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Passion Fruit, Indeed: One Man’s Etrog Obsession

It looks like a lemon, feels like a lemon and kind of smells like a lemon. But an etrog is not a lemon.

In fact, it takes a lot to grow an etrog, which is the fruit of the citron tree and one of the four species used on the festival of Sukkot. The others are lulavim (palm), aravot (willows) and hadasim (myrtle). Of the four, the etrog is the most expensive, due primarily to the regulations that must be followed in order to render it kosher.

But as intricate as the rules may be, Moshe Mansour, etrog importer extraordinaire, knows them like back of his own hand.

“I can tell in my sleep which are the good ones and which are the bad ones,” he said.

The 28-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native, who has been in the business for about 18 years, sells 20,000 etrogs annually through his company, Esrog World. He says he is one of the largest etrog importers in the world, distributing all over the United States, Canada and Israel.

The etrog’s origin is unknown, although seeds have been found in excavations in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) dating back to 4000 BCE. It is believed to have started growing in Israel only during the second temple period (about 500 BCE). Today, the etrogs for Sukkot are mostly grown in Morocco, Italy, Yemen and Israel, where Mansour’s farms are located.

According to Mansour, a proper etrog has qualities that are discernible to the average person: It should be turning yellow (rather than still green); it must not be pierced in any place or have any black spots that are visible if held at arm’s length; the bottom should be wider than the top, and if it grew with a protruding stem (or pitom), the stem cannot be broken off — and neither can features that cannot be seen on a store shelf.

For example, because of a Torah prohibition, the etrogs can’t be plucked from a tree three years old or younger. Additionally, every 13 years the tree has to be replanted, because of stagnated growth. One tree produces about 300 fruit each season, and an etrog is plucked after about four months of growth. The etrog tree cannot be grafted with any other fruit tree. In fact, great care is taken to protect the trees and their fruit. Many etrog growers, including Mansour, trim the thorny leaves on the tree to prevent them from scarring the fruit. Winds can cause the leaves to brush against the fruit — enough to scratch them, which can cause a thin scrape. Such a line can take away from the beauty of the fruit. Many trees are also watered manually to avoid moving irrigation equipment through the groves.

In Israel, Mansour’s on-site mashkiach, or kosher inspector, spends 24 hours a day on the farms, sleeps on the premises and only goes home for the Sabbath. He grades the etrogs according to the Hebrew alphabet, from aleph to dalet — or from 1 (the best) to 4 (lowest grade). That partly explains why etrog prices can range anywhere from $20 to $500.

“People want to buy the best, and they want to do the mitzvah right,” Mansour said.

Besides its use as a vital element of the celebration of Sukkot, other customs have arisen from the fruit’s symbolism. For example, the etrog — long considered a feminine symbol due to its particular shape — sometimes has been used by pregnant women, since some believe that a woman who bites into one will bear a male child, and that to see an etrog in a dream means that “one is precious before his Maker” (Talmud Berachot 57a). Indeed, for everyone, the etrog can seem like a representation of fertility, an ideal centerpiece for the harvest-season festival of Sukkot.

Dave Gordon is a freelance writer.

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