Why a Calabria Esrog?

We present a fascinating article written by Rabbi Shmuel Lesches of Merlbourne, Australia, exploring all of the reasons why it is Minhag Chabad to use a “Yanove” Esrog from Calabria, Italy.

The author then also goes on to suggest how we might incorporate the same features into Chinuch in order to raise truly beautiful children.

The second article is presented as a supplement to the first. It explores the history and various controversies surrounding the Esrog varieties popularly available to Ashkenazi Jewry in Europe, and adds further details to the first article.

Calabrian Child
by Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

A hush fell over the merrymakers as the strains of wedding music shifted to something different and strange. It was the new queen’s turn to entertain, and she did so in a most scandalous way. With the flick of her wrist, the daughter of Pharaoh signalled for her elaborately attired attendants to bring in one thousand idolatrous instruments so that she could demonstrate the music that each played. Before performing each song, she announced which idol the instrument honoured. Then, she rose to dance a perfectly choreographed masterpiece comprised of eighty movements, each dedicated to the worship of a different idol.

Of course, the Queen made believe it was just a show. But in the innermost recesses of her heart, she truly did worship each deity, glorifying them for reaching the happiest day of her life.

Her audience was riveted by the prodigious display of talent unfolding before them. But they also watched with a measure of apprehension and discomfiture, waiting for the royal censure that was surely forthcoming. With darting eyes and racing hearts, they wondered how forcefully the king would react to the queen’s bold sacrilege in the very heart of Jerusalem.

But King Shlomo did not protest. Maybe it was because he had drunk more than his fill of wine, made all the more potent by having abstained from it during the seven years it took to build the Beis Hamikdash. Or maybe he did not want to offend his new wife on her wedding night. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that King Shlomo did not put an end to his wife’s actions. Instead, he celebrated with her to the point that he completely forgot about the inauguration of the first Beis Hamikdash scheduled the very next day, the eighth of Tishrei.

The people took their cue from the king and the grand wedding celebration continued in full swing. Wine flowed like water, the liveried waiters circulated an endless stream of delicacies, and the exuberant music generated a pulsating energy as the people sang and danced. The revelry reached a frenzy the likes of which had never been seen before in Jerusalem.

As the wedding party wound down in the wee hours of the morning, King Shlomo and the daughter of Pharaoh retired to the palace. After King Shlomo fell asleep, the new queen went over to the heavy drapes framing the gigantic windows and drew them to a complete close. She then turned to King Shlomo’s bed and hung above it a purple-hued canopy exquisitely embroidered with sparkling stones and gemstones that shone like the stars.

The king slept heavily for several hours until the force of habit woke him at the crack of dawn. However, in his sleepy haze, he mistook the canopy for the star-studded night sky, and he went back to sleep. The king stirred several more times, but a quick glance at the canopy always assured him there was more time for sleep. The king slept on, with the keys of the Beis Hamikdash safe and secure under his pillow.

It was already mid-morning. Outside the Beis Hamikdash, the tremendous crowds surged and seethed. Each person felt the momentousness of the occasion. To be present at the inauguration of Hashem’s eternal abode! The masses waited impatiently for the unveiling to begin. However, there was no sign of the king. Slowly, the rumour swept through the throngs: The king is still sleeping!

The nation knew how anxious King Shlomo had been to see the Beis Hamikdash standing – so much so that he had pushed his builders to complete it with the utmost speed. It had taken only seven years to build, far shorter than the thirteen years it took to complete his own palace, despite it being far less grand and beautiful than the house of Hashem. And now that the crowning moment of his achievements was finally here, he was fast asleep! The incredulous nation wondered how the wisest of all men could make the awful mistake of scheduling his marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh so close before the inauguration of the Beis Hamikdash. They puzzled over how, after seven long years of abstaining from wine whilst the Beis Hamikdash was being built, the king had chosen to imbibe at his wedding, not waiting the extra day to honour the Beis Hamikdash. How had King Shlomo allowed himself to be distracted by his union with the daughter of Pharaoh? The people simply could not understand it. It was beyond belief.

But no one dared wake the king.

Bas-Sheva, the Queen Mother, was deeply ashamed. As the fourth hour of the day approached, she could contain herself no longer. She barged into the royal chambers and roused her son. Removing one of her shoes, Bas-Sheva landed it firmly on each of King Shlomo’s cheeks, all the while berating his indulgence of worldly pleasures: “Oh, what has become of you, my son! You have embarrassed me before the entire nation! Everyone knew your father, King David, to be a devout and G-d fearing person. The people don’t know anything about me, and they will surely attribute your shameful behaviour to my influence and say that you acquired your deviant traits from me.

“How could you indulge in such a manner after the way I cared for you, from the time you were still in my womb? I constantly prayed that you would be filled with Torah knowledge and fit for prophecy. Hashem granted my request, bestowing upon you more wisdom than any other man on earth! Why then did you conduct yourself like other kings, becoming drunk on wine? Why did you allow yourself to stray? Don’t you have enough sense than to be beguiled by a spoilt Egyptian princess?

“Ever since I was blessed with mothering the next king, I have been waiting for this day, the day of the Beis Hamikdash’ inauguration, so that I could offer my thanks to Hashem. Here I am, waiting with all of my sacrifices, and this is how you behave?”

The king listened to his mother’s rebuke in silence. Then, not wishing to delay the inauguration even another moment, he hurried to the entrance of the Beis Hamikdash. However, it was already late. That morning, the very first morning of the Beis Hamikdash, the Tomid sacrifice was brought at the fourth hour, the latest time it was ever offered.

Of course, King Shlomo had a good explanation for his actions. He had purposefully married the daughter of the mighty Pharaoh in order to bring her and her protégées under the wings of the Shechinah. He had purposefully scheduled his wedding to coincide with the inauguration, because he sought to draw down the exalted spirituality of the Beis Hamikdash and impress it even upon those from idolatrous backgrounds. However, King Shlomo misjudged the worthiness of the daughter of Pharaoh. She, more than all his other foreign wives, caused him to fail in so many ways.

As the sounds of the Beis Hamikdash’ inauguration reached the heavens, it was drowned out by the echoes of King Shlomo’s marriage. Hashem was angry that King Shlomo’s personal celebration had so completely eclipsed the celebration of Hashem’s eternal edifice. At that moment, He resolved to eventually destroy the Beis Hamikdash and the entire city of Jerusalem. He immediately sent forth His archangel, who drove a reed into the bed of the Mediterranean Sea.

Over the centuries, slime and sediment gathered around it, accumulating into a landmass known as Italia Shel Yavan, the Italian peninsula. Upon it, a great Roman metropolis was built. Thus, at the very same time that the daughter of Pharaoh planted the seeds of the Jews’ spiritual downfall through idolatry, Hashem planted the seeds of the Jews’ physical downfall through the great Roman Empire so many centuries later.

Calabria is the name of the region that forms the long and narrow “toe” at the south-western end of Italy’s boot-shaped peninsula. This relatively small area is comprised of mountain ranges, hilly areas, and coastal plains. The lower terrain of Calabria is extremely fertile and rich with vineyards and citrus groves.

It is the home of the variety of Esrog locally known as the Diamante citron, named for the Calabrian town of Diamante, where the mostly Mediterranean climate is best suited for its growth. It is also often called the Calabrian Esrog, but it is even more widely referred to as the Yanova Esrog, which is the Yiddish pronunciation of the trading port of Genoa in northern Italy from where the Genoese merchants exported the Esrogim northwards to Europe.

The Yanova Esrog was used since the times of the earliest Tosafists and is widely regarded as the earliest known variety of Esrogim used by Ashkenazim. In fact, until approximately the year 5545 (1785), the Yanova Esrog was the only variety known to most of Ashkenazi Jewry. They were not familiar with any other type of Esrog, including the Israeli variety.

As other Esrogim began infiltrating the European market at the turn of the eighteenth century, the Greek Corfu Esrog in particular stood out. It was symmetrical and splendid, coloured a beautiful yellow-green, free of spots and leaf-marks, and always crowned with a beautiful and sturdy Pittam. Moreover, it was available in abundance and at a much cheaper price.

Nevertheless, the Yanova Esrog remained the frontrunner in many communities for a number of reasons. For one, it was becoming increasingly common for farmers to graft the frail Esrog tree on the rootstock of other hardier and more resilient citrus trees, most often the lemon or orange tree. An overwhelming majority of Halachic decisors ruled that the fruits of such trees were completely disqualified for the Mitzvah of Lulav. Esrogim grown in all other locales were suspected of having been grafted, but the Calabrian variety was known to be pure. (For this reason, although the Diamante Esrog now grows in Puerto Rico, Sicily and Sardinia, their fruit is not used on Sukkos, since no reliable kashrus supervision was present at the time of their transplantation.)

Furthermore, the Chasam Sofer and other great Achronim ruled that an Esrog variety may only be used when there is a mesorah – a tradition – attesting to its perennial use. In fact, the Chasam Sofer asserted that the Yanova Esrog is the only kind known to be pure, on account of the long-standing Ashkenazi tradition tracing back to the times of the Tosafists, and the uninterrupted Jewish presence in Calabria since the times of the second Beis Hamikdash.

In summation, the Yanova Esrog is the only strain whose Kashrus is accepted across the entire spectrum of Ashkenazi Jewry. The same cannot be said of any other Esrog variety. (For a more comprehensive overview of the history and Halachic status of the various kinds of Esrog, see the article entitled “Age over Beauty”.)

The Alter Rebbe treasured the Land of Israel very much, and he maintained that an Israeli grown Esrog greatly enhanced the fulfilment of this special Mitzvah. Yet, he insisted on using the Calabrian variety even over the Israeli ones. The Alter Rebbe explained that since Esrogim were not readily available to the Jews when they travelled through the desert for forty years, Moshe Rabbenu sent messengers on a cloud to bring Esrogim from the province of Calabria. Obviously, what could be better than to make a Brocho on the very same variety that Moshe and the Jews used in the desert?

This tradition of the Alter Rebbe was repeated often by the Rebbe Rashab and the Frierdiker Rebbe. Rabbi Boruch Shneur Schneersohn, a grandson of the Tzemach Tzeddek, attributed this tradition to the Baal Shem Tov, and added in the name of the Rebbe Rashab that Calabrian Esrogim were used in the Beis Hamikdash.

All Chabad Rebbeim were steadfast in using Yanova Esrogim, even though they usually arrived from the long and taxing transcontinental journey to White Russia in very poor condition. Thus, it is related that one year the Tzemach Tzeddek made the Brocho on a basic Yanova Esrog, even though he had been sent a much nicer and larger Esrog from Israel, which he used only for Hallel. Another year, there was only one Yanova Esrog to be had in the entire city of Lubavitch, and the Tzemach Tzeddek had no choice but to buy an Israeli Esrog. Still, he sought the owner’s permission and made the Brocho over the solitary Yanova Esrog instead of on his own Israeli Esrog.

For some time, the Tzemach Tzeddek himself sold Esrogim. When his customers would behold the scrawny Calabrian Esrogim speckled with so many black and dark green spots, they would ask to see the other more beautiful kinds of Esrogim. The Tzemach Tzeddek always responded that there was Halachic basis to disregard the specks and spots on the gaunt Calabrian Esrogim, and that they were ultimately superior to the other superficially beautiful varieties. In fact, one year the Tzemach Tzeddek was seen making a Brocho on a Yanova Esrog covered with cobweb-like marks, even though he had in his possession beautiful Esrogim of other varieties.

The Rebbe Rashab would usually use two Esrogim, one from Calabria upon which he would make the Brocho, and another from Israel which he would shake afterwards, out of his affection for the Land. Similarly, in his notes, the Rebbe relates that in the year 5692 (1932), the Frierdiker Rebbe gave him two Esrogim for Sukkos, one from Calabria and the other from Israel. The Frierdiker Rebbe instructed him, “This is what my father would give me. The Brocho should be made over the Yanova Esrog, and afterwards, the Israeli Esrog should be held.”

The Rebbe Rashab could not bear the thought of using any other type of Esrog. On the tenth of Teves in 5662 (1902), the Rebbe Rashab wrote: “One should choose specifically those Esrogim for which we have a tradition from our forefathers, and not be misled by the superficial beauty and imagined splendour of other Esrogim.” One year, when a Yanova Esrog could not be procured, the Rebbe Rashab made a Brocho over an Israeli Esrog and cried.

The Rebbeim stood firm even as a succession of European wars interrupted the supply of Yanova Esrogim. On the tenth of Teves in 5649 (1888), the Rebbe Rashab wrote in a letter: “The Alter Rebbe was meticulous about making a Brocho on a Yanova Esrog. Once, during wartime, when the transportation of merchandise between Italy and Russia was interrupted, he was prepared to send a special messenger to Italy in order to obtain a Yanova Esrog. Similarly, the Rebbeim after him were very strict about this.”

Many years later, during the First World War, when all direct passage between Italy and Russia was blockaded, the Rebbe Rashab arranged for a Yanova Esrog to be delivered to Stockholm, where another courier waited to pick it up and convey it to the Rebbe Rashab in Russia. During the Second World War, the Rebbe risked his own life to smuggle a Yanova Esrog from Italy into France.

Between 1943-1945, Yanova Esrogim were unobtainable in the United States, and the Frierdiker Rebbe had no choice but to use Israeli Esrogim. In 1944, the Frierdiker Rebbe sought to enlist the Unites States War Department in obtaining Yanova Esrogim from Calabria, which was already in Allied hands. However, the State Department denied the request on the basis that all transports were limited to essential war supplies.

It is on the basis of the above-mentioned teaching of the Alter Rebbe that Chabad Chassidim are scrupulous about using a Yanova Esrog, as well as out of the dual concern that other varieties may have been grafted or lack a mesorah.

To be sure, the idea that the Jewish nation used Calabrian Esrogim on their forty-year journey through the desert is a bold new idea. The Rambam in a number of places traces the Mitzvah of Lulav to the time when the Jews arrived in Israel with Yehoshua at their head. The Rambam does not discuss how the Mitzvah was fulfilled when the Jews were still in the desert.

A key problem with the Alter Rebbe’s tradition is this: How could Moshe Rabbenu have possibly obtained Esrogim from Calabria, if it – along with the rest of the Italian peninsula – did not even exist until after King Shlomo’s wedding to the daughter of Pharaoh?

Truth be told, the Gemoro’s description of Italy’s formation itself seems problematic. Historical records demonstrate that Italy was well established prior to the times of King Shlomo. Furthermore, Italy is not a mere island in the Mediterranean Sea, but rather, a peninsula jutting out of the European continent. To say that it developed from a reed in the ocean-bed to a three hundred square kilometre landmass in less than seven hundred years seems incredible. The highly sophisticated and densely populated heart of the Roman Empire could only have been the product of millennia of development. Many Achronim bemoan the fact that scoffers have found in this Gemoro an easy target for attack.

Even when one examines other Torah sources, there are several indications that Italy existed prior to the marriage of King Shlomo and the daughter of Pharaoh. Here are some of them:

  1. After the world’s creation, the third generation of mankind was the first to stray after false gods. As a warning, Hashem wrought a series of natural disasters, culminating in a catastrophic flood brought about by the rising ocean waters. Although not as devastating as the larger deluge that occurred centuries later in the lifetime of Noach, this flood still destroyed much of civilisation. In describing this event, both the Yerushalmi and the Midrash Rabba explicitly state that the ocean waters rose and flooded the region of Calabria.
  2. After discovering that Yitzchok had given the blessings to Yaakov, Esav begged his father, “Bless me too, O my father!” Yitzchok demurred, explaining that he had already given everything to Yaakov. But Esav pleaded and wept until Yitzchok finally acquiesced, blessing him Mishmanei Ha’aretz Yihye Moshovecha; your dwelling place shall be the fat places of the earth. Rashi, drawing on a number of Midrashim, explains that Yitzchok gifted Esav with Italia Shel Yavan – exactly the same place created many centuries later as a consequence of King Shlomo’s wedding.
  3. Sefer Yosifun is a chronicle of Jewish history from creation until the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash. It is popularly attributed to Josephus, a Jewish scholar and historian who first fought against and then subsequently joined forces with the Roman conquerors of the Land of Israel. (Whether Josephus truly authored Sefer Yosifun is an item of contention and deserving of a separate discussion.) Sefer Yosifun describes a battle between the sons of Esav and Yosef, viceroy of Egypt. Yosef emerged victorious and took many of Esav’s descendants into captivity. One of them, Tzefo, son of Elifaz and grandson of Esav, managed to escape. He sought refuge with Aeneas, king of Carthage, who received him with great fanfare and honour. Tzefo was appointed commander of Aeneas’ army, and he helped battle the fledgling Roman nation. Eventually, Tzefo moved to Italy. Recognising his power and strength, the Italian people coronated Tzefo and named him Janus Saturnus. Tzefo founded a dynasty of kings that ruled for many generations after him. According to this account, Romulus, founder of the city of Rome, descended from Tzefo, and this explains how Rome’s pedigree traces its way to Esav.

These questions – and others – convinced many commentators that the Gemoro’s description of Italy’s formation is not literal. Some commentaries view it allegorically, whereas others explain it in Kabbalistic terms. In one explanation, the solitary reed embedded into the seabed is a metaphor for the initial sacrilege of the daughter of Pharaoh, and the silt and sediment that accumulated around it represents the centuries-worth of sins that branched forth from her original sin, which eventually empowered Rome to destroy the Jews.

However, the Rebbe takes a novel approach. Although each question in isolation seems insurmountable, the Rebbe demonstrates that when presented all together, these facts no longer contradict. In fact, they are really interlocking pieces of the puzzle. And in doing so, the Rebbe provides another reason for using the Calabrian Esrog.

The Rebbe explains that Italia Shel Yavan does not refer to the entire Italian peninsula. It only refers to half of the region of Calabria. Although the Rebbe does not prove this fact, it is worthwhile noting that according to contemporaneous records, the name Italia originally emerged as the Greek name for southern Calabria. Greeks settled heavily along the coast of Calabria during the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, dominating it until they were conquered and displaced in the 3rd century BCE. Only during the reign of Emperor Augustus of Rome (at the end of the 1st century BCE) did the term Italia come to mean the entire Italian peninsula. This historical tidbit sheds light on the curious name that Chazal frequently used – Italia Shel Yavan, which literally means “Italy of Greece”. This name seems puzzling at first, because Italy and Greece are two distinct areas of the European continent. However, when aware of the history, it becomes clear that the name Italia Shel Yavan refers to the part of Italy that the early Greeks called Italia, as contrasted with the expanded area that the Romans called Italia.

The Rebbe goes on to explain that the entire Calabrian landmass certainly existed since creation. When the oceans rose and flooded much of the world in the third generation of mankind, parts of Calabria submerged just beneath the ocean surface, and it remained that way for centuries to come. Only the higher terrain of Calabria remained above water, and this was the area first settled and developed by the earlier inhabitants of Calabria. It was from there that Moshe Rabbenu obtained Esrogim.

When King Shlomo sinned with the daughter of Pharaoh, Hashem’s archangel implanted a reed into the submerged part of the Calabrian landmass, triggering a gradual build up and reclaiming of the land. The process was slow and not necessarily that noticeable. The re-emerging parts of Calabria were extremely fertile and became a centre of high-quality cultivation.

According to the Rebbe, this explains why Yitzchok blessed Esav with the region of Italia Shel Yavan, i.e. the submerged parts of Calabria. Yitzchok had already given all the lands to Yaakov and there was nothing left for Esav. But when he saw how vexed Esav was, Yitzchok hit upon a solution. Since Calabria was, for all intents and purposes, not in existence in his time, it hadn’t been included in his blessing to Yaakov, so he gave it to Esav instead.

When Yitzchak gave Calabria to Esav, he described it with the words Mishmanei Ha’aretz Yihye Moshovecha; your dwelling place shall be at the fat places of the earth. The Maharal explains that when it came to Yaakov, Yitzchok did not designate a specific land, because Yaakov would be deserving of supernatural blessings regardless of whether the land was naturally fertile or not. However, when it came to Esav, Yitzchok gave him the naturally fertile and beautiful Italia Shel Yavan, because Esav would not merit any supernatural blessings from Hashem.

Indeed, to this very day, Calabria is agriculturally-rich. It boasts the second highest number of organic farmers in the world. It is the second-highest producer of olive oil in the world. Essence-oil produced from the Calabrian Bergamot orange reaches the best quality in the world.

The Rebbe explains that this this is why Moshe sought Esrogim specifically from Calabria, and not from Israel. For, when performing a Mitzvah with a physical object, we always use the best and choicest. As the Possuk says, “Kol Chelev la’Hashem” – the fattest is for Hashem. What could be better than making a Brocho over a Calabrian Esrog, a place so fertile that the Torah refers to it as the fat places of the earth? This is why Chabad Chassidim are so particular about using only Yanova Esrogim.

In 5715 (1955), the Rebbe wrote a letter to Rabbi Mordechai Perlow, discussing an attempt being made at the time to cultivate Yanova Esrogim in Kfar Chabad, Israel. The Rebbe encouraged this effort, because he was concerned that the Calabrian-grown Esrogim might eventually become grafted at the hands of the gentile Calabrian Esrog growers. Were that to happen, the Israeli orchards tended by Torah-observant Jews would provide an alternate source of non-grafted Yanova Esrogim with a reliable mesorah. The Rebbe encouraged Rabbi Perlow to certify the Kashrus of the transplanted Esrogim, and also issued a number of directives to ensure their integrity. Nevertheless, in the same letter, the Rebbe made it very clear that Israeli-grown Yanova Esrogim do not have the advantage of growing in a place described as Mishmanei Ha’aretz, and thus remain only a second-choice. Yanova Esrogim obtained from Calabria remain superior as long as their integrity is guaranteed.

The Torah refers to the Esrog as the Pri Etz Hadar – a beautiful and splendid fruit. Indeed, one must strive to use the most beautiful Esrog possible. The Calabrian Esrog exemplifies the idea that true beauty is not primarily about superficial appearance. There are four features which are far more important to the splendour of the Esrog: The roots that produced it, the mesorah guarding its authenticity, its endorsement by Moshe Rabbenu and the Rebbeim, and the superb agricultural environment which produces it. True, the Esrog may have grown on the foreign shores of Calabria, reminiscent of the daughter of Pharaoh’s blasphemy and reeking of Roman devastation. Nevertheless, when these four qualities are adhered to, the Calabrian Esrog is even more beloved than an Esrog grown in the sacred Land of Israel, precisely for being a rose amongst the thorns.

As a community, uppermost in our minds is the Chinuch of our children. How is this best achieved? To some, the most obvious answer is to pour all of our available time and resources into the educational and spiritual beautification of our children.

Of course, that is very important. However, the Yanova Esrog teaches us that there are four far more important issues to address, as these ultimately have a far greater impact on the wholesomeness of our youth:

  1. The Esrog’s root system. What type of parents and grandparents are we? When the younger generation looks back at the older one, do they see Esrogim? Or do they see oranges and lemons? Do our children see their elders practicing what they preach, setting themselves the same standards they expect of their descendants? Or do our children see listless and uninterested parents whose only expectations seem to be from those younger than them? The purity of an Esrog is only guaranteed when it grows from pure Esrog roots.
  2. The Esrog’s Mesorah. Are we ensuring that our youth are being brought up in accordance with our closely-guarded Mesorah, which has withstood the test of time? Or are we capitulating and putting them at the mercies of the latest new-fangled fads that are as yet unproven? The proper transmission of tradition is integral to protect the authenticity of our children’s Yiddishkeit.
  3. Endorsement by our leaders. Are we making sure that our children are raised as per the guidance of our Rebbeim? The Torah refers to our leaders as “the eyes of the nation.” They see a lot further than we do, and only by adhering to their vision can we guarantee the integrity of our Chinuch.
  4. A superb agricultural environment. What type of atmosphere surrounds our children? Are we ensuring that their immediate environment is conducive to Torah and Chassidus? Or are they vulnerable to external and foreign influences? We must develop a truly enriched and nourishing environment in order to produce truly splendid fruit.

True, we have the distinct disadvantage of raising our children on foreign shores, where blasphemous and destructive ideas are fostered by society at large. Nevertheless, by focusing on each of these four attributes as we cultivate our gardens, we can guarantee the flowering rose amongst the thorns. We can – and will – succeed in raising the most beautiful and truly perfect Calabrian child.

Click on image below to enlarge


Age Before Beauty
by Rabbi Shmuel Lesches

This article is presented as supplement to the article entitled “Calabrian Child”. It explores the history and various controversies surrounding the Esrog varieties popularly available to Ashkenazi Jewry in Europe.

The Murkav

The Esrog tree is delicate and frail. It starts to bear its first fruit after four or five years and its life expectancy is rarely more than fifteen years. During its relatively short lifespan, the Esrog tree blooms several times a year with almost no dormancy. It is therefore extremely susceptible to frost and disease, and requires constant care. Weakest of all is its relatively fragile root system.

For a horticulturist, the solution is simple. When an Esrog tree starts to grow, it is grafted onto the rootstock of other hardier and more resilient citrus trees, most often of the lemon or orange. The resulting tree will be much stronger and more resistant to disease, require less care, and have a doubled life-expectancy. The tree will also produce more plentiful and robust fruit. Although virtually indistinguishable from any other Esrog, the fruit of such a tree is Halachically known as a murkav; a hybrid.

Is a murkav fit for use on Sukkos? This issue is not discussed in the Gemoro at all. The most likely explanation for this omission is that there were simply no other citrus trees growing in Israel or Babylon at the time. Nowhere in the words of Chazal is there any mention of an orange, tangerine, mandarin, clementine, pomelo, grapefruit, lemon or lime. In the absence of other citrus trees, the Esrog could not be grafted, so the question was moot.

It seems that before the question was raised, many European communities – including their rabbinic leaders – unwittingly used murkavim. This became a sore point in the ensuing Halachic discussion. The stringent authorities had to resign themselves to the uncomfortable fact that scores of communities had not fulfilled their obligation for decades, if not centuries. The lenient opinions took the position that there was no way a murkav could be unsuitable if it had enjoyed such widespread use.Halachic discussion regarding the status of a murkav began at the start of the 16th century, when the Jewish community began noticing the prevalence of Esrog grafting. The initial rounds of discussion and debate were spearheaded by the Remo in Poland, the Maharam Padua in Italy and Reb Moshe Alshich in Israel.

With time, the overwhelming majority of Halachic decisors ruled that a murkav is disqualified for use on Sukkos. Although some still permitted its use – without a Brocho – when a pure Esrog is unavailable, others (including the Alter Rebbe) forbade that too, lest one use the murkav when a pure Esrog is available.

Maharam Padua recounted that, one year, the entire community of Padua was able to procure only one pure Esrog, and it was sent around to all the different congregations in the city. As it was being taken from one Shule to another, it was snatched by a gang of gentile student hooligans who sought a hefty ransom. Without a choice, the community paid an exorbitant sum of money to recover the Esrog, even though Padua abounded with grafted Esrog trees whose fruit was readily and cheaply available.

Four reasons

Why is a murkav unfit? Many reasons are given, but here are four of the most well-known:

  1. Although it looks just like a real Esrog, a murkav is really a distinct and new variety, and as unfit for the Mitzvah as a lemon or pomelo. It just is not the fruit that the Torah specified for Sukkos. (This is the explanation that the Alter Rebbe records in Shulchan Oruch.)
  2. Although a murkav looks just like a real Esrog, it really has a split personality – part of it is an Esrog and part of it is a lemon. This leads to all sorts of problems: First, using a dual fruit would mean that one is bringing together five species instead of four, which violates the prohibition of “Bal Tosif”; adding more to the Mitzvah than the Torah specifies. Furthermore, even if the fruit as a whole meets the minimum acceptable size of an Esrog, the murkav may still be considered too small if the Esrog component is itself short of the requisite size. Additionally, the Esrog component of the murkav is regarded as “Chaser” – incomplete – on account of the lemon component. And finally, the lemon component is regarded as a “Chatzitzah” – a barrier – between the Esrog component and the person’s hand.
  3. The Torah forbids a Jew from grafting. Although a Jew may consume fruit grafted by a gentile, or even by a Jew who contravened Halacha, such an Esrog nevertheless remains unfit for performing the Mitzvah of Lulav.
  4. One of the Gemoro’s description of an Esrog is “taam haetz ktaam hapri”; the taste of the fruit’s thick rind tastes similar to the tree. The murkav thus presents a dilemma: Is it disqualified because it tastes different to the lemon rootstock, or is it valid because it tastes similar to the Esrog trunk and branches?

Identifying a Murkav

The fact that a murkav is disqualified presents a serious practical problem. When viewing an Esrog, how does one tell if it is a murkav or not? Sure, if one has the option, he can inspect the base of the tree for the tell-tale ridges that form where the Esrog trunk conjoins the lemon stump right where it comes up from the ground.

However, a perfectly smooth trunk does not always prove that a tree is ungrafted. If the graft occurred long ago, enough time would have elapsed for the two parts of the tree to completely blend into each other. Furthermore, even if a specific tree is ungrafted, how does one ensure that it is not the progeny of another tree which was grafted? All subsequent generations of trees descending from a murkav are also disqualified (according to most opinions), but there is no way of determining that by checking the tree! Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how does one determine the status of the fruit once it has already been picked and shipped many miles away from the actual tree?

Maharam Padua determined that there are a number of physical characteristics to distinguish a murkav grown on lemon roots from a pure Esrog:

  1. The peel of a murkav is smooth and lemon-like whereas a pure Esrog has a ribbed and bumpy surface.
  2. The stem (ukatz) of a murkav protrudes from the bottom of the fruit, similar to a lemon, whereas the stem of a pure Esrog is somewhat buried inward.
  3. A murkav has more flesh, pulp and juice than rind, whereas a pure Esrog exhibits the reverse; it has more rind than pulp, flesh and juice.
  4. The seeds of a murkav run perpendicular to the length of the fruit whereas the seeds of a pure Esrog run parallel to the length of the fruit.

With time, it became clear that these signs were deficient. It was clearly demonstrable that an unquestionable murkav could still exhibit all the four signs of a pure Esrog. In defence of the Maharam Padua, it appears that these signs did reliably distinguish a pure Esrog from the murkavim growing in his locale – the region surrounding Venice in Northern Italy. Although the test he devised could be relied on to distinguish a pure Esrog from a Venetian murkav, it could not be relied upon in the wider context.

Thus, most of the subsequent Poskim rejected these signs outright. Several explained that the presence of these signs proves that an Esrog is a murkav but the absence of these signs does not prove that an Esrog is pure. A small minority of Poskim maintained that these signs may indeed be relied upon to prove that an Esrog is pure, but only if one cannot obtain an Esrog unquestionably known to be pure.

The most lenient authorities went so far as to say that an Esrog known to be a murkav has the same Halachic status as a pure Esrog if it exhibits all the four signs. Most authorities completely rejected this approach. As a case in point, the Shevus Yaakov related a story involving his wife’s grandfather, Rabbi Shimon Spira, who served as the Chief Rabbi of Prague and Bohemia from 1640-1679. One year, murkavim were delivered to Prague instead of pure Esrogim, and Rabbi Spira ruled that a Brocho could not be recited over them. At that time, Prague was privileged to host the renowned Rabbi Shabbsai ben Meir HaKohen, more famously known as the Shach, which is the acronym of his celebrated work Sifsei Kohen. Previously, the Shach had served as a Dayan in the famed Vilna Beis Din headed by the Chelkas Mechokek, but he had to flee along with the rest of the Vilna community during the Second Northern War.

A number of rebellious congregants who sought to undermine the Chief Rabbi enlisted the Shach’s help, smooth-talking him into handing down a more lenient ruling. The Shach delved into the Halachic complexities of the matter and felt there was sufficient basis for leniency. With the Shach’s ruling in hand, the defiant congregants warned the Chazzan that he had better recite the Brocho on the murkav or else they would see to it that he would suffer. Feeling he had no choice, the Chazzan was about to begin the Brocho when the Esrog suddenly fell out of his hands onto the floor. Inexplicably, the blow dislodged the stem attached to the Esrog, completely disqualifying it. The Shach saw this as a sign that he had been wrong in disagreeing with Rabbi Spira’s ruling. Several years later, after the Shach had already assumed the rabbinate in Holešov, he felt his end drawing near. Before he passed away, the Shach penned a letter to his son asking that he travel to Rabbi Shimon Spira and beg forgiveness on his behalf.

Several generations later, the Chasam Sofer ruled that an Esrog may only be used when there is a mesorah – a tradition – attesting to its perennial use. In doing so, the Chasam Sofer drew a parallel to the classification of kosher birds, for which we no longer rely on signs, but rely exclusively on a mesorah instead. Thus, according to the Chasam Sofer, the presence of the four signs cannot be used to establish that an Esrog is pure.

Interestingly, even today, genetic testing cannot conclusively determine whether an Esrog is a murkav or not. The reason for this is because an Esrog has the ability to cross-pollinate with other citrus trees in the area. The fruit resulting from an Esrog flower fertilised with lemon pollen is Halachically regarded as a pure Esrog, yet a genetic test will reveal traces of lemon.

Calabrian Esrog

Calabria is the home of the Diamante citron. Often called the Calabrian Esrog, it is even more widely known as the Yanova Esrog, which is the Yiddish pronunciation of the trading port of Genoa in northern Italy from where the Genoese merchants exported the Esrogim northwards to Europe. The Yanova Esrog is widely regarded as the earliest known variety of Esrogim used by Ashkenazim. In fact, until approximately the year 5545 (1785), the Yanova Esrog was the only variety known to most of Ashkenazi Jewry. They were not familiar with any other type of Esrog, including the Israeli variety.

The Chasam Sofer asserts that the Yanova Esrog is the only kind known to Ashkenazi Jewry to be pure, on account of a long-standing Ashkenazi tradition tracing back to the times of the Tosafists, and the uninterrupted Jewish presence in Calabria since the times of the second Beis Hamikdash. The Rebbe affirms the Chasam Sofer’s position in a letter, in which he states that although he has no desire to raise doubts regarding the kashrus of other varieties, nevertheless, as far as Chabad Chassidim are concerned, the Yanova Esrog is the only variety guaranteed to be ungrafted.

The Yanova Esrog is the only strain whose Kashrus is accepted across the entire spectrum of Ashkenazi Jewry. The same cannot be said of any other Esrog variety. Although some early Sephardic authorities challenged the Yanova Esrog’s purity, there is a general consensus amongst latter Sephardic authorities supporting the purity of this Esrog. (For more on the Yanova Esrog, see article entitled “Calabrian Child”.)

The rise of the Corfu Esrog

As the Jewish European presence kept expanding northward, where the weather was inhospitable to the Esrog tree, most Ashkenazi communities imported their Esrogim from Calabria. The ever growing demand meant that there was an ever growing shortage of Yanova Esrogim. To compensate, the Genoese merchants who supplied the Calabrian Esrog began shipping a variety known as the Corsican Esrog, from the French Island of Corsica. This arrangement did not last long; the Corsican Esrog was mostly nudged out of the market with the advent of the extraordinarily beautiful Corfu Esrog.

Corfu is a serene and unspoilt Greek island situated at the northwest of Greece. Its Esrogim are symmetrical and splendid, coloured a beautiful yellow-green, free of spots and leaf-marks, and always crowned with a beautiful and sturdy Pittam. Moreover, they would grow in such abundance that they were always available – and at a much cheaper price. When these Esrogim began infiltrating the European market at the turn of the eighteenth century, they really stood out – especially against the Yanova Esrog which typically arrived in poor condition and without a Pittam.

The Romaniote Jews who lived in Greece for more than 2,000 years, and who long preceded the Sephardim who settled there in the wake of the 1492 Spanish expulsion, say that the Corfu Esrogim were used by them ever since the times of the second Beis Hamikdash. These Esrogim were quickly accepted by the Sephardim who settled in Italy, Greece and Turkey after the Spanish expulsion. In fact, the Sephardic communities of Greece and the Ottoman Empire considered them to be even more authentic than the Calabrian variety.

However, when these Esrogim were introduced to the rest of Europe between 1775 and 1800, Ashkenazi communities were very sceptical. On the one hand, the Corfu Esrogim had all the four signs of a pure Esrog, and they came with the certification of the Greek rabbinate. On the other hand, the Corfu Esrog looked so different and so much nicer than the Calabrian variety that it was immediately suspected as having been grafted or hybridised. The fact that it was so beautiful made it all the more suspect – it was assumed that the Corfu Esrog had been bred and grafted to attain its great beauty.

Initially, Ashkenazim avoided the Corfu Esrog. However, the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath made it next to impossible to procure a Yanova Esrog, and the Corfu Esrog started to be used extensively in Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, from around the year 5569 (1809). It was against this backdrop that hundreds of Poskim across Europe began to heatedly debate the suitability of the Corfu Esrog, with all manners of opinions presented. It arguably became the greatest Halachic controversy of the 19th century.

Some Rabbonim claimed to know for a fact that the Corfu Esrog was not grafted while other Rabbonim claimed to know for a fact that it was grafted. Still others claimed that although it wasn’t currently being grafted, they all descended from trees that were grafted centuries prior.

It didn’t help that most of the Esrog merchants were spreading rumours across the continent that served their own interests – primarily about the reliability, knowledge and expertise of the Corfu Rabbinate. One of the leading Esrog merchants at the time was Rabbi Alexander Ziskind Mintz, and he insisted that some Corfu orchards were grafted and others were not. Conveniently, the orchards he claimed to be pure were the ones he had a monopoly over. He published a treatise, entitled Pri Etz Hadar, which received the support and approbations of many great rabbis of the era.

The rabbi of Corfu at the time, Rabbi Yehudah Bibas, released a letter verifying that that the Corfu orchards were all ungrafted, and that they were all under his supervision. He explained that the warm Mediterranean climate in Corfu perfectly suited the Esrog and there was no need to graft them. He called attention to the fact that the Corfu farmers were not even skilled in the art of grafting. To underscore his point, Rabbi Bibas offered a large bounty of ten thaler per each grafted tree that could be found on the island of Corfu. Rabbi Bibas also revealed that Rabbi Mintz had himself previously supplied Esrogim from the other orchards in Corfu, and had only begun disqualifying them after losing his rights to distribute those Esrogim. Furthermore, Rabbi Bibas accused Rabbi Mintz of evading the relatively small levy imposed on the Esrog merchants as a way of financing the rabbinic supervision.

In no time at all, Rabbi Bibas himself became the subject of discussion. Was he honest and reliable? Even if he was, how could he be certain that the Esrogim had never been grafted – not in his generation and not in generations prior? Did he have the expertise necessary to make an accurate assessment? Maybe he was simply mistaken! Or perhaps he was being pressured or deceived by the gentile Esrog growers? Many of the explanations that Rabbi Bibas presented to prove the purity of the Corfu Esrogim were based on premises that many European rabbis soundly disagreed with.

Furthermore, it was argued that even if the Esrogim under Rabbi Bibas’ supervision were not grafted, there was still the concern that the unscrupulous non-Jewish Esrog farmers of Corfu were purposely smuggling murkavim into batches of Esrogim after they had been approved by the local rabbinate. The counter-argument was that the Esrog farmers would not run a risk that could ruin their business if discovered.

As the controversy blistered and swirled, many Poskim realised that the reports being presented to them amounted to nothing more than hearsay. They realised they would never be able to determine the hard facts from so far away, so they had no choice but to form the working hypothesis that the Corfu Esrog was a safek murkav – possibly grafted. This spawned an entirely new debate. If a murkav is disqualified for use on Sukkos, what about a safek-murkav?

Some ruled that there was no reason to assume a safek-murkav was grafted in the absence of real proof. Others ruled that a safek-murkav could be tested for the four signs to establish its authenticity. Still others ruled that a safek-murkav was acceptable if the Esrog could reproduce. This approach drew a parallel from the Halachic rule which states that animals are considered one species if their hybridised offspring are fertile.

Nevertheless, a great number of Rabbonim ruled that the Corfu Esrog was completely unacceptable. They argued that the Corfu rabbinate could not possibly determine the origins of their Esrog trees, and that they had no mesorah. This was countered by those who held that a mesorah is never needed to substantiate the purity of an Esrog, and that the Corfu Esrog had in any case a most authentic tradition handed down from generation to generation of Romaniote Jews.

Thus, the Corfu Esrog remained exceptionally controversial. Its most notable opponents included the Chasam Sofer, the Beis Meir and Reb Shlomo Kluger, who banned them. At the other extreme, the Corfu Esrog’s proponents preferred it over all other varieties – including the Yanova – due to its unmatched beauty and relative cleanliness. In particular, the Corfu became the preference of Chassidim in Poland, Galicia and Hungary, including such notables as Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, the Rebbe of Lublin and the Kozhnitzer Maggid. In the Misnagdic world, its proponents included personalities no less than the Nodeh B’Yehuda and the Shoel U’Meyshiv. With time, the Corfu Esrog began to dominate the market.

(The much less popular Corsican Esrog was also the subject of similar debate, but with some notable differences. The flesh of the Corsican Esrog is sweet, quite unlike the bitter acidity of most other varieties of Esrog, making it more suspect. On the other hand, the Corsican Esrogim were not farmed and cultivated, but rather, grown in the wild. This mitigated the concern that they were being purposely grafted.)

Although most Chassidim favoured the Corfu Esrog, Chabad was an exception. All the Rebbeim sharply rejected them. For example, the Tzemach Tzeddek himself sold Esrogim. When his customers would behold the scrawny Calabrian Esrogim speckled with so many black and dark green spots, they would ask to see the more beautiful Corfu Esrogim. The Tzemach Tzeddek always responded that there was Halachic basis to disregard the specks and spots on the gaunt Calabrian Esrogim, but there was insufficient basis to allow the Corfu Esrogim. In fact, one year the Tzemach Tzeddek was seen making a Brocho on a Yanova Esrog covered with cobweb-like marks, even though he had in his possession beautiful Corfu Esrogim.

The Rebbe Maharash was known to have said on numerous occasions that although the Corfu Esrog was no doubt a beautiful fruit, there was much doubt as to whether it was an Esrog. A similar sentiment had already been expressed by the Chasam Sofer one generation prior: “Before determining if an Esrog is beautiful, one should first determine if it is indeed an Esrog.” Once, the Rebbe Maharash went so far as to exclaim that Corfu Esrogim should be burned. On that occasion, someone challenged him with the fact that the highly regarded Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev was accustomed to using a Corfu Esrog. The Rebbe Maharash responded that Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev was no proof; he was such a great Tzaddik that Hashem himself ensured that his Esrog came from one of the few trees in Corfu that were not grafted. (The Rebbe of Pupa expressed a similar sentiment regarding the Corfu Esrog that was used by the Chozeh of Lublin.)

On the 10th of Teves 5649 (1888), the Rebbe Rashab wrote: “The Alter Rebbe was meticulous about making a Brocho on a Yanova Esrog. Once, during wartime, when the transportation of merchandise between Italy and Russia was interrupted, he was prepared to send a special messenger to Italy in order to obtain a Yanova Esrog. Similarly, the Rebbeim after him were very strict about this… My father, the Rebbe Maharash, was strict to an extreme, and Corfu Esrogim were never allowed into his home for as long as I can remember… This past Sukkos, I didn’t receive a Yanova Esrog at the usual time. I was extremely vexed by this. I sought to delve into the Halacha and perhaps find a loophole to allow a Brocho to be made on the Corfu Esrog… In truth, even if I had found such a loophole, I don’t think I would have relied upon it, being that my forefathers were so strict about this… In any case, the Chasam Sofer writes that signs may not be relied on to determine that an Esrog is ungrafted, for these signs are not from the Torah. Rather, the law of the Esrog is like the law of all kosher birds, which may be used only if there is a tradition. Yanova Esrogim have a Mesorah from our forefathers and leaders, the Tosafists, and Ashkenazi Jewry have always regarded the Yanova Esrog to be Kosher without the need for signs to prove their validity… However, with regards to Esrogim coming from other islands, there is no proof that they are ungrafted – even if they have all the signs of an Esrog.”

The demise of the Corfu Esrog

The farmers of Corfu were acutely aware that their Esrogim were prized in many communities, and they constantly sought to drive prices up. A number of times, they dumped thousands of Esrogim into the ocean to create an artificial shortage. In 1875, the farmers of Corfu united in an alliance to drastically raise the price of each Esrog to the extortionist sum of six florins. They assumed that the Jews would pay any price to do this great Mitzvah. The farmers were also under the illusion that some Jews believed they would not survive the year if they didn’t obtain a Corfu Esrog for Sukkos.

One of the most respected rabbis at the time, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Kovno, took drastic action to stop this unprecedented monopoly. He rallied all major rabbinical figures from both sides of the spectrum to issue a joint ban on the Corfu Esrog until prices were lowered, and until its status of kashrus was satisfactorily clarified. For, after Rabbi Bibas left Corfu in the 1850s, one of the subsequent rabbis of Corfu released a letter stating that there were by now many grafted trees in the region, and the certification process was becoming increasingly complex. That year, the Greek planters were left without any income, and they were forced to drop the prices significantly in the ensuing years.

Sixteen years later, just before Pesach of 1891, an unidentified body was found on a street near the Evraiki – the Jewish Ghetto of Corfu. The Greek Esrog growers seized the opportunity to retaliate against the Jews for not paying top dollar for their Esrogim. They claimed that the murder was the work of the Jews who sought blood for their Matzos – the dreaded blood libel. Before long, the entire Christian population was incited to mete out “justice” with their own hands. They burst into the ghetto and murdered whoever they could. The local Church officials maintained a fictitious “neutrality” during the pogroms, supporting neither the government’s efforts to re-establish law and order nor the efforts of the Greek press who rallied against the pogroms.

Jewish blood flowed for several days. Eventually, an official government investigation determined that the victim was in fact a member of a Jewish family in Corfu. The discovery was too late for the 139 dead, and the real culprits were never prosecuted. As a result of this travesty, leading rabbis banned the Corfu Esrog for eternity, putting an end to its trade for good. As one rabbi put it: “Even though the Corfu Esrog is untainted by a “blatt-flek” (leaf flaw), it remains tainted by a “blutt-flek” (blood flaw).”

The Jewish community of Corfu, numbering more than 5000 at the time of this pogrom, did not fare well as the anti-Semitism continued unabated. By the time the Nazis took control of the island after the fall of Italian fascism in 1943, less than 2000 Jews remained – mostly young children and the elderly. In early June 1944, while the Allies bombed Corfu as a diversion from the landing in Normandy, the Gestapo rounded up about 1800 Jews. They were deported off the island in small boats, their final destination – Auschwitz. The mayor of the island issued a proclamation thanking the Germans for ridding the island of the Jews and allowing the economy of the island to revert to its “rightful owners”. All that remains today of the once proud Jewish community of Corfu is the 18th century La Scuola Greca Synagogue, and a small and highly assimilated presence of less than fifty Jews.

The Israeli-Balady

The Esrog variety indigenous to Israel, known as the Israeli-Balady, traces back to the times of the Beis Hamikdash and earlier. After the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash, the Israeli-Balady grew in the wild for many centuries. It was used by such luminaries as the Ramban, the Ramak, the Arizal, the Beis Yosef and the Alshich. Arab farmers began to cultivate it for commercial use once the Jewish settlement of Israel expanded in the times of the Beis Yosef, and from that time onward, its cultivation was closely monitored by the great scholars of Israel.

This variety was treasured by the Alter Rebbe, even though he preferred the Yanova even more. Thus, we find that the Alter Rebbe sent the following message to Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev in 5564 (1804): “I heard that you received two Israeli Esrogim last Sukkos, and I am most astonished that you didn’t send me one, as you were accustomed to doing in prior years.”

Another time, during the Napoleonic wars, it was impossible to get a Calabria Esrog into Russia. One of the Alter Rebbe’s adherents managed to obtain for him a beautiful and large Corfu Esrog, as well as a barely kosher Israeli-Balady that had been very much ruined as a result of its long journey. The Alter Rebbe refused the Corfu and he made the Brocho on the still-kosher Israeli-Balady instead, explaining that it had been used in Israel ever since the times of the Ramban.

Up to the 19th century, the cultivation of Israeli-Balady was very primitive and limited, and it was exported only minimally. The Israeli-Balady was rather plain-looking compared to all the other varieties, prompting the Sdei Chemed to write of them, “Even if they are not beautiful for us below, they are most beautiful up Above.”

The Israeli-Corfu vs the Israeli-Balady

The Corfu pogrom did not spell the end for the Corfu variety. Several decades prior, around the year 1850, Sir Moses Montefiore supported the establishment of Esrog plantations in the coastal region of the Holy Land, especially near Jaffa, in order to help the Jewish settlers survive. The Israeli-Balady Esrog that had been cultivated in northern Israel for centuries was not favoured by the Sephardic settlers who tended these coastal plantations. Instead, they transplanted the Corfu Esrog in Israel.

The new Esrog made waves in the Holy Land; it was much more beautiful than the Israeli-Balady, and its Pittam generally remained intact, quite unlike the Israeli-Balady. The Israeli-Corfu Esrogim cultivated at Jaffa were soon being exported to Europe in bulk. They did a far better job than the Israeli-Balady in competing with the Greek-Corfu. This prompted a ferocious split between the Jews in Israel. The Israeli Sephardim insisted the Israeli-Corfu was superior and their rabbis disqualified the Israeli-Balady, whereas the Israeli Ashkenazim countered with their own ban of the Israeli-Corfu, as they insisted that only the Israeli-Balady was authentic.

The Arab farmers, not to be outdone by the Sephardic plantation farmers, also imported cuttings from Greece. However, since the Corfu variety did not adapt well to the Israeli land, the Arab growers began grafting them onto rootstock of sour orange or sweet lime trees. Before long, there was a proliferation of grafted Israeli-Corfu Esrogim, and it became impossible to use any Israeli Esrog without rabbinic supervision.

Rabbi Chaim Elozor Wax of Poland, author of the responsa, Nefesh Chaya, believed that the Israeli-Balady was the only acceptable variety of Esrog. To Rabbi Wax, the fact that the Israeli-Balady had grown in the wild from the times of the Beis Hamikdash until the times of the Beis Yosef was the best guarantee that it was not grafted. Even though the Arabs began to cultivate the Israeli-Balady commercially since that time, their integrity was still guaranteed by the many great scholars who closely monitored the Arabs.

But Rabbi Wax also realised that the Arabs who cultivated the Israeli-Balady could no longer be trusted. They now had too much incentive to graft the Balady variety in order to compete with the Israeli-Corfu. Additionally, Rabbi Wax felt that with more care and attention, the Israeli-Balady could be cultivated to produce nicer looking fruit, even without grafting them. So in the late 1870s, Rabbi Wax began spending huge amounts of money to develop Balady orchards on donated land near Tiberias, and began exporting their fruit to Europe. Rabbi Wax’s efforts had the side benefit of providing employment for many Jewish families of Polish origin who had recently moved to Israel. At about the same time, a group of rabbis from Jerusalem travelled across Israel by donkey in search of untainted Balady trees. They went from one Arab orchard to the next, digging around at the bases of the trees for the tell-tale graft scar.

Rabbi Wax wrote many letters to rabbis all over Europe explaining why they should use only this variety of Esrog. Due to the great esteem he was held in, he managed to persuade many individuals and even communities to switch from both the Greek-Corfu and the Israeli-Corfu. Nevertheless, despite all of his efforts, the Israeli-Balady was unable to compete with the Israeli-Corfu. At one point, even Rabbi Wax’s orchardists replaced part of their crop with the more beautiful Israeli-Corfu in order to remain financially viable. After Rabbi Wax passed away in 1889, the Israeli-Balady variety declined very fast and almost disappeared completely were it not for the efforts of a number of leading rabbis in Jerusalem who brought about a revival. The Israeli-Balady is still grown today and is favoured by the followers of the Brisker Rov and the Chazon Ish.

Indeed, these developments might well explain the misgivings several Rebbeim had regarding the legitimacy of the Israeli Esrog, despite the Alter Rebbe’s prior acceptance of it. For example, several Chassidim recorded in the name of the Tzemach Tzeddek (who passed away in 1866) that a Brocho should not be recited on Israeli Esrogim. And, in the above-quoted letter of the 10th of Teves 5649 (1888), the Rebbe Rashab wrote: “One year, my father the Rebbe Maharash was only able to obtain an Esrog from Israel. He did not make a Brocho over it, and picked it up for Hallel only … Now, this past Sukkos, I didn’t receive a Yanova Esrog at the usual time. I was extremely vexed by this. I sought to delve into the Halacha and perhaps find a loophole to allow a Brocho to be made on the Corfu Esrog or on the Israeli Esrog… In truth, even if I had found such a loophole, I don’t think I would have relied upon it, being that my forefathers were so strict about this….”

The Rebbeim’s reticence of the Israeli Esrog presumably stemmed from an awareness of the changed circumstances in Israel, where grafting had become rampant.

Thus, in the year 5650 (1890), the Rebbe Rashab described his efforts in persuading Rabbi Mordechai Dovber Slonim of Israel to become involved in supervising Esrog orchards. The Rebbe Rashab trusted him to verify which Esrogim were grafted and which were not, and he provided constant encouragement and detailed advice on how to promote these Esrogim to the European markets. In a series of letters, the Rebbe Rashab explained the catalyst for this endeavour: Despite the insistence of the Rebbeim that the Corfu Esrog be avoided, it was becoming prevalent among Chabad Chassidim to use them, instead of the more expensive and poorer-looking Calabria variety. The Rebbe Rashab was aghast at this development, but many Chassidim simply could not afford the more expensive Yanova Esrog. The Rebbe Rashab therefore sought an alternate supply of Esrogim which would be relatively cheap but whose kashrus was guaranteed. The Rebbe Rashab found the answer in the Israeli Esrog. However, ever-mindful of the widespread grafting in Israel, the Rebbe Rashab commissioned Rabbi Slonim in order to ensure a steady supply of pure Israeli Esrogim for the European market.

The Corfu-Balady

Although the Israeli-Corfu was by now the dominant Israeli Esrog, there was still great temptation to graft it onto the roots of other citrus varieties. Seeking to salvage the kashrus of the Israeli-Corfu, Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook promoted grafting it onto the Israeli-Balady, instead of onto foreign citrus rootstock. This led to the establishment of a beautiful variety of Esrog which Rav Kook believed to be the best practical solution for Israeli Esrog farming. To this day, the Corfu-Balady is the leading variety of Esrog cultivated in Israel.

Nevertheless, the Corfu-Balady is not universally accepted. First of all, it is derived from the controversial Greek-Corfu. Second of all, the concern remains that some of the Corfu-Balady Esrogim may descend from the Israeli-Corfu Esrogim that were grafted onto bitter orange or lime. Furthermore, the prevalence of Corfu Esrogim grafted onto Balady rootstock led to another undesirable development: A visual inspection of the Esrog tree could no longer be used to distinguish between suitable Esrogim and murkavim. For, although a visual inspection of an Esrog tree can usually establish whether it has been grafted onto other rootstock, it is almost impossible to detect whether the roots are of the Balady Esrog tree and thus acceptable, or of other citrus fruits and thus unacceptable.


The foregoing presents a brief history of the fierce debates regarding the authentic Esrog. It is little wonder that all contemporary Poskim agree that one may not rely on the physical appearance of the Esrog alone to determine whether it is a murkav. Rather, one must obtain a properly certified Esrog grown under rabbinic supervision, in order to ensure that it is not a murkav.

This history also sheds light on the Chabad practice of using a Yanova Esrog, thereby prioritising our adherence of our age-honoured traditions over charming superficial beauty.

The above articles were reprinted with permission from Melbourne’s Young-Yeshivah magazine, available here: https://goo.gl/BlOjzH.


  • 3. Yitzchok Teitelbaum wrote:

    rabbi yisroel jacobson told me 50 years ago that he could testify that 85% of the esrogim of yanover are murkov

  • 4. Milhouse wrote:

    Italia shel Yovon is not just Calabria, but also Campania, Apulia, Basilicata, and Sicily, collectively known as Magna Graecia. In the times of the Rishonim this area was known in Hebrew simply as “Yovon”. The Rishon whom the Raavad refers to as “Harav Hayevani” was Rabbi Yitzchak ben Malkitzedek, who lived in Siponto, in Southern Italy.


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