The etrog is usually described as a type of lemon, when, in fact, it should be honored with way more clout; etrog is the great-grandparent of all lemons, and one of the four ancient citrus fruits from which all other modern day citrus evolved.
In Western literature, the etrog is first mentioned in the third century BC by Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher and the father of botany, who called the fruit Citrus Medica – “Persian apple” or “Medai apple” (the ancient name of Persia). The nickname became the etrog’s scientific name and is still used today. In Persian, the etrog is called Turung, from which its Hebrew name was later derived. But even though its many nicknames associate it with Persia – where it was indeed widespread and beloved – early evidence reveals that the etrog actually came from the Yunnan province of China where it enjoyed great renown as a miracle cure for a great many ailments. The etrog was brought first to India, where it is considered a symbol of, and a blessing for, fertility and later continued on its journey to reach Persia.
The etrog likely only arrived in Israel during the Second Temple period (fifth century BC), along with the Jews returning from exile in Babylonia who brought the exotic fruits they had learned to love with them. Although it required frequent watering and cultivation while other local crops relied mainly on rainwater, etrog quickly became a Jewish symbol, adorning coins and synagogues and integrating into daily life. When the prestigious group of the four species was formed in the 1st century BC, the etrog was unexpectedly included. How did it happen? It all starts with a somewhat obscure verse from Leviticus:
“On the first day you shall take the product of hadar [citrus] trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Hashem your God seven days.” Leviticus 23:3
According to the Torah, the etrog, ‘citron,’ which is both fragrant and tasty, symbolizes a person who knows both Torah and also performs good deeds. But the verse commands taking the fruit of the citrus tree, not the fruit of the etrog tree. So what did the torah mean? Apparently, citrus was simply an adjective meaning elegant, beautiful, and without blemish. The citrus tree became associated with the etrog after a long discussion in the Talmud, in which quite a few options were examined in the search, which ultimately led to the etrog. Ever since, Sukkot and the etrog have been intrinsically linked and among the ultra-Orthodox, purchasing a beautiful, elegant, and kosher etrog is considered a mitzvah. Leading up to Sukkot, the price of an etrog that ticks all the right boxes can sell for hundreds of dollars. For an etrog to be considered kosher, it must be at least the size of an egg, without defects or distortions, and with its pith and pitom (head) intact (they may fall off during or after picking, so it is customary to pick the etrogs manually and carefully transport them wrapped and protected as if they are made of fragile crystal). They should also not be grown by budding and grafting with a different species, but instead grown from their own roots.
So what does one do with the etrog after Sukkot? In certain communities (mainly among Moroccan Jews) it’s customary to make etrog jam, which is purported to encourage fertility, easy childbirth, and other types of medicinal healing. Others use the bitter fruit to create a liqueur similar to the Italian limoncello. The most well-known etrog ambassador of them all was “the Etrog man”, Uzi Eli, who died in June 2022, after decades of selling fresh juices and expertly crafted wellness products concocted from etrogs from his stand in Tel Aviv. The drinks and potions he made were based on treatments and healing traditions he learned from his family in Yemen with Maimonides’ teachings.