This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Citric Asset*

Alongside its inexhaustible layers of religious, moral, historical and mystical symbolisms, we cannot forget that the etrog is also a commodity. Before it can serve its spiritual role as part of the Sukkot rituals, it must be cultivated, transported, marketed and sold.

It is in fact quite surprising to note how lucrative this commodity is, when we bear in mind that it has virtually no usefulness as a food or condiment; and apart from occasional medicinal use, the entire market for the etrog is restricted to its incorporation into rituals practiced by devout Jews for eight days of the year.

Although there was apparently a time when Jews were able to maintain control over the cultivation and distribution of etrogim, this was no longer the case by the seventeenth century. Jewish consumers in north and central Europe had to rely on gentile merchants to supply them with the goodly fruits that grew in the warmer climes of the Mediterranean basin. As the geographical distances between the producers and the consumers expanded, it became difficult to maintain confidence in the fitness of the etrogs.

Prior to the eighteenth century, European Jews could purchase etrogim originating from a variety of centres, including Catalonia, Italy, Greece and Albania. The main distribution centres were in Genoa, Venice and, later, Trieste.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, a popular new brand of etrog was close to conquering the market. These fruits, haling from the Greek island of Corfu, offered an irresistible combination of esthetic beauty, availability and affordable price. Their uniform quality could be guaranteed by the fact that they were supervised centrally by the Ottoman Empire, especially in the Sultan's orchards in Parga.

This fact was of supreme importance to Jews who maintained constant vigilance lest they recite their blessings over some hybrid containing genes from other citrus species.

In 1808, the Napoleonic wars disrupted the trade routes of the rival etrogs from Genoa, so that the Corfu fruits were now the only type available in Europe. Initially, some rabbis permitted Corfu etrogs only if there was no reasonable alternative, while others still would not allow the blessing to be recited over them. Soon, however, they came to be regarded as the preferred type for observing the holiday rituals.

This idyllic situation came to an end in the middle of the nineteenth century. Around 1840, the Turkish administration decided to withdraw from the etrog business, in favour of a policy of deregulation.

As we can well appreciate, this development had the effect of throwing the market into considerable confusion, as privately run orchards began to spring up throughout the empire like weeds after a storm, or long-distance providers after the dismemberment of a monopoly.

Although the esteemed reputation of the Corfu etrog continued to persist for some time, it soon became clear that the name could no longer serve as a guarantee of halakhic respectability.

The anarchy in the industry made possible irregularities that were not initially known to those well-meaning rabbis who had certified the products on the basis of the previous situation. By 1846, a collection of rabbinic responsa was published in Lvov, Galicia, to sound the alarm against the Corfu etrogs, as they loosely referred to the full range of etrogim from the eastern Adriatic regions that were marketed through Trieste.

On the whole, the Corfu etrogs were accepted more readily by Sepharadic consumers, but it was difficult for them to make inroads in the Ashkenazic milieu because of suspicions surrounding their fitness.

The first accusation that was leveled against the fruits was that they were hybrids, having been grafted onto lemon or orange stock. The Torah forbids the mixing of species at the best of times, and if these accusations were true, the product would become a particularly inappropriate vehicle for the fulfillment of a religious precept. It was questionable whether this fruit cocktail was, technically, an etrog in the first place.

Furthermore, the Greek merchants were not above mixing together cargos of kosher and non-kosher merchandise. Therefore, even though the Parga orchards could still be trusted, there was no reliable way to ascertain an etrog's place of origin.

The antipathy towards the Corfu etrogs was further aggravated by the knowledge that the merchants were keeping their prices artificially inflated by dumping large quantities into the waters of the Adriatic.

The phenomenon of grafted etrogim generated an extensive literature in responsa and Jewish law codes.

Many of the authorities decided to disqualify the doubtful fruits for ritual use, and insisted that consumers should only purchase etrogim bearing a seal of certification from the rabbi in their place of cultivation. Rabbi Moses Sofer of Pressburg ruled that in the absence of any objective criteria for determining the permissibility of the etrogs, we must rely only on an established tradition.

The various rabbis strove unsuccessfully to define botanical criteria for distinguishing between pure and hybrid etrogs, based on signs mentioned in the Talmud or in horticultural lore. The defenders of the Corfu etrogs, including several very prominent Sepharadic rabbis, argued that as long as there was no clear-cut physical proof of hybridization, the fruits should be assumed to be kosher. In a similar spirit, Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margolies claimed that any plant that can reproduce itself is not included in the biblical prohibition of mixed species.

A most ingenious case for permitting the Corfu etrogs was made by Rabbi David Kleinerman of Szereszow: Since the Torah insists on fulfilling the precept with the fruit of a goodly tree, it is the goodliness, the beauty of the fruit, that is the primary factor for choosing an etrog, and this consideration overrides the prohibition of hybridization.

It is evident that several of the authorities who discussed the issue were deeply sensitive to its economic implications. They realized that if they disqualified the cheap etrogim on technical halakhic grounds, they would also be depriving many individuals (and in some cases, entire communities) of the opportunity of participating in the mitzvah.

The halakhic debate could not always be easily disentangled from the economic interests of its participants. By coincidence, the individual who spearheaded the publication of the responsa collection that effectively disqualified all etrogim except those from Parga itself, a certain Rabbi Alexander Ziskind Mintz of Brody, had acquired the exclusive franchise on Pargian etrogs one year previously.

In spite of the taint of self-interest, several distinguished rabbinical authorities supported his cause, especially Rabbi Solomon Kluger, also of Brody. Eventually, however, he was persuaded that even the Parga etrogs could not be trusted.

A counteroffensive to Mintz's campaign was initiated by his former partner, Mordecai Bick, who succeeded in recruiting an equally impressive roster of rabbinical supporters.

The divergent attitudes vis à vis the Corfu etrogs were significantly influenced by ideological and political developments that were taking place during the tumultuous nineteenth century.

For example, some Hasidic groups came to associate their support of Corfu etrogs with Hasidism itself, or at least as a protest against the anti-Hassidic factions,

Historical events contributed to giving Corfu a distasteful reputation among the Jews of the world. While the island was under French rule, its Jews enjoyed full civil rights. However, this situation changed drastically in 1815, when it became part of a new republic under English auspices, at which point the Jews were deprived of their rights. The persecutions became even more severe when Corfu became part of a Greek union, giving rise to an infamous blood accusation and other pogroms. In response, a movement was inaugurated to boycott the etrog -growers of that island.

The anti-Corfu sentiments were very intense by the time the traders tried to sell their wares in America at the end of the nineteenth century. A Hebrew work published in Newark in 1992, entitled God's War against Amalek, stridently lamented that the shriek of the children of Israel on Corfu, the island of blood, pierces heaven. These cursed beasts, these Greeks, descendents of the tyrant Antiochus' slander us with accusations of ritual murder.

The same work lambastes the merchants as traders in the blood of Israel's circumcised antisemites.

With the rise of Jewish agricultural enterprises in the holy land, it seemed natural for many consumers to switch their allegiances to the etrogs that were grown there, though these were not without their own halakhic problems.

In the end, the rise and fall of the Corfu etrog were determined by a complicated mixture of factors involving, not only religious law and lore, but also geography, botany, history, politics and economics.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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