Halakhic Discussions

Antipodal Etrogim

Sukkot In The Synagogue. Leopold Pilichowski (1869-1933). Oil On Canvas.
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Aaron Cohen

One of the more interesting questions revolving around Sukkot is a question first raised by R. Jacob Ettlinger (1798-1871) in his 1836 halakhic work Bikkurei Ya’akov.[1] R. Ettlinger was the rabbi of Altona and author of the well-known Talmud commentary Arukh la-Ner and Responsa Binyan Tziyyon, among other publications. He was staunchly Orthodox, vigorously anti-Reform, and an adherent of mysticism. At the same time, Ettlinger was a modern rabbi in many respects: he attended university; gave sermons in the vernacular; and recognized early on the advantages of periodicals and journals, editing his own, Shomer Tziyyon ha-Ne’eman, for ten years. It is all the more perplexing, then, that we find the following, seemingly anti-modern, discussion in his writings.

In Sukkah 45b, R. Shimon b. Yochai is quoted as saying, “All mitzvot must be performed in the manner in which they were grown.” Though there is some debate as to which mitzvot this ruling applies, there is no doubt that the arba minim are included.[2] That is why, for example, in fulfilling the mitzvah, the etrog is taken with the pitom side up, as it grew on the tree. But, asks R. Ettlinger, what about a lulav or etrog that grew in far-away America or Australia? From the vantage point of his native Germany, it grew sideways or upside-down, as it were. Can such a item, which sprouted in the antipode of one’s current location, be used for the mitzvah?

I was uncertain if we, who live in Europe, can fulfill the obligation with arba minim grown in America and Australia, located to our side and bottom [of the Earth], and vice versa. We know what the scientists write: their feet are opposite our own; they are prevented from falling into space because God placed the force of gravity on the Earth. Thus, if we were to use the species grown there, they would [perhaps] be [considered] the reverse of the manner in which they grew, because from our perspective, the top of the lulav or hadas grew farther down than their bottom. Or perhaps since [the four species] are taken in the manner in which they grew in relation to the ground, this is called derekh gedeilatan [their natural manner of growth]. This [latter position] seems correct. (Bikkurei Yaakov 651:13)

Ettlinger concluded that it was reasonable to judge derekh gedeilatan not by the person, but by the growth of the arba minim in relation to the ground—which, of course, is the same all over the world—and etrogim grown anywhere would be therefore be valid.

But, as is often the case in halakhic discourse, the matter did not end there. Later authorities, as well as the burgeoning Hebrew press, picked up on R. Ettlinger’s question. Fittingly, it was in “sideways” America where the discussion was picked up again.

America’s first successful Jewish periodical was Isaac Leeser’s The Occident, founded in 1843 in Philadelphia. In May 1847 the paper published an announcement by Rabbi Abraham Rice, which declared unequivocally that etrogim imported from the West Indies were kosher. This sparked a spirited discussion in the June issue, which featured a critique of Rabbi Rice by Menachem Goldsmith. Goldsmith countered that many of the Caribbean etrogim had been grafted with lemons, and therefore should not be assumed kosher unless sold by a trusted vendor or examined by a competent halakhic authority.

In a brief editorial note, Isaac Leeser defended Rabbi Rice’s original statement. Of course, he had never meant to permit grafted etrogim; the rabbi was simply refuting those who claim that all American etrogim, grafted or not, were unkosher. As Leeser put it, “An inspection does not help; the land of their growth is their blemish.” If that were true, Leeser argued, the mitzvah of arba minim would be unfeasible for all Jews of the Western world. Certainly, he concludes, we may rely on the halakhic opinion of Rabbi Rice that West Indian etrogim—as long as they are purchased from reliable vendors and are not grafted—are kosher.

A clarification by Rabbi Rice, as well as Goldsmith’s response to Leeser, appeared in The Occident’s next issue. Rabbi Rice, for his part, declared that all the signs of discerning an etrog from a lemon were unreliable. Rather, any etrogim, including those of the West Indies, were presumed to be kosher unless proven otherwise. Since most etrogim are not grafted, the Halakha, based on the majoritarian principle, would dictate that these etrogim are kosher for use.

In his reply to Leeser, Goldsmith wrote that he knew what Rabbi Rice had meant; he merely wished that it was understood by the rank and file of American Jewry, “most of whom are not benei Torah, and they will certainly misunderstand his words.” He expressed surprise at Leeser’s assertion that some say all Western etrogim are unfit. “I have never heard of anyone in this country say so, but I have seen a responsum of Rabbi Jacob Ettling[er] in which he wanted to forbid etrogim grown in America.” Goldsmith summarizes Ettlinger’s question, dismissing it out of hand. If American etrogim were invalid for Europeans, Goldsmith countered, European etrogim would, for the same reason, be invalid for Americans—and this was a possibility he could not take seriously.[3]

Below Rabbi Rice’s and Goldsmith’s Hebrew articles is another note by Leeser, in English, which effectively ended the discussion. He asked that any further comments on the matter be carried on in private correspondence. Yet some questions remain. Whom did Leeser have in mind when he referred to those who declared all American etrogim, grafted or not, blemished and unfit? Is this a misunderstanding of Rabbi Ettlinger’s position? Or was it an unrelated stringency which viewed the citrons of the New World with suspicion, having had no tradition of kashrut throughout earlier generations? It is hard to say, and, as we shall see, the parameters of Rabbi Ettlinger’s discussion were sometimes stretched beyond his original intentions.

Rabbi Ettlinger’s query was an interesting point of discussion not only for halakhists; it also provided ammunition for critics of rabbinic authority. The maskil Yehudah Leib Gordon of Vilna (1830-1892) frequently used his brilliant poetic talents to ridicule the rabbinic leadership of his generation. The protagonist of his poem Shenei Yosef ben Shimon (c. 1880), a young, university-educated rabbi, dreams of modernizing Judaism, excising it of its later, unaesthetic accretions. He would permit kitniyot on Pesach, move the bimah to the front of shul, abolish the practice of spitting during Aleinu, and delay burying the dead. The same fictional hero also took an enlightened approach toward the arba minim: “Lulavim of America and its etrogim, he permitted them all / Despite being taken not as they grew / Their leaves in the ground and their roots in heaven.”

In 1883, an article by Mordechai Jalomstein (1835-1897) appeared in Ha-Meilitz, a popular weekly haskalah newspaper. Jalomstein, a regular contributor, had immigrated to America in 1871, where he edited and wrote for a number of successful Yiddish and Hebrew papers. In this piece he sneeringly described how “our brothers,” the Orthodox in America, reject the etrogim grown in California, despite their obvious superiority and affordability. Instead, they opted for etrogim from everywhere else—Genoa, Corfu, and Jerusalem.[4] Jalomstein criticizes the dishonesty of the vendors (perhaps also hinting at the naïveté of the masses), who would miraculously be able to procure even etrogim “grown from atop the grave of the Tanna Kamma.” The Orthodox, he writes, were following the ruling of a certain disputatious rabbi, “the East Broadway Maggid,” who had forbidden all American citrons. Jalomstein mockingly describes the flawed reasoning behind this ban: since America rests on the underside of the world, its fruits cannot be taken for the mitzvah. If an American etrog is taken with the pitom up, it does not fulfill the requirement of derekh giddulo; if it is taken pitom down, it is against the law codified in the Shulkhan Aruh.

This is essentially Bikkurei Ya’akov’s quandary, but applied, nonsensically, to the residents of America themselves. As Jalomstein presents it, the stringency is absurd. It seems incredible that a halakhic authority would come to such a conclusion. Whether or not Jalomstein is faithfully representing this rabbi’s opinion, and though he never mentions his name, the “East Broadway Maggid” did, in fact, exist: his name was R. Yosef Moshe Aaronson (1805-1875), and he was indeed a respected yet quarrelsome Orthodox scholar. His book of responsa from his years in America, Mata’ei Moshe, does not appear to mention etrogim at all.

A number of weeks later, a paragraph by Shalom Pludermacher appeared in Ha-Meilitz entitled “Do Not Mock.” It is a brief anecdote, simply referring the reader to our Bikkurei Ya’akov, which was never mentioned by Jalomstein. By showing a halakhic precedent for Rabbi Aaronson’s stringency, Pludermacher seems to have been issuing a sort of defense of rabbinic integrity.

Pludermacher reprinted this article some years later in more detail. He described himself and a group of friends sitting around Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun’s table one winter night.[5] The conversation turned to that day’s newspaper article—it was November 26, 1883—written by Jalomstein. They began to joke about it, but when Rabbi Strashun heard, he quieted them. “My brothers, don’t mock—I recall seeing a similar question in a book by one of the great [rabbis].” Immediately he got up and headed to his library, emerging with a copy of Bikkurei Ya’akov.

Yet, in truth, Rabbi Ettlinger’s discussion and Rabbi Aaronson’s ruling are not parallel. Rabbi Ettlinger would not have forbidden Americans from taking American etrogim, or Australians Australian etrogim. It is strange to think of Rabbi Mattisyahu Strashun missing this obvious difference, or of Pludermacher failing to point this out.

In 1891 Rabbi Hayyim Hizkiyah Medini began publishing his magnum opus, the encyclopedic, nine-volume Sedei Hemed. He twice mentions our Bikkurei Ya’akov, adding an interesting postscript: “One of the wise ones of our generation” had sent him the following question: if the world is round, how is there any top or bottom at all? Given what we know about the Earth, how does Rabbi Ettlinger’s question make any sense? Rabbi Medini deftly avoids answering the question; he explains that he has never seen the Bikkurei Ya’akov, only quotations of it in secondary sources. Perhaps, he suggests, someone who has read it will be able to clarify.


In the meantime, we ought to bear in mind Strashun’s admonition. In surveying the history of thought and ideas, we should not judge our predecessors—certainly not the truly great personalities of the past—based on our current knowledge and experience. R. Ettlinger, modern and thorough thinker that he was, harnessed his own scientific knowledge while formulating halakhic decisions. In retrospect, the discussion may appear naive or backward, but R. Ettlinger was operating with what was current scientific thinking and deciding accordingly. What, after all, is the duty of a responsible posek, if not to apply the methodology of Halakha to the situations and exigencies of the day? Rather than painting R. Ettlinger as quaint or outdated, his comments in Bikkurei Ya’akov 651:13 cement his legacy as a broad modern thinker, a halakhist who applied all the knowledge at his disposal to arrive at an informed decision.

[1] On Ettlinger, see Judith Bleich, “Jacob Ettlinger, His Life and Works: The Emergence of Modern Orthodoxy in Germany” (Ph.D diss., New York University, 1974).

[2] Rashi, in his commentary to 45b, lists a number of these mitzvot, including lulav, hadas, and aravah, but omits etrog. Rabbi Shlomo of Vilna, in his Binyan Shlomo (1:48), took this as an indication that, according to Rashi, the requirement of derekh gedeilatan can be fulfilled with the pitom either way. When the etrog is first budding, the pitom faces upward, but as it matures, it weighs itself down and the pitom faces the ground. Rashi—unlike any other rabbinic authority—would view either direction as valid for the mitzvah.

Rabbi Nahman Kahana, in Orhot Hayyim 651:9 (quoted in S’dei Hemed 3:381), refutes this interpretation of Rashi in light of Yerushalmi Berakhot 5:2, where a parallel version of the statement in Bavli Sukkah 45b is recorded simply and unequivocally as “The four species of the lulav are taken in the manner in which they grew.” Furthermore, it is clear from Rashi’s halakhic works that this list is not exhaustive; in his Sefer ha-Pardes (p. 240), he rules that the boards of the sukkah must be be-derekh gedeilatan, and in his Sefer ha-Orah (p. 115) he mentions specifically that the etrog must be taken with the pitom up. This last work was only published in 1905; there was no way for the author of Binyan Shlomo to have seen it. Still, this misrepresentation of Rashi’s view persists; surprisingly, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv interpreted Rashi this way in his recently printed lectures on Sukkah 45b.

[3] Goldsmith’s response is puzzling for a number of reasons. First of all, Bikkurei Ya’akov is a commentary on the laws of sukkah and arba minim in Shulhan Arukh, not a book of responsa. Secondly, R. Ettlinger did not want to forbid; on the contrary, he concluded that the arba minim were permitted. Most perplexing of all is Goldsmith’s refutation. He seems only to be restating what Ettlinger himself already asked: can etrogim grown in one hemisphere be used in the other? Are American etrogim kosher for Europe and are European etrogim kosher for America? It seems likely that Goldsmith was writing from memory and had forgotten the details of Ettlinger’s question.

[4] J. D. Eisenstein, in his 1952 encyclopedia Otzar Yisrael, mentions the articles from The Occident and Ha-Meilitz but conflates the West Indian etrogim permitted by R. Rice in 1847 with the California etrogim discussed by Jalomstein in 1883. This, as well as a number of other sources, were brought to my attention via this thread: http://www.bhol.co.il/forums/topic.asp?topic_id=2497782&forum_id=19616

[5] For more on Strashun, see http://archive.li/8zfYu.

Aaron Cohen, a native of Detroit, has studied in Waterbury, Mir, and Ner Israel. He lives and works in Baltimore and enjoys Jewish and general history.