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 – the fruit of the citron tree and one of the four species used on the festival of Sukkot. (The others are the lulav ("palm frond"), aravot ("willow"), 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 the back of his own hand: "I can tell in my sleep which are the good ones and which are the bad ones."
The 28-year-old Brooklyn native, who's been in the business for about 18 years, sells 20,000 etrogs annually through his company, Esrog World. He claimed to be one of the largest etrog importers in the world, distributing all over the United States, Canada and Israel.
The etrog's origin is unknown, though 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, etrogs for Sukkot are mostly grown in Morocco, Italy, Yemen and Israel. Mansour's farms are there, in the Jewish state.
Great Care of the Tree
According to Mansour, a proper etrog has qualities that are discernible to the average person – it should be turning yellow (rather than still green); 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 (pitom), that cannot be broken off – as well as features that cannot be seen on a store shelf.
For example, because of a Torah prohibition, etrogs cannot be plucked from a tree age 3 years or younger. Additionally, every 13 years the tree has to be replanted, due to stagnated growth. One tree produces about 300 fruit each season; an etrog is plucked after about four months of growth.
The etrog tree can also not 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 mashgiach, or kosher inspector, spends 24 hours a day on the farms, sleeping on the premises, and only going home for Shabbat. He grades the etrogs according to the Hebrew alphabet, from aleph to daled – or from one (the best) to four (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," said Mansour.
Besides its use as a vital element of the celebration of Sukkot, other customs have arisen from the fruit's symbolism. For example, pregnant women have sometimes used the etrog – long considered a feminine symbol due to its particular shape – believing that a woman who bites into one will bear a male child.
Another customs says that to see an etrog in a dream means that "one is precious before his Maker."
You've heard of the "requirement" of sipping fine wine. Here are the four "S's" of choosing an etrog:
• Shade – Preferably the fruit should be turning yellow, rather than still green.
• Surface – The skin should not be pierced in any place or have any black spots that are visible. Scratches will also detract from the quality.
• Shape – The bottom should be wider than the top, like a tower. The pitom (or unbroken knob at the bottom) and the stem should also be aligned with each other.
• Size – At the very least, the volume should be equivalent to a large egg.
For more information, visit: www.esrogworld.com.