Have you ever felt an uncontrollable urge to cut the etrog in half? Many of us wonder why we bring this strange fruit into our sukkah. Is it not just an overpriced lemon? What does it symbolize? How is it a part of the Jewish tradition? Most importantly, can we eat it?
What is an etrog?
An etrog is a large, fragrant, elongated golden lemon-like fruit. It is the yellow citron, or Citrus medica, a member of the citron family. This citron is the largest of the citrus family, between four to six inches long. Molecular studies have demonstrated that the etrog is one of the oldest types of citrus in existence. It, along with the mandarin, papeda, and pummelo, is the forefather of all the other types of cultivated citrus plants. The etrog tree self-pollinates since it is not receptive to fertilization by pollen from other plants. Consequently, it is considered the male parent of its hybrid offspring, or the father of all lemons.
The history of the etrog
Etrogs originated in Southeast Asia about 4000 years ago. They still grow wild in India in the valleys of the lower slopes of the Himalaya Mountains. These citrons were the first type of citrus to be cultivated. In antiquity, the etrog was called the Persian or Median Apple. Later it was called the Citrus Apple. Originally, citrons were grown as ornamental plants. The fruit was used to perfume clothes, as a moth repellent, and its peel was used as a spice for food. The etrog was also used medicinally as a cure for seasickness, an antidote to poison, and as an antibiotic. Cyrus the Great brought the citron from Persia to Babylon when he conquered it in 539 BCE. Alexander the Great disseminated it around the Mediterranean region in 300 BCE. In Biblical times, the Jews cultivated the etrog in the Land of Israel for the observance of Sukkot. The etrog was also used as a symbol of resistance. In the first century BCE, Alexander Yanai, the last Maccabee high priest and king of Judea, publicly engaged in a Sadducee water ritual (Succah 4:9) in the Temple of Jerusalem. Infuriated, the Pharisees flung etrogs at him in protest. During the time of the first Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire (66-70 CE), etrogs were cast in Jewish coins instead of Emperor Nero. These “Masada coins” were minted in bronze. They have an inscription in Paleo-Hebrew that says “For the Redemption of Zion.” When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE and the Jews were expelled, the etrog went with them to Yemen, Morocco, Syria, Greece, Lebanon, and Southern Italy. The Romans loved citrons, and cultivated them throughout Italy. Some of the earliest greenhouses, built from mica, were invented to protect etrog trees in Northern Italy.
Why do we bring the etrog into the Sukkah?
In Leviticus 23:40 we are commanded,
And you shall take of yourselves on the first day the fruit of a goodly tree, a palm branch, the myrtle branch, and the willow of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.
This has been understood by some Rabbis to mean that the tree must be good and the fruit must be good. By “good,” they meant that the tree must be beautiful year round, and the fruit must be attractive and delicious. The etrog tree meets these requirements. It is an evergreen tree, so its fragrant leaves are on the tree all year. Its fruit is lovely, with a pleasing perfume and flavor. The tree itself is edible. If you cut a branch in half and taste its interior, it has the same flavor as the albedo (white part) of the inside of the etrog. Because of its shape, the etrog symbolizes our heart. Because it tastes and smells good, the etrog represents Jews who perform good deeds and learn Torah. This is an ideal we may all strive to achieve.
Elements of an etrog that is kosher for ritual use
Purity: For a citron to be considered kosher it must be pure. It may not be grafted or bred with other citrus species. An etrog tree must be grown on its own roots, from seeds or cuttings. All seeds and cuttings must come from etrog trees which have never been grafted.
Size: The etrog needs to be a minimum size of a hen’s egg to be picked. The average size of a chicken’s egg is 2 ¼ inches long and 1-¾ inches in diameter at its widest part. The etrog should weigh a minimum of 2.08 ounces.
Shape: If it is completely round, it is not permissible for ritual use.
Texture: Its skin must be bumpy and it must have a thick rind.
Color: The etrog should be ripening from green to yellow when it is picked. Its skin must be unblemished.
Segments: An etrog should have few pulp segments, with very little juice. Its seeds should point vertically when it is sliced in half.
Peduncle: Its stalk, which connects it to the tree, must curve inward toward the fruit. A small piece of the stalk needs to remain connected to the etrog for it to be kosher for ritual use.
Pitam: The other end of the etrog sometimes has a protuberance called a Pitam. This is the stigma of the etrog flower, where pollen grains are received during fertilization. An etrog with an undamaged Pitam is especially valued. Some etrogs mature and shed the Pitam. They are kosher as well. If someone damages the etrog by breaking the Pitam, then that etrog is not kosher for ritual use.
Five types of citron are traditional for ritual use during Sukkot. The Yemenite Citron has been in use since the time of the First Temple (around 586 BCE). It is pulpless, and has no juice. The Greek Citron from Corfu has been used since the Second Temple era (516 BCE – 70 CE). In 1850, this citron was planted near Jaffah by the halutzim. This was a project funded by Sir Moses Montefiore. The Diamante Citron from Italy was extensively used by Jews in medieval times. The Moroccan Citron is a sweet citron. After the destruction of the Second Temple the Jews who were exiled to Morocco adopted it. It has and hourglass shape called a “gartel.” The Balady Citron is native to Israel. “Balady” is Arabic for “native.” These etrogs are still cultivated in the Galilee and near Jerusalem. Balady Citrons do not fall off the tree if not picked. They continue growing for years until the branches of the tree break under their weight.
Today, etrog orchards require strict rabbinic supervision for the etrogs to be permissible for ritual use. The mashgichim ensure that the trees are not grafted. The leaves and thorns are carefully cut away from the fruit so it is not blemished. The branches are curved downward to encourage the formation of flame shaped etrogs.
Etrogs do not produce much juice. Fortunately, most of what we taste comes from our sense of smell. Thanks to the etrog’s abundant fragrance, what we cook with it will be flavorful. It is possible to prepare the etrog in many interesting ways.
This is from the oldest recorded etrog recipe, from the 1400s. The word “succade” is said to come from “sukkot.” The etrog was cut in half and its pulp was removed. It was immersed in seawater for 40 days. Every two weeks, the seawater was changed. Once the peel was cured, the salt was removed by soaking the rind in boiling water. The peel was then candied by soaking in a sugar solution. The candied peel was sun-dried or sealed in jars to be used later. This peel has a unique flavor, different from that of other citrus plants. Succade can be eaten out of hand, but is more commonly added to desserts. It is sometimes coated in chocolate to be consumed as confectionery. For some families, it is customary to eat succade during the Tu Bishvat Seder.
3 cups sugar
3 cups water
Dice the etrog into ½ inch cubes.
Place the etrog pieces into a saucepan. Add 3 cups of water and 3 cups of sugar. Heat over a medium flame until the mixture boils.
Lower the temperature to a simmer, and allow to cook for 45 minutes.
Turn off the flame, and allow the etrog to cool in the pot for 30 minutes.
Strain the fruit. Save the syrup. Mix it with hot water to create an aromatic Korean tea called Yujacha.
Spread the diced etrog over a cookie sheet. Allow it to dry for 12 hours.
Store in jar, tightly sealed.
Etrogcello is a citron liqueur like the Limoncello from Southern Italy. It is generally consumed after dinner, as a digestive. It should be served cold, in a small, chilled ceramic glass.
1 bottle of vodka
3 1/2 cups water
2-½ cups sugar
Pour the vodka into a glass pitcher. Cut the peels of the etrogs into long strips. Add to the pitcher. Seal the pitcher with plastic wrap, and let stand at room temperature for four days.
Pour the water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Dissolve the sugar in the boiling water. Stir over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool completely. Add the sugar syrup to the vodka-etrog mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 12 hours. Remove the etrog peel from the pitcher. Pour the liquid into glass bottles. Seal tightly, and refrigerate until very cold. Some people like to keep their etrogcello in the freezer.
Savory preserved etrogs
Preserved etrogs are delicious in Moroccan tagines, on pizza, paired with olives in roasted chicken, in whole grain salads, and on fish.
Extra virgin olive oil
Cut the etrogs into quarters, leaving them attached at the base.
Mix all the spices together.
Pack the cuts in the etrogs with the salt mixture.
Put 2 tablespoons of the salt mixture at the bottom of a sterilized glass jar.
Layer the etrogs, sprinkling some of the spice mixture between each layer.
Press the etrogs firmly into the jar.
Pour olive oil into the jar, completely covering the etrogs.
Seal the jar tightly.
Leave at room temperature.
The etrogs will be ready after about a month. They may be refrigerated for up to two years.
If you have never eaten an etrog before, get adventurous this Sukkot. Once the eight days are over, give in to your most primal urges and grab your sharpest knife! Admire your etrog’s beautiful golden color. Hold it up to your nose and inhale its aroma. Feel the bumpy skin against your cheek. Slice your etrog in half. You will see that most of its interior is a thick, white rind. Lick the pith. You may be bracing yourself for the bitterness that you are used to in the rind of a lemon or orange. The etrog’s albedo will surprise you with its pleasant flavor. Notice that the etrog has lots of seeds and very little juice. Bite into the etrog’s pulp and taste its unique citrus extract. You will be savoring a fruit that has remained unchanged for 4000 years! Try one or more of the above recipes. They all preserve the etrog for use throughout the year, infusing our meals with its special taste and aroma. Thanks to the strict kosher rules against grafting and hybridization, you will be eating the only Jewish heirloom fruit!
Image of First Revolt quarter shekel coin depicting an etrog courtesy of The Jewish-American Hall of Fame.