remains dormant. Even though it may appear hardly to exist among highly assimilated, secularized, or self-professed nonbelieving Jews, dos pintele yid can, under certain circumstances, flare into an abiding passion for Judaism.

Unexpectedly, the religion is viewed in a profoundly different light. Previously overlooked or dismissed aspects of Jewish spirituality assume penetrating new meaning.

One cannot predict what will trigger the transformation of the Jewish spark into the Jewish flame. Sometimes it can happen in the wake of a seemingly incidental event, like attending a bar mitzvah, watching a Purim shpiel or spinning a dreidel.

But no matter what the spur, when the epiphany occurs, Judaism, rather than being regarded as a burden or obstacle, is now valued as a revered source of insight and pride. No longer a mere point of Jewishness, dos pintele yid emerges as a widening circle of spiritual appreciation.

Symbolizing a latent but ever-present possibility of Jewish awakening, this is why a dried-out old etrog with its pitom still intact continues to occupy a prominent place on my shelf.

Jonathan R. Katz is the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Longboat Key, Fla.


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!
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • 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.