|Joshua D. Klein with a Buddha’s Hand etrog tree in California. Inset, Etrog trees can bear fruit of all sizes and shapes; Klein shows that an etrog can grow as big as your head.|
There is no more earthy holiday than Sukkot, when Jews not only are supposed to eat their meals outside in a hut, but are also commanded to gather four species of vegetation – a closed date palm frond, myrtle boughs, willow branches and citron fruit – in accordance with Leviticus 23:40. “On the first day, you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord seven days.”
Sukkot, after all, not only commemorates the days of desert wanderings, but also is a thanksgiving for the autumn fruit harvest.
The myrtle and willow are inexpensive commodities. The frond (lulav) and citron (etrog) are a different story. Most are imported from Israel – although they grow in other places, including Morocco, Mexico, California, and Texas. Other factors described below also push up the price.
|Keeping the species fresh|
|How does one keep the Four Species fresh throughout Sukkot? Said Joshua D. Klein: “One word: plastic. Etrogim do not need refrigeration, nor do lulavim (which should not be put in water). Hadasim [myrtle] and aravot [willow] can best be kept in damp toweling. I find it best to wrap damp newspaper around the leafy bits, and put the whole thing in a plastic zip-up bag (not the hard plastic scabbards that some folks use) at room temperature.|
A set of the Four Species purchased from a synagogue or Judaica vendor, therefore, can set you back $25 to upwards of $100, depending on the quality you are seeking. The priciest piece is the thick-rinded etrog, which does not have much market appeal in the West except as a ritual object, or an ingredient in fruitcakes or liquers. The Chinese use an ornamental citron variety called Buddha’s Hand both for medicinal purposes and as a sacrificial offering. Japanese use it as a New Year’s gift.
The Jewish Standard asked Joshua D. Klein, a Cornell-trained plant researcher in the Israel Ministry of Agriculture’s Unit for Agriculture, for the lowdown on this bumpy, fragrant yellow (or green) symbol of Sukkot. Klein is based at the Volcani Institute near Rehovot.
Q: How many farms in Israel grow etrogim?
A: There are about 10 growers of any consequence, with about three dominating the market. Israel has around 1,000 dunams [247 acres] of etrog orchards.
Q: About how many etrogim are exported each year?
A: Probably half a million. The general demand [including in Israel] is for about 1.2 million. Most are exported as part of sets of all four minim [species].
Q. When is the growing season?
A: Etrogim, like lemons and some other citrus, flower twice a year – around Tu B’Shvat [January-February] and around Shavuot [May-June]. The later flowering gives the better-quality fruit. Actually, the best fruit are those from flowers that open around Sukkot and ripen around Tu B’Shvat, since citrus is a winter fruit. Alas, the market for etrogim is very weak in winter!
Q. When does the fruit get picked for shipment?
A: The harvest begins in Tammuz [June-July] and goes all the way through mid-Tishrei [High Holy Days season], depending on the market, with peak activity for export from 15 Av [mid-August] to 30 Elul [Rosh Hashanah eve].
Q. Why does an etrog look like a lemon but cost like a Cadillac?
A: Etrog is one of three primordial citrus, the others being mandarin and pammelo. All other citrus are descended from crosses and recrosses of these three. So it is more accurate to say that a lemon looks like an etrog.
There are about five major commercial varieties of etrog, each of which has adherents for both perceived beauty and shape and for an extended tradition down the generations that this is the “true” etrog.
The cost of etrogim is directly related to the demand: All varieties of etrog trees bear many fruit of all sizes and shapes, and theoretically the vast majority are kosher [meaning fit for use in the Four Species bundle]. However, the market keeps demanding more and more “ideal” etrogim, with nary a blemish, which means that each fruit is tended to carefully, including tying it to keep it from rubbing against other fruits or branches or thorns (etrog trees are very thorny) and packaging it separately even at the wholesale stage to ensure no bruising. This “personal handling” from the orchard to the packing house adds to the cost to the consumer.
Each tree is sprayed to make sure there are no pests at all (most other fruit orchards tolerate some insects) and the trees are irrigated very thoroughly so that the fruit will be of commercial size by Elul, when actually it “wants” to be ready two to four months later.
Q: The etrog may have an extension called a pitam at one end, where the flower was pollinated. An etrog with or without a pitam is fit for ritual use, but an etrog with a pitam that breaks off on the first day of Sukkot is sometimes considered no longer “kosher.” Is it better to buy an etrog with or without a pitam?
A: You can find rabbinic responsa with points of view on both sides….Actually, most citrus have a pitam when young, but it usually falls off by the time the fruit is about 30 days old. Exceptions are etrog and bergamot, the orange used to flavor Cointreau and Earl Gray tea, both which tend to retain the pitam (although the Yemenite etrog variety usually doesn’t). Since [Hebrew University Prof.] Eliezer Goldschmidt discovered back in the ’60s that a certain common chemical used in citrus orchards could also promote retention of the pitum, growers can provide etrogim with and without. Pitam-less etrogim can cost more due to market demand.
|Despite Egypt ban, no lulav shortage seen|
|On Sept. 18, the Egyptian Agriculture Ministry announced a ban on all lulav exports – to Israel, Europe, and North America – through the end of the year. In previous years, it threatened such bans, but never carried through.
The lulav (closed date palm frond) is also cultivated at northern kibbutzim and some in other areas of Israel and Gaza, but more are grown in El Arish in the northern Sinai. For the past three decades, since Israel ceded the Sinai to Egypt, about a million of these Jewish ritual items have been imported annually from the fields of El Arish.
However, the Ministry of Agriculture has pledged to rev up domestic production to make up the difference. Minister Orit Noked asked to meet with Egyptian officials in August to assure no problems in obtaining the fronds. When those efforts failed, she issued a press release stating that the ministry will assist Israeli growers “to significantly increase the number of palms to be provided for the holiday” to fully meet domestic and foreign demand. These farmers are expected to provide about 650,000 “regular” lulavim plus another 200,000 “fancy” ones, according to the release.
The ministry is also giving special import licenses to growers in Spain, Jordan and the Gaza Strip, with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expedite these arrangements. Special inspection stations are being set up to make sure the imports do not carry plant diseases.
The release concludes that growers have pledged not to raise prices despite the extra work involved in meeting market needs in time for Sukkot.
An inquiry from The Jewish Standard to the Egyptian embassy in Israel as to the reason for the ban went unanswered by press time.