One of those bitter-sweet Yiddish tales by Sholem Aleichem tells of a child whose parents were constantly admonishing him not to bite off the pitam—the bump at the tip of the etrog that the poor family had acquired at great expense. Although the child had no conceivable reason for doing such a deed (which would render the fruit invalid for ritual use on the festival), the repeated warnings transformed themselves into an uncontrollable pathological obsession that played itself out to its inevitable tragicomic conclusion.
The Christian orientalist Jakob Johann Schudt, in his 1714 compendium of Jewish customary practices, mentioned a “superstition” among pregnant women in Germany, of biting off the pitam as a charm to ensure a safe pregnancy and an easy birth. This report was confirmed by the seventeenth-century halakhic authority Rabbi Jair Bachrach in his commentary to the Shulhan ‘Arukh, and he expressed his personal satisfaction that the superstition was no longer being practiced in his own time. This might have been true in his locality, but was clearly not so in other places.
The earliest explicit written source for this practice is the Tzena Ur’ena by Jacob ben Isaac of Yanov, the popular Yiddish exposition of the Bible first published at the end of the sixteenth-century. This work provided spiritual nourishment for generations of Jewish women who were unable to study the more scholarly Hebrew commentaries. The Tzena Ur’ena ntroduces this topic in connection with its narration of the Garden of Eden story. Eve (and her female descendants) would be punished for her disobedience by having to suffer the pains of childbirth. In recounting Eve’s unfortunate role in bringing mortality to the world, the Tzena Ur’ena cited a rabbinic dispute as to whether the fruit of the tree of knowledge was a fig, a grape, or an etrog.
In this connection, the Tzena Ur’ena points out that there exists a widespread custom for pregnant women on Hoshanna Rabbah (the last intermediate day of Sukkot on which the etrog is taken ritually) to bite off the stem and then to make a donation to charity, in keeping with the scriptural adage that “zedakah delivereth from death.” The ladies therefore pray that they and their fetuses should be safeguarded from death, and that they should merit an easy birth. After all, the Torah implies that, had Eve not eaten from the tree of knowledge, then all mothers would be giving birth to their children painlessly.
It appears that the earliest versions of the tradition did not refer to biting off the pitam, but rather to removing the stem (the stalk that connects the fruit to the branch), presumably by hand. At some later stage, after biting had become the preferred manner of removal, the practice was transferred to the pitam, perhaps because it was easier to bite.
As we have seen, some writers objected to this practice because they felt that it smacked of magic or superstition. Several rabbinic authorities found problems with it from within the conceptual system of Jewish religious law.
The prevailing opinion in the Talmud was that the etrog retains its sanctity throughout the holy day, and therefore it is forbidden to derive personal benefit from it during the entire day of Hoshana Rabbah, even after one has finished using it for the rituals of the synagogue service. For this reason, later texts recommend not eating the pitam or stem until Simhat Torah, when the festival of Sukkot is clearly over.
There may, however, be a much earlier allusion to the custom in a record from 1252 that is preserved in the official archives of King Henry III of England. That royal document consists of a legal writ addressed to the Sheriff of Hampshire, urging him to deal with an accusation that a Jew named Cressus of Stamford had forcibly seized an “apple of Eve” from the local synagogue “to the shame and opprobrium of the Jewish community.” If the investigation should establish Cressus’s guilt, then the sheriff was authorized to distrain on the culprit’s property to extract a fine of one gold mark.
The term “apple of Eve” is unknown in any other source, and scholars have suggested various identifications. Perhaps the most persuasive of these is that it was referring to an etrog. The association with the biblical figure of Eve in the Garden of Eden would dovetail nicely with the exposition in the Tze’ena Ur’ena and other works; and it would, of course, be familiar to English Christians for whom the fall of mankind through which Adam and Eve introduced Original Sin to the world was arguably the most crucial event in their ”Old Testament.”
Until quite recently, etrogs were very hard to come by in northern lands far from the Mediterranean climates where they grow; and it was quite common for a single etrog to be purchased by the whole community to be kept in the synagogue and shared by the townspeople. The theft of the community etrog would thus have far-reaching consequences for the beloved holiday observance, and it is understandable that the Jewish community might turn in such a case to the civil authorities to enforce the law and recover the fruit.
As to why the larcenous Cressus would want to steal the etrog in the first place, there is no limit to the possible motives that our imaginations could ascribe to him: he might have been trying to avenge a perceived personal insult by the community’s leaders, or perhaps he had an outstanding financial claim against the community. He might even have been very apprehensive for the health of his pregnant wife./p>
Several collections of Jewish laws and customs recommend that the following remarkable blessing, based on the tradition about the etrog in the garden of Eden, be recited by a pregnant woman when she bites the etrog on Hoshanna Rabbah:
Master of the universe: On account of Eve who ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, that sin became the cause of death in the world. However, if I had been there at the time, I would not have eaten it, nor would I have derived any benefit from it—just as I refrained from damaging this etrog during the seven days of the festival which have now passed. I have not disqualified it until today, at a time when the precept is no longer in force. Therefore, even as I take pleasure from this pitam, so should I have been worthy to see the tree of knowledge about which the Holy One commanded Adam and Eve “Thou shalt not eat of it.” I would not have transgressed that command. For this reason, please accept my prayer and my supplication that I should not perish from this childbirth. Protect me to give birth in comfort and without suffering; and let no injury befall me or my child. For you are the saving God.
What I find so enthralling about this prayer is that its author (and I do not know if it was a man or a woman) does not regard the present generation as fatally tainted by the disobedience of humanity’s first ancestors, nor does the text assume (as do so many Jewish penitential prayers) that we are all undeserving sinners who must beg submissively for God to bestow unconditional mercy upon us. On the contrary, the woman reciting the prayer is expected to approach her Creator from a position of moral assurance, confidently reminding him that she herself is secure in her faith and meticulous in her religious observance; a woman such as herself would surely never have committed Eve’s sin of eating the forbidden fruit, and for this reason she deserves to be spared from the perils of childbirth.
Indeed, such self-assured ladies deserve to be remembered and celebrated on Sukkot, “the season of our rejoicing.”