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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775

The smell of the Etrog

Galilee Diary #306, October 8, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

I believe that the four species are a symbolical expression of our rejoicing that the Israelites changed the wilderness, "no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates, or of water to drink" (Num. 20:5), with a country full of fruit-trees and rivers. In order to remember this we take the fruit which is the most pleasant of the fruit of the land, branches which smell best, most beautiful leaves, and also the best of herbs… These four kinds have also these three purposes: First, they were plentiful in those days in Palestine, so that every one could easily get them. Secondly, they have a good appearance, they are green; some of them, viz., the citron and the myrtle, are also excellent as regards their smell, the branches of the palm-tree and the willow having neither good nor bad smell. Thirdly, they keep fresh and green for seven days, which is not the case with peaches, pomegranates, asparagus, nuts, and the like.
-Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:43

In previous years, yeshiva students set up a sukkah in the center hall of the old Karmiel downtown mall for the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, where they were the only local source for the “four species” – etrogim, palm fronds, myrtle and willow twigs. As it happened, the space allocated for their booth was right in front of the Diesel boutique, and it always struck me as a funny contrast – the young men in their long-sleeved white shirts and black trousers, doing business right next to the Diesel saleswomen – probably the same age – dressed (barely) in halter tops and miniskirts.

As the center of Karmiel fades, with the action moving to a new strip mall in the industrial zone (the process expedited by the inexplicable decision of the city fathers to start charging fees at all the previously free parking lots downtown), the Diesel shop is one of a number that now stand forlornly empty. Perhaps there is some symbolic significance in the fact that this year, the yeshiva boys sold their wares from within the empty Diesel storefront (the sign is still there…). The operation was very modest this year for some reason – no tinsel decorations for sale, not even a demonstration sukkah. Just a folding table in front of a pile of cartons, displaying half a dozen palm fronds in tinted plastic cases and myrtle twigs sealed in plastic bags. One improvement: this year the etrogim were not sealed in boxes, but just lying out there in their foam net jackets, to be handled and inspected. Since willow twigs don’t keep, lulav sellers generally don’t stock them, but simply bring in a big pile of fresh ones on the morning of erev Sukkot, and leave them there; anyone is welcome to come back and take a few. This year, however, we were able to pick our own from a neighbor’s yard – they planted a willow sapling which, irrigated with gray water, is growing well, saving us a return trip to Karmiel.

While the Rambam (see above) and others have tended to see the four species as symbolic of the land of Israel, in practice, the connection has often been imaginary: for centuries, the best – and most prolific - sources of etrogim were Corfu and the coastal areas of Italy. And in recent years, most of the palm fronds sold in Israel have been imported from Egypt, though apparently this year the Egyptians placed limits on the export of fronds, which was a boon to Israeli date palm growers.

So I examined my branches closely through the plastic, trying to look as if I knew what I was doing, and picked a set. And I chose, from the sparse selection, the least misshapen etrog. For some reason, we have always liked ours yellow, but this year the only decent ones were solid green. A few days later, on the first day of chol hamo’ed, I put the four together, said the blessing, shook them in six directions, and instinctively put the etrog to my nose for a parting sniff before returning it to its case. I am sure this was the most fragrant etrog I have ever encountered. It had a pungency - sweet, tart, refreshing – that made me want to just keep taking deep breaths and not to close it away in its case, that left me with a smile for the morning. Not an orange or a grapefruit or a lemon smell, but the distinctive fragrance of the etrog, Jewish oxygen, giving meaning, finally, to the cryptic commandment (Leviticus 23:40) to “take up [the four species]…and rejoice.”

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